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I am a staunch believer in the benefits of shared reading between parents and young children.

It's something I written about previously. That reading to children at bedtime not only helps tiny tots relax and fall asleep more easily, but also reinforces the emotional bond between storyteller and listener. And that reading aloud helps children become better readers, listeners and pupils by building vocabulary and language skills.

Now, a new study by a team of experts has found that parents and carers who regularly read with pre-school aged children are giving them a language advantage of eight months.

Led by James Law, Professor of Speech and Language Sciences in Newcastle University's School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, the team found that receptive language skills – the ability to understand information – are positively affected when pre-school youngsters read with someone who cares for them.

The systematic review looked at reading intervention studies from the past 40 years, using either a book or electronic readers, where reading was carried out with a parent or carer.

In the report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the researchers were looking for effects on receptive language (understanding), expressive language (where a child puts their thoughts into words such as vocabulary and grammar) and pre-reading skills (such as how words are structured).

The results were positive for every category - but the biggest difference was with receptive language skills.

The review - "Parent-child reading to improve language-development and school readiness" showed socially disadvantaged children experienced slightly more benefit than others.

Professor Law explains: "While we already knew reading with young children is beneficial to their development and later academic performance, the eight month advantage this review identified was striking. Eight months is a big difference in language skills when you are looking at children aged under five.

"The fact we saw an effect with receptive language skills is very important. This ability to understand information is predictive of later social and educational difficulties. And research suggests it is these language skills which are hardest to change."

The average age of the children involved in the 16 studies from five countries - the USA, South Africa, Canada, Israel and China - was 39 months. The team was unable to find any UK studies that adopted a randomised or a quasi-experiment parent-child reading intervention.

In the light of the findings the experts are now calling for public health authorities to promote book reading to parents.

"There have been lots of initiatives over the years to get books into the homes of young children," says Professor Law.

"What we're saying is that's not enough. Reading with small children has a powerful effect. For this reason, it should be promoted through people like health visitors and other public health professionals as this simple act has the potential to make a real difference."

The review reached eight conclusions including:

  • Interventions to promote language development and pre-reading are effective. The strongest impact is on children’s receptive vocabulary development.
  • Although the results of interventions vary for children of different ages, book reading appeared to be most effective for children over three years old particularly in the development of receptive vocabulary.
  • The amount of intervention a child was exposed to did not influence how much the child’s language improved; relatively little input can have just as high an impact as more intensive intervention.