The magic of the spoken word
Hong Kong is very results-oriented and no more so than when it comes to early childhood education. Many parents go to great lengths to get their child into just the right school, even if it means enrolling their preschoolers in something like harp lessons to pad a primary school admissions application.
Although parents will agree that reading books is a good thing, reading aloud to children may not be widely regarded as important for child development. Last month, I sat in on a parents' workshop in Mong Kok on how to read aloud to children. The workshop leader was a charismatic parenting expert who, in four hours of interactive training, extolled the benefits of reading aloud. Toward the end, one parent asked: 'What's the average number of times I need to read a particular storybook to my son before he should be able to read that book by himself?'
The parent was frustrated that her son really enjoyed being read to, but refused to read on his own. When the trainer learned that the boy was only three years old, she feigned exasperation and said: 'Please relax and don't force your son to read by himself if he likes to hear you read to him. It's a positive thing, not a negative, that your son enjoys being read to.'
When other parents in the room noisily agreed, the frustrated parent, by now a little defensive, said: 'But all my friends' kids who are my son's age are already sitting alone for long periods, reading on their own.'
The expert's reply was priceless. 'Yes, and I'll tell you a secret: that is also the kind of parents who say their son didn't study at all before an exam, when in fact the boy has been immersed in flash cards, tutorials and revisions.'
Even the frustrated parent had to laugh at that remark. Beyond the reassurance that three-year-olds don't need to know how to read or even how to recite their favourite stories, the expert underscored the idea that early literacy is just one of the many tangible and intangible benefits of being read to. The child's feelings of security and love for learning about things outside his immediate world are shaped by the physical togetherness, the soothing quality of a familiar voice, and the chat between parent and child that can come from reading aloud.
And for results-based parents who aren't convinced and want tangible proof of the benefits of parent-child reading, there are the findings of a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).
Researchers tested the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students from more than 70 countries for more than 20 years in an attempt to learn about the students' preparedness for future challenges, capacity for analysis, communication and continued learning through life.
'Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in Pisa 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all,' the study said. 'The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family's socioeconomic background.'
When I mentioned the study to a friend, she joked: 'With the exorbitant school fees we pay for nursery and kindergarten, shouldn't reading be the job of the teacher?'
It's all well and good when our children are at school, but parents often forget the obvious: they are their children's first teachers. Children learn from the world around them, and so many more hours of their days are spent outside the classroom.
The Pisa report reassured me that as long as I continue to read to my children, I shouldn't feel anxious that my three-year-old daughter is 'falling behind' because she hasn't started phonics lessons or speech classes yet. I may not have taught my daughter how to read, but I hope I'm teaching her to want to read.
Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, a non-profit group devoted to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them and helping children in under-served communities get access to the best books.