Reading interventions have long been linked to improvements in language and literacy, especially among young children whose parents have limited income or education. But less is known about the benefits for more affluent families or the potential for these efforts to improve social, emotional, or behavioral functioning for kids and their parents.
Parents in the reading programs also had less stress and anxiety and more confidence in their parenting skills than parents who didn’t participate in these activities, researchers report in Pediatrics.
“Reading to children is not only to have a smart child but also to have a happy child and a good parent-child relationship as well,” said lead study author Qian-Wen Xie, of the University of Hong Kong.
Some parents may not realize it’s important for them to read aloud with kids from a very young age, Xie said by email. Even when they know reading matters, parents might be pressed for time, unable to afford books, or unfamiliar with interactive reading techniques that can make the biggest impact on cognitive, social, emotional and behavioral development.
All of the studies included in the analysis randomly assigned some families to participate in reading programs and others to join control groups that didn’t receive this help. Some included free books.
Some programs targeted toddlers and preschoolers, while others focused on children in elementary school. Often, the reading interventions were provided to children at risk for behavioral problems or language delays, or kids in low-income households with parents who had limited education.
The majority of programs gave parents structured training in how to read with children, with anywhere from 2 to 28 coaching sessions.
One limitation of the analysis was that the studies were too varied to test the effects of specific aspects of the reading programs. Researchers couldn’t tell, for example, whether free books or one-on-one coaching in families’ homes might influence how well the interventions worked.
Still, the results offer fresh evidence that early literacy programs have the potential to improve well-being for parents and children, regardless of race, income, or gender, said Dr. Caroline Kistin, a pediatrics researcher at Boston University School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study.
“The shared experience—spending time together, sitting close to each other, making connections between the book and daily life—are critical,” Kistin added. “The findings from this study highlight that the time spent reading together also improves parents’ well-being and is associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, and increased markers of parental competence.”