To 'Immunize' Kids Against Illiteracy, Break Out A Book In Infancy

The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that parents begin reading to their children early, even to newborns. Professor Susan Neuman, an expert on early literacy development, explains.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Read to your children. This isn't the first time you've heard that advice. But now parents with infants will start hearing it officially from pediatricians starting from birth. The American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidance today for parents to quote, "immunize their children against illiteracy."

To find out more, I spoke with Susan Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education at New York University. She says, this all might sound obvious but researchers have found there's even more to it.

SUSAN NEUMAN: We've always known that it's important to read to your children very early on, but we've never realized how important it is, very early on, that children's early literacy lessons are so critically important for their literacy development.

CORNISH: In what way? What's the benefit of reading aloud to kids just starting after birth?

NEUMAN: Well, one of the things we've learned is that their vocabulary development spurts. So we noticed the difference between children who have been read to starting at six months and later on in terms of their word production eventually. So they are able to read and understand more words in the long-term, they say words earlier in the short term, and they actually know what a book looks like, and that's very important for their development.

CORNISH: So then how much does it matter what we read to infants or how we read it or how often?

NEUMAN: Well, we know that frequency is very important. So reading to your children a lot and at different times of the day. We also know that there are certain books that are absolutely delightful to young children in terms of their texture, their topic, their feel.

CORNISH: Can you elaborate what kind of books you're talking about?

NEUMAN: Very, very young children in infancy can't really hold a book well. And so we know that board books - B-O-A-R-D - are a wonderful strategy to help their little hands learn to turn a page. Secondly, we know that young children's vision is not well-formed, so the colors need to be very distinct. And finally, there needs to be very little on a page. In other words, it should be an object or one picture. But too much busyness on a page is really very distracting for a child.

CORNISH: So help us understand what this means for later development. You talked about their vocabulary, but are there any links that can be made between literacy and poverty as a child grows up?

NEUMAN: Oh, very much so. So one of the things we know from our research is that children often lack language development. They have limited opportunities to interact with adults in high poverty situations. And there's a different kind of language spoken in books, and there's a different vocabulary level. So you and I will speak in very colloquial terms, but when I read to a child, they're often getting literary language, and that language has strong predictive analysis in terms of their later achievement.

CORNISH: Susan Neuman, thank you so much for talking with us.

NEUMAN: Oh, it's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: NYU Professor Susan Newman talking about the new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics to read to infants.

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