Research shows that children need to hear a minimum of 1000 hours of books being read aloud before they can learn to read.
Why? Because book language is different than spoken, or oral, language. Spoken language is filled with unfinished sentences and incomplete thoughts. And often parents say the same words again and again: “No put-downs!” or “Dinner!”
These are good words, but they’re not book language.
This is book language: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
As that opening to Charlotte’s Web demonstrates, book language is highly structured, with complete sentences and rich vocabulary.
With good books, children learn to follow complex themes, and process new information. And that takes about 1000 hours.
If you start at birth, and read a half hour a day, it’ll take 5.5 years to get those 1000 hours.
So if you have a young child and haven’t been reading aloud, today is the best day to start.
Here are five tips to make sure you’re using those 1000 hours well.
1) Read some nursery rhymes and poems. Nursery rhymes develop auditory pathways and grow children’s awareness of sound. Children become conscious of sound in a new way. The rhymes themselves aren’t necessarily even the important aspect. Somehow the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, when you have rhymes plus rhythm, plus the playfulness of the language.
Nursery rhymes help pave the way for hearing and distinguishing between sounds later, when children learn to read.
2) Point when you read! As long as you’re reading in English, get your children’s eyes moving from top of the page to the bottom and from left to right. This grows your children’s awareness of how book language works.
3) Sometimes include literacy language. Children don’t have an innate understanding of terms like vowels, consonants, capitals, and periods. Occasionally point out exclamation points and question marks, or note that sentences and names start with a capital letter. This low-key instruction will help smooth the way for teaching reading and grammar when the time comes.
4) Let your younger children listen with your older children. Or, if you don’t have older children, pick some classic works of literature that you’ve wanted to read, and listen to audio books together as you’re in the car or making dinner. The Chronicles of Narnia always offer something new, no matter the age of the reader. Although 3-year-olds might not pick up on all the plot points of an elementary chapter book, you might be surprised by how well the young ones understand, and how long they are willing to listen.
5) Reread old favorites. Sure: when you’re on the 48th reading of Green Eggs and Ham, you might not be feeling it. But your children continue to listen to the same books again and again because their brains continue to grow new connections. As long as they keep listening with enjoyment, there is more for them to learn.
So celebrate the wonders of language and story and connection. Find books you love, and together build the bridge from oral language to book language.