If you do only one thing to unlock your child's potential, read aloud.
This simple, inexpensive activity leads to the huge benefits with minimal parental effort. For the price of a library card, you can have access to almost any book you want.
Why should you focus specially on reading to your child?
At the most fundamental level, reading to your child lets them know you want to spend time with them. This boosts self-esteem and the positive atmosphere created will help to develop a love of reading in your child. A favourite childhood memory of mine is my dad reading to me at bedtime (while he surreptiously tried to skip pages!).
When children see their parents reading, this becomes part of their idea of ‘what adults do'. This goes a long way towards your child becoming a life-long reader, which is the ultimate goal of all reading instruction.
Reading aloud has a significant positive impact on developing literacy skills: e.g. reading is a skill that develops over time – the more you read, the better you get at it; running your finger under the words while your child watches improves word reading skills; good literature helps the child to develop a memory bank on which they can draw for their own writing.
Here comes the science bit – a study by Hart & Risely in 1995 highlighted the vast differences in both the quantity and quality of words heard by children, depending on their economic circumstances. They reported that children of professional parents hear 32-million more words by age four than children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study also illustrated the differences in the variety of words heard by the different groups of children. These differences in the quantity and quality of words heard lead to significant differences in children's vocabulary at age three and later language ability. The good news is that reading aloud can be used to help ensure your children ‘meet the quota'. In addition, the vocabulary in a book is likely to be more diverse than the spoken vocabulary of most people.
Reading aloud allows the child to be be exposed to language that is beyond their current reading ability, improving vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure and general knowledge. Vocabulary is closely related to academic success and it is a key area on IQ tests. Therefore, reading aloud can boost your child's IQ.
I highly recommend “The Read Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease. In this book, the author synthesises the research on why you should read aloud, along with some dos and don'ts. See http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/30-read-aloud-DOs.pdf for some read-aloud tips.
Ideally, children will have 1000 hours of being read to under their belt by the time they start school. If your child is already in school, don't worry, just start today. (The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago – the second best time is now.)
I recently joined an online challenge to read 1000 books to my toddler in a year. Within a fortnight of beginning, I noticed a HUGE improvement in both her language skills and her interest in learning to read. And best of all, she really loves this special time.