The television turns on with the flick of a switch, its noise a reassuring blare in the house. It may not be the most engaging entertainment for your child, but you can relax knowing that he will wind down for bed during the time it takes for Elmo, Burt, and Ernie to finish an adventure on Sesame Street. You need the quiet that the clamoring cartoon provides after a long day at work, so you let a habit develop. It will be fine, you think, if you don’t read to him before bed; after all, your child has all day to learn and play at school. What good does picking up a storybook at the end of the day really do for him?
For most adults, reading is as easy as breathing – and just as vital to life. In our society, illiteracy is a kind of blindness: a functional lack that renders one incapable of doing simple but important tasks such as navigating street signs, understanding a lease, or even holding down a job. But being unable to read isn’t just a day-to-day inconvenience in adult life; for many children, it stands as a roadblock to building a happy and healthy life. According to a formal finding from the Department of Justice, “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” But the problems associated with illiteracy don’t stop at poor behavior: in 2009, pediatric researchers found that children with low literacy often have poorer health than those with developed skills. Worryingly, this trend towards poor health seems to be cyclical; the same study found that low-literacy caregivers usually have less health knowledge and their children poorer health outcomes than high-literacy parents.
The issue of illiteracy is far more serious than most realize. According to recent statistics published by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), over 32 million adults in the U.S. are unable to read. Countless public institutions lack the reading materials they need to teach effectively. As one teacher put it in an op-ed for the New York Times: “A classroom of 35-plus students without books is hardly a learning environment.” She then went on to vent her frustrations that her students couldn’t delve into the books at home, but had to share them at their desks during school. How can we expect our children to love reading – to pursue a love for reading – if their experience with books is a classroom chore?
But wait, you might ask, is loving reading so necessary? Can’t a child navigate street signs, read a lease, or hold down a job with basic literacy skills?
Well, yes – but life would be less vibrant for it.
Every parent recognizes the practical need for reading. However, many may not realize that the way their child learns to engage with the written word will also have a significant impact on their physical and emotional development. Fiction doesn’t just pad our vocabularies or teach us how to string sentences together, but also develops our capability for empathetic human connection. When young children pick up their first picturebooks, they forge an emotional connection with the characters and their experiences. As one researcher puts it in a paper on picturebooks and emotional literacy: “Fiction […] creates situations in which emotions are simulated […] Readers are asked not only to understand what characters think and feel but also what they think and feel about each other’s thoughts and feelings.” By empathizing with fictional characters and learning to see from another’s perspective, children are able to practice important real-world communication skills that will serve them into adulthood.
But putting a picture book into a child’s hands just won’t cut it. Parents need to go beyond checking homework and reviewing spelling to engage with their child’s reading journey. When parents discuss a character’s behaviors, relationships, and motivations with their child, they ultimately set that child on a path towards better connectivity and a fuller emotional life. For parents and children alike, reading serves as a lit pathway to empathy. Child psychologist Maria Nikolajeva puts it simply and well: “In plain words, reading makes us better human beings.”