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Million-word gap bridged by bedtime

Published:  11 July 2022

The humble bedtime story has been proven to improve childhood literacy and give children a leg-up to learning, Townsville University Hospital paediatrician Dr Anne Hannay said.

 Dr Hannay said evidence showed that children aged up to five who were read to regularly cumulatively heard 1.4 million more words than children who were never read to.

 “Children’s brains develop rapidly in the first years of life and early exposure to language has a positive impact on learning,” she said.

 “One of the key facets of brain development is repetition so the more children see or hear something, the more they will learn and retain it, and the more intuitive it becomes,” she said.

 Dr Hannay said her dream to capture children early in their language journey was given a helping hand recently when Townsville CityLibraries offered First Five Forever packs for local families who visited Townsville University Hospital and Kirwan Health Campus.

 The packs contain children’s favourite I’m a Dirty Dinosaur, hand puppet, book and DVD of nursery rhymes, and information for families.

 “I’ve been able to offer these packs to my families to support early literacy,” Dr Hannay said.

 “We know that many of our families have a lot going on and reading is low down on the list of priorities, especially if things like housing and food access are difficult, and by having these packs to give out we’re hoping to make reading that little bit more available.”

 Dr Hannay said she also used the packs as a conversation starter to encourage parents and carers to use the free services offered by local libraries.

 “Families can borrow up to 25 books at a time and join First 5 Forever programs such as baby rhyme time, toddler time, story time, and messy play in the park,” she said.

 Dr Hannay said children who were not exposed to language early through regular story telling often took longer to understand and process language.

 “It often means that when they reach school-age they have to pick up vast numbers of skills that other children have picked up incidentally and in a fun way through being read to,” she said.

 “Prep class becomes overwhelming, and learning becomes stressful instead of joyful.”

 CityLibraries early childhood project officer Jenna Maskell said the aim of First 5 Forever was to connect families to the information, resources, and support they needed to build the best foundation for their child’s language and literacy development before they started school.

 “Families can nurture their children’s love of language by reading together, sharing rhymes, singing songs, and telling stories,” she said.

Dr Hannay said one of the biggest appeal of books for children was connection.

“My son is one and when he plops himself in my lap with a book he’s saying, ‘connect with me, Mummy,’” she said.

Dr Hannay acknowledged that the modern-day parent was time poor, but she urged families to make time for books.

“It’s not only all the beautiful literacy development and hearing of language and rhythm and rhyme, but also the social connection that you can’t get from an episode of Peppa Pig or a game on an iPad,” she said.

“Bedtime is the perfect time to read to children and it can take as little as 10 minutes to read three fun and engaging picture story books as part of your evening routine.

“In paediatrics we always recommend a strong bedtime routine and no screens in the hour before bed.

“It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it will make all the difference in the world to your child.”

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