Inspired living

How reading with your kids can boost their wellbeing and yours

How reading with your kids can boost their wellbeing and yours

Credit: Ben White

I have vivid memories of reading and being read to in my childhood. My sister and I would snuggle up on either side of our mum as she read aloud books that are still among my favourites: The Secret Garden, The Magic Faraway Tree, Matilda and more.

This happened well after my sister and I could read by ourselves. In fact, the three of us would often take turns and Mum would close her eyes for a quick rest when she wasn’t the one reading. I now realise how hard it is to summon the patience to read a chapter to the kids after working all day. Yet this memory of my mum taking that time out to read stories with us is one of my most cherished childhood recollections.

Reading aloud when our kids are little is an ingrained parenting tradition. It conjures images of cosy moments on the couch, contagious toddler giggles laughing along to the funny dialogue, and seeing your small one’s eyes light up with the wonder of beautiful illustrations and magical stories.

... 83 per cent of kids across all the ... age groups said they’d love to be read aloud to.

We know it’s never too early to start reading — some parents-to-be even start reading to their babies in utero — but somehow, we seem to have put an expiry date on this practice. Once our kids can read independently, we tick this activity off an imaginary list and think our days of reading aloud are over. It’s time to rethink that assumption.

Reading with older kids isn’t as common a family ritual as it was when they were younger, yet it’s just as beneficial. In fact, many of the benefits are the same no matter how old your child is: reading together helps them to feel secure and loved; it opens up conversations and gives you extra quality time together.

Yes, reading aloud with your kids, even after they can read by themselves, is a great parenting decision that could boost their wellbeing — and your own.

Your child wants you to read to them

A recent Scholastic study in the US showed the declining figures of kids being read to as they get older. As families, we start our reading traditions strongly with more than half of children aged zero to five years being read aloud to at home regularly. However, this tapers off as they get older: one in three kids aged six to eight years are read to, and one in six nine- to 11-year-olds.

Most parents say they stopped reading to their children because they are old enough to read by themselves. This makes sense: our kids are seeking independence in many ways and it seems fair to assume that once your child can do something for themselves, you’re no longer required to do it.

Yet, 83 per cent of kids across all the study’s age groups said they’d love to be read aloud to.

“Life gets busy as the kids get older and there are different responsibilities as a parent, so reading aloud can fall to the wayside,” says Allison Greenland, teacher and founder of Leap into Literacy. “But kids still want that bonding time, the sense of security and the physical closeness to their parents, and reading is a good excuse to do that.”

It doesn’t have to be a chore that you feel you have to read to your older child all the time, and they might not want that, either. “Even if it’s once a week, or you might suggest they read to themselves most nights but maybe every third night you’ll read with them,” Greenland suggests. “It gives your child something to look forward to.”

Reading aloud is fun for you, too

If you love reading, chances are you enjoyed reading with your child when they were younger; maybe you got into the theatrics of their favourite picture books or enjoyed these precious quiet times amid your toddler’s lively antics. The good news is there are lots of benefits for you in reading to your child now that they’re a bit older.

The first is that the books your child will be into are, depending on your perspective, more interesting now. I love sharing my old favourite stories with my daughter, and during the day I look forward to reading another chapter of a classic like Peter Pan together that evening. When she is reading a newly released book, I often find the characters interesting and the text engaging. The lack of repetition is a nice change of pace, too, after years of reading the same books over again during her younger years.

Your child’s books might also take you back in time. “It gives you that time together and it allows you as an adult to revisit some of the things you enjoyed or the things you were going through as a child,” says Greenland. “It’s good fun.”

It increases confidence

Taking time out to focus solely on your child is the best confidence booster you can give them. As they get older, encouraging your child to share the reading aloud can also increase their confidence and speech.

When you read to your child — even when they’re getting older — you’re helping to increase their vocabulary and modelling how to read fluently and with expression. This, in turn, increases their own confidence in several areas of their academic, social and emotional lives.

Interestingly, reading aloud to your child can extend their knowledge in other ways. “A child’s listening comprehension is a lot higher than their reading comprehension,” Greenland says. “When you think about how your child understands what you’re reading to them when they’re little compared with their reading comprehension developing in kindergarten or first grade, this makes sense.

“It’s possible that a child’s listening and reading comprehension don’t match up until around Year 8. So your child will listen on a different level from what they’re reading at themselves.”

