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   from the issue of August 24, 2006

Study traces connection between early reading, learning success

Research focus

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Parents and educators now have more evidence that it's a good idea for parents to read to babies. According to a first-of-its-kind large-scale study of low-income parents, early reading associates with a toddler's vocabulary.

The study, led by UNL researcher Helen Raikes, shows that English-speaking mothers who begin reading to their children at a very early age have toddlers with greater language comprehension, larger, more expressive vocabularies and higher cognitive scores by the age of 2. Spanish-speaking mothers who read to their children every day have 3-year-olds with greater language and cognitive development than those who aren't read to. This research at UNL and Iowa State, New York, Columbia and Harvard universities, and from Mathematica Policy Research Inc., was published in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development.

Raikes, professor of family and consumer sciences and the study's lead author, said most people will not be surprised by the study results. But, more than anything, the confirmation of the need for reading by parents and educators to infants and toddlers is an important reminder, and the study provides firm data for researchers who have before now failed to study closely early-reading effects among low-income children who are at risk for language delays.

"The fact is that nobody had done this large a study with infants and toddlers at any level," Raikes said. She said previous studies have looked mostly at 3- and 4-year-olds. "We said, 'Let's take a good look at this and see when are children learning language.' We know parental inputs to language learning are really important at much earlier ages."

Researchers studied 2,581 families in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project and a control group in 17 communities across the United States. Within a subgroup of 1,101, they explored in-depth relations between reading and child outcomes for English- and Spanish-speaking families. The children were evaluated at 14-, 24- and 36- months of age.

About half the mothers reported reading daily to their children at each age, although slightly more mothers read daily when their children were 2 and 3 than when they were 14 months. White mothers reported reading more frequently than mothers in other racial/ethnic groups, as did mothers of girls, first-born children and children in the Early Head Start program.

In addition to the findings noted earlier, the researchers also found that reading and children's vocabulary seemed to enhance one another beginning as early as 14-months in English-speaking groups. In other words, the more mothers read, the better the children's vocabulary, which, in turn, encouraged more reading.

"Everyone wants to know what to do to be a good parent and to provide good care," Raikes said. "It's such a simple thing to do. You almost think it's obvious. It isn't. Language interaction between the parent and child, labeling objects, talking about things, sitting and looking at books and reading encourages language development and learning."



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