Why Parents Should Read Novels to Little Kids

There’s nothing wrong with picture books, but for a richness of language and character development, parents should look to novels.

Children often fixate on a single story, which they force their parents to read again and again (and again). That’s as it should be. Repetition is an important aspect of learning to read and crucial to brain development. But for parents, that repetition can feel like torture (If I have to read Goodnight Moon one more time…). The good news is that parents don’t need to relegate reading time to picture books. In fact, experts suggest taking a kid on an occasional literary journey across Middle Earth with The Hobbit, or following Jim Hawkins to Treasure Island.

Kids are smarter than we tend to think. “They’re capable of understanding vocabulary at a much higher level than they can actually read,” Judy Packhem, a reading specialist, consultant, and owner of Shaping Readers, told Fatherly. “If we only gave them books that they could read by themselves, they’re not going to be exposed to some that robust and rich vocabulary.”

While it’s true that many parents might use a broad and varied vocabulary that extends beyond four-letter words, few talk like Tolkien or Robert Louis Stevenson. That’s a good thing, too, because it would make daily communication a pain. In novels, however, authors use a rich and varied vocabulary and literary devices that make language learning fun for parents and kids, alike. Parents interested in cracking a few good bindings might consider The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, Gulliver’s Travels or The Secret Garden — depending on their children’s interests.

Sometimes the learning experience comes from parents pausing and explaining hard words in novels. But more often than not, children acquire good vocabularies passively, as they listen to you read. “Eighty-five percent of the vocabulary words that kids learn are learned indirectly,” Packhem says. This may be why school vocab lists aren’t very effective teaching tools. “We don’t learn by looking up definitions. We learn conceptually, and a kid doesn’t have to know every single word.”

Even when it comes to tricky plot points or subtle character development, Packhem says kids seldom need you to stop the novel in its tracks to explain what’s going on. Instead, teach your children to think critically by recapping when the reading starts, pausing once during the story for a check-in, and talking about what happened at the end of the reading session. An added bonus of not stopping the action to explain every detail is that, as your children become invested in the characters and immersed in the plot, they’ll learn to understand people. Letting their immature minds cling to the plot will help your kids develop empathy, build emotional intelligence, and grapple with morality.

Still, parents should manage their expectations. For instance, it’s normal for young children to wiggle out of your arms even when they’re listening and engaged. “The more senses they’re using when their learning, the better their attention,” explains Packhem. For more fidgety listeners, she suggests that parents provide a sheet of paper and crayons to keep their hands busy during book time.

Regardless, a novel promises to be a refreshing respite from picture books. And it also means that parents can enjoy reading with kids well beyond those frustrating Goodnight Moon years.