“It’s possible that a child’s listening and reading comprehension don’t match up until around Year 8,” Greenland continues, “so your child will listen on a different level from what they’re reading at themselves. Reading something at a higher level (that has appropriate content) to your child gives them an insight into a more complicated plot and higher vocabulary, and might motivate them to want to listen to the book with you.”

Reading with your independent reader doesn’t have to mean you’re doing all the work. It’s just as valuable to encourage your child to share the reading aloud, and anecdotally this can help to increase their confidence in public speaking.

Another benefit is that reading together can open up some conversations that you or your child might otherwise avoid. “It can teach them some life lessons,” Greenland explains, “and having a parent there who can talk through some difficult concepts is great for them and can help to build some emotional resilience.”

Reading together can create a safe haven for discussing challenges, as you’re no longer the parent who is trying to lecture them; instead you’re a fellow reader who is joining them in a shared experience. “Your child can get a real sense of belonging with the literature they’re reading, and the characters make them feel less alone in their struggles,” says Greenland.

It’ll help them do better at school

While it’s tempting to believe that reading to your child is going to be an instant fix for any academic problems they might be experiencing, it’s important not to get too carried away over the power of reading together.

The truth is, reading to your child isn’t going to magically turn them into a reader extraordinaire. There are skills to be learnt in order to read well and these can take time to develop with the help of many other literacy strategies.

“People tend to imply that reading to a child will make them learn to read, but there’s no evidence to show that,” says Lyn Stone, linguist at Lifelong Literacy. “If your older child is struggling with their reading, then reading to them is not going to stop them from struggling.” (You can speak to your child’s teacher or seek external help to overcome those challenges.)

Instead, reading together has the potential to offer your child a base from which to want to read well. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is clear in its research that reading for pleasure translates to better performance at school. Instilling this sense of pleasure in reading is a job for parents and is particularly effective when your child sees you enjoy reading. “If your child can see that you’re enthusiastic about it then they’re more likely to get a sense of pleasure from reading,” says Greenland.

It isn’t just about the book

Reading aloud is the beginning of sharing some time together and a chance to immerse yourself in a story with someone you love. It’s a connection, and finding moments of connection with our children is more important now than ever before.

In the Scholastic study on reading aloud, nearly 80 per cent of the kids said they enjoyed it because of that time spent with their parents. This highlights the fact that our kids are craving this level of connection just as much as we are.

If your kids are still little, try to maintain that ritual of reading together for as long as possible, perhaps until well into their teenage years. And if your children are already that bit older, well, it might not be too late to hook back into those old habits. “If you’re read to from when you’re young, all those emotions of stability, warmth and attention come back and lots of warm memories are stirred up,” says Stone — and these are all feelings that can be recreated at any age.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is clear in its research that reading for pleasure translates to better performance at school.

Maybe, above all, being read to can be an utterly comforting experience for your child. It’s a signal that you’re making time for them, sharing a story they will enjoy and creating that space for them in your life. “You make the child your focus and they always love that,” says Stone. “Reading with your child is a beautiful bonding experience, a shared thing that unites a family and the child feels emotionally nurtured.”

Back when my mum read to me, it was never about increasing my own skills or boosting my grades at school. It was just something we did together and it stays with me as a positive memory to this day.

Even now, I still can’t read The Secret Garden without hearing my mum’s voice and sensing her arm around me. I can smell her perfume, feel the crisp cotton of the work uniform she hadn’t quite had the time to change out of yet, and reading those words, even now, is the most comforting thing I can imagine. The recollection of her taking that time out of her busy day — away from all the other demands on her — still makes me smile and feel special.

It was a pure act of love back then and when we do this with our own children it will have that same powerful impact.

How to read aloud to older kids

If you feel self-conscious about reading with your older child, here are some tips to get you into it:

  • Start with the books your child loved when they were little. “This builds a bridge of familiarity and stirs up those warm memories,” says Lyn Stone.
  • Don’t force it. Just do it when it feels right and your child is interested.
  • Encourage your child to read aloud. “I get my children to read to their younger cousins,” says Stone, “so they’re reminded it’s acceptable to be read to.”
  • Take your cue from your child. “Kids are striving for independence and if you make reading to them a chore then you’ve lost them,” Stone says.


Megan Blandford

Megan Blandford is a freelance writer, specialising in lifestyle, travel and business topics for many online and print publications, and some of Australia’s best organisations. Megan lives in peaceful country Victoria with her family.