Reading with your kids just three times a week can bring dramatic results, reports a new study.
In just six weeks, children who read with their mom or dad showed gains that normally would take about eight months of school, say researchers in Scotland.
The children and parents followed a reading program called "Paired Reading." Under the program, the adult and child read in unison until the child signals he or she wants to read alone. The parent intervenes only to correct a mispronounced word, and then the unison reading begins again. Total time spent reading? About 20 minutes.
"It's a fairly painless and stress-free exercise," says James Boyle, a senior lecturer in educational psychology at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. "As a child, you're not going to be confronted, to have to stumble over words or sound out words. You're going to reading alongside a parent who is providing a good role model."
The program was begun about 25 years ago by Keith Topping, director of the Centre for Paired Learning at the University of Dundee in Scotland. The system originally was aimed at students with reading difficulties but since has broadened to include students of all abilities throughout the United Kingdom.
At first, the program was thought to work best when it was used daily, Boyle says. But researchers then determined it was as effective when used just four or five times a week.
However, reading that frequently with a child turned out to be difficult for some parents, Boyle says. Parents sometimes found it hard to carve out 20 uninterrupted minutes four or five times a week, and children - particularly those who were not strong readers - would balk at a too-frequent regimen.
To test whether it could be effective when used even less often, Boyle and his colleagues took 42 schoolchildren between 5 and 11 years of age and divided them into three groups.
The first group, which committed to a three-times-a-week dose of Paired Reading, saw its reading scores shoot up in just six weeks - from a reading level equivalent to that of a child 7 years and 7 months old to that of a child 8 years and 5 months old, nearly an entire school year's difference.
Children who did Paired Reading with their parents five times a week saw a nearly identical change, the study says. They rose, on average, from a 7 years, 7 months reading level to an 8 years, 4 months level.
Lagging behind were the children who did no Paired Reading. At the start of the six-week study, they read on average at the level of a child who's 7 years, 4 months old. They remained at that level through the six weeks, showing no gains, the study says. Boyle presented the findings last weekend to a meeting of the Scottish branch of the British Psychological Society.
"Maintaining it three times a week will be sufficient to give significant gains," Boyle says. In fact, he adds, three sets of parents in the five-times-a-week group had to withdraw from the study because they found it too hard to fit into their already busy schedules.
Three times a week may be just often enough to establish and maintain a healthy pattern that can lead to real change, Boyle believes. "It's consistent and offers continuity." By contrast, he says, "If you read a book just one time a week, you'll lose the plot, won't you?"
Topping, who developed the program, says it's not surprising, given the method's flexibility, that it would remain effective in fewer sessions.
"We usually recommend 'little and often,' so it can be fitted into everyday life easily and does not become too tiring," Topping says. "Many parents manage 10 minutes on each of five days per week. Others prefer fewer but somewhat longer sessions."
Children seem to enjoy the control they exercise in Paired Reading, Topping says, not the least of which is the fact that they choose the book.
"The method itself gives the child a balance of control over the process - it is collaborative, not being done to the child," he says. "While there can be occasional problems with over-zealous parents, most usually the problem is the other way round - children wanting to do more than their parents have time for."