There are many wonderful reasons to read with your children! This becomes especially important if they have a diagnosis of ADHD, learning disorder, or language challenges. In fact, research shows that reading with your child can help improve your child’s executive functions, as well as social skills, comprehension, vocabulary, and the list goes on.
In the interest of transparency, I need to share that for me personally, reading to my children (ages 4 and 7) sometimes feels like a chore at the end of a long day. My kids have already figured out how to delay bedtime by asking for everything in the world. Water in the pink cup, one more cuddle, a last-minute trip to the bathroom… sitting down to read for 20 minutes will just make an endless bedtime last longer! I have to remind myself that this is an important time for us to connect. The science-nerd in me also remembers that there are countless benefits of reading.
As a pediatric speech language pathologist, I cannot stress this enough: literacy is SO important at every single age. From infancy through school-age, reading opens up their world to so many concepts. It is important for parents to understand that reading is also a functional way to address many areas of executive function. Executive functions are impacted by ADHD and other neurodevelopmental conditions. Below, I will describe a few of the positive impacts reading can have. I will also give you specific strategies you can use with your child to address executive function through reading:
1. Reading helps children recognize and understand emotions in others.
Within books, characters experience many different emotions as they interact with other characters and face challenges. You can help support your child’s emotional control by labeling the feelings that the character is experiencing. “Jack is embarrassed because his teacher told him to stop talking in class.” This will help your child make sense of the confusing world of emotions. Giving a label to the experience will help them categorize the language for future use. You can also talk about possible solutions. For example, “I wonder what Jack could say to his teacher after class is over.” By analyzing social interactions and emotions with our children, we are filling their toolbox with strategies for managing these feelings in real time situations. You are helping develop your child’s perspective taking as well as their ability to self-monitor.
2. You can use books to teach your elementary-age child to understand why something happened (inference), and what might happen next (prediction).
With both fiction and nonfiction, the reader is required to pay attention so they can draw connections and figure out things that are not specifically said in the text. These are essential skills for academic success. And we also use these skills constantly as we interact socially and solve problems in real life. While reading, you can ask questions to help your child develop these skills:
- Why do you think the character reacted that way?
- What clues do you see that can help us make a smart guess about what might happen next?
- How could the character solve this problem?
- If ____ happens, what do you think the result will be?
- Why do you think he didn’t choose to ____?
3. Reading success is strongly connected to working memory.
Children use working memory as they listen to or read a story, because they have to hold information in their mind and connect it as the story unfolds. Pictures can help support memory and comprehension, but reading comprehension becomes more difficult when pictures are taken away. When pictures aren’t available, you can help your child recall details by describing what you are picturing in your mind. My daughter and I take turns imagining the scene in the story and talking about the details. If she says, “I’m picturing a castle” I expand on her idea. You could say, “I’m picturing a tall, white castle with flowers in the garden. What kind of flowers should we picture for the garden?” This is a great way to keep her engaged and help her connect new information to the picture in her mind.
4. Through books, children practice the essential skill of cognitive flexibility as they learn vocabulary.
Have you ever read the Amelia Bedelia book series by Peggy and Herman Parrish? Amelia Bedelia is an adorable character who struggles constantly to understand non-literal language. When a customer in a restaurant asks her, “Get me a piece of cherry pie, and step on it!” Amelia Bedelia runs to the kitchen, grabs a piece of pie, jumps up on the counter, and stomps on it. The hungry customer is not thrilled. My daughter LOVES Amelia Bedelia books and we spend a lot of time talking about the different meanings of words in those stories.
Let’s face it, our language is confusing! One word can mean so many different things depending on the context. Reading is a great way for children to learn shift as they understand that one word can have several meanings. When you are reading with your child, encourage them to ask you about words they don’t know. When they say, “What does _____ mean?” You can respond by saying, “Let’s look at the rest of the sentence/paragraph. What do you think it means?” By helping your child use clues in the text, you are improving their ability to make “smart guesses” about what they are reading.
But reading can be challenging! We absolutely recognize that, so let’s troubleshoot together.
I often hear from parents that reading isn’t fun for their child, or they struggle to fit reading into a busy schedule. I wanted to include answers to some of the most common questions I come across. If you have other questions, please let us know in the comments or send us an email.
What should I read with my child?
The simple answer… read whatever your child is interested in! Following your child’s lead is the best way to keep them motivated and engaged. Some children love to read and listen to fiction, while some may have trouble following a complicated story line. If that is the case, look for non-fiction topics that might be interesting to your child. The children I see in my practice have a vast range of interests, from the history roller coasters to marine biology (specifically humpback whales!).
Parents are often surprised by how motivating reading can be when you find the right topics for your child. If you aren’t sure which books sound fun, a trip to your nearby library can be a convenient, low-cost way to see a range of choices. (And as a bonus, you can practice organization by having a specific shelf or basket to keep library books, so you don’t have to search for them when you need to return them).
When should I read with my child?
Routine, routine, routine. As with any new habit we want to form, it probably makes the most sense to incorporate reading into an already-existing routine. If you already tuck your child into bed each night or have some other way of saying “good night,” you can slowly introduce 5-10 minutes of reading together and build up from there. Consistency is important, so if this feels overwhelming, try cutting the amount of time (even as short as three minutes) instead of skipping reading altogether.
My school-age child struggles with reading (decoding, recognizing sight words, comprehension) so reading isn’t “fun” anymore… what should I do?
First of all, we see and hear you! And it can be incredibly difficult when reading becomes a struggle, because a huge part of academic success will depend on a child’s motivation and ability to read. If you have concerns with your child’s reading ability, the best place to start is a conversation with their teacher. From there, you may want to request academic testing which can be done by the public school district at no cost to you. You can download our Guide to School Testing for more detailed information.
To make reading easier and more enticing at home, you can focus on topics your child is interested in. You can also read to your child, or take turns reading every other page. This takes some of the “pressure” off of a child who is struggling to read. Many parents think their child is too old to be read to, but in reality, children of all ages can enjoy having a good story read to them… think about how many adults listen to audiobooks through Audible or other apps.
If your child is still resistant to reading with you, you might consider having your child earn rewards for reading. If you are interested in this option, check out our post on using rewards effectively. We describe some important “do” and “don’t” reminders here.
Keep going. Really, you can do it!
There is no “magic cure” for these challenges, but with practice and a LOT of patience, we are all capable of learning new skills. As professionals and parents, we understand the struggles you face on a daily basis, and we want to help. What other questions do you have about executive function, ADHD, language, and literacy?
If you want more free resources and information about how to support your child, sign up for our email list and follow us on social media. We love connecting with you. And if you are looking for in-depth resources about parenting a child with ADHD (or suspected ADHD!), be sure to check out our online course, Creating Calm. You can watch it from anywhere, at any time!
Have a beautiful week,