Score one for the dads. Turns out, children whose fathers read them bedtime stories develop more-improved language skills than those whose mothers bring their books to life, according to a newly released study.
“Reading is seen as a female activity, and kids seem to be more tuned in when their dad reads to them. It’s special,” former Harvard University researcher Elisabeth Duursma — who conducted the study on paternal and maternal book reading working with 430 families — told the Telegraph in September. The fathers’ impact, she added of the research published in the journal Fathering, “is huge, particularly if dads start reading to kids under the age of 2.”
The big dad difference, Duursma (currently working at the University of Wollongong in Australia) noted, comes down to delivery. When men read tales, she found, the questions they asked children were abstract, versus moms’ typically factual inquiries. “Dads were more likely to say something like, ‘Oh, look, a ladder. Do you remember when I had that ladder in my truck?’” Duursma told the Daily Mail. “That is great for children’s language development because they have to use their brains more. It’s more cognitively challenging.”
And there’s a gender difference in the effect as well. During her year of research, Duursma discovered that girls benefited the most when Dad read to them.
“I love the idea that men should be role models for readers,” Pam Allyn, a literacy expert and the director of Lit World, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The percentage of women teachers is so much higher than men, so a study like this can be seen as a call to action. Let’s get everybody reading to kids.”
Another bit of news that all parents can use is the importance of asking open-ended questions during each read-aloud. “They prompt a higher-level critical thinking,” Allyn explains. “Fact-based questions only go in one direction, but comments like, ‘What are you wondering about?’ lead kids to inquiry-based learning, and that’s very important because it’s better practice for critical-thinking brains.” Developing critical thinking will help in the classroom too, the expert adds. “In schools now there’s more emphasis on teachers asking more abstract-thinking questions.”
If creative questioning doesn’t come naturally, Allyn advises simply asking yourself — before you ask your kids a question about the book you’re reading together — “Is this going to lead to more conversation, or to a one- or two-word response?” Or try asking the five “W” questions,” says elementary school literacy expert Kathryn Starke of Creative Minds Publications, a literacy-based educational company. “The ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions are the ones that really drive cognitive and higher-level thinking skills,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s also good to allow children to make connections, which builds background and language development for a child.” Try: “What does this story make you think of?” she offers, or, “Do you remember how we went to the Empire State Building?”
Ultimately, though, both experts agree that the real takeaway is that reading with kids is really important. No matter if it’s Mom or Dad, “During a bedtime story experience, a child is learning vocabulary, accuracy, phrasing/fluency, word study/phonics skills, and comprehension skills,” says Starke. “And I believe that the bedtime story experience actually depends more on the individual and how they turn just one book into a learning adventure exposing the child to word patterns, background knowledge, and questioning.”
A parent — any parent — reading to their children for at least 20 minutes a day, Starke insists, makes “a huge impact.”
(Top photo: Blend Images/Corbis)