How Do Children Benefit from Early Access To Books?

Early access to books can shape a child's future and pave the way for a lifetime of learning.

A child's early years are critical for promoting literacy and lifelong learning.

study published in 2023 examined the relationship between home literacy environments and practices (HLE&P), emergent literacy skills, and later reading and writing skills. A total of 115 preschool-aged children participated in this longitudinal study. The children’s emergent literacy skills were first measured during their last year of preschool, and their writing and reading skills were evaluated in the first grade of primary school.

Researchers concluded that preschoolers with higher scores in their HLE&P also demonstrated higher reading and writing skills when measured one year later in primary schools. Children with higher HLE&P scores also showed higher levels of notational awareness or the ability to translate sound into written signs. Notational awareness is an important skill that helps children connect written signs with intention.

A deficit in notational awareness in young children is often used to predict dyslexiaOther benefits to reading include expanding one’s vocabulary and enhancing one’s ability to think critically. Reading also helps children foster a sense of empathy toward their peers.

I recently invited Jody L. Eberly, Ed.D., a Professor of Early Childhood Education and Co-chair of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at The College of New Jersey*, to share her expertise with EveryLibrary readers. She teaches childhood education and graduate-level emergent literacy classes.

An email-based interview questionnaire was sent to Dr. Eberly on January 31, 2024. I would like to thank Dr. Eberly for participating in this interview so that EveryLibrary readers can learn more about this important topic.


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On the Benefits of Early Literacy

TABITHA HILLIARD: Have you researched the benefits and outcomes of providing children with early access to books? [Are you] able to speak to this based on similar research? [What can you share with EveryLibrary readers?]

DR. EBERLY: I am familiar with the benefits and outcomes of providing children with early access to books as that is a key strategy for fostering early and emergent literacy.

Early access to books provides young children with a multitude of benefits whether they are being read to or they are looking at books on their own. When young children are read to, they learn how books work, for example, how to orient a book to read, the fact that we read books from front to back (at least in English), and that we turn the pages in order one at a time.

They learn that there is a consistent story that goes along with each book. They hear book language, which is often different from the day-to-day spoken language that children hear. They hear different sentence structures, and they may also be introduced to new vocabulary words and new experiences.

When children are given the opportunity to look at books themselves even before they can read, they often imitate what they’ve seen adults do, such as turning the pages of a book and telling a story to go along with those pages. As children’s emergent literacy skills develop, they may use the illustrations in a picture book to tell a story if they are not yet able to read the words.

If children are read to regularly, as they grow in their emergent literacy skills, they will start to learn the stories that go with each book and will begin to memorize and eventually match the spoken word with the print in the book.

For example, in a predictable text (a text with a repeated line), such as “but he was still hungry” in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a child may start to realize that those letters and words go with the phrase they have heard so frequently when hearing that book read to them. The more experiences children have with books, the more opportunities they have to do this. For this reason, frequent re-readings of the same books can have many advantages.

On Print vs. Digital Books

TABITHA HILLIARD: Do you think there is a significant difference in outcomes for children reading physical books versus e-books on electronic devices?

DR. EBERLY: While I think there is value in both physical books and e-books, I do still prefer a physical book with young children. When an adult pulls a young child up into their lap, I think something magical happens when they both look at the cover of a physical book and open it up together. 

There’s a whole new world inside those covers that invites both the reader and the listener in. While you can do the same with an e-book, I’m not sure that it is as inviting. With a physical book, children experience page-turning in a way that they do not with an e-book since an e-book requires just a click. I think there is also something exciting about seeing a bunch of physical books on a bookshelf that draws a child in. This is not the same if the e-books live on one computer or one iPad.

However, even with my bias toward physical books for young children, if physical books are not available, e-books are a welcome option. E-books offer a convenience that physical books do not. It is much easier to carry one iPad from place to place than ten different picture books so there may be times when an iPad full of e-books is just simply easier. For the early reader, e-books also often offer the option to click on a word to learn its meaning, which is not possible with a traditional physical book.


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On Changes in Student Reading Scores

TABITHA HILLIARD: Have reading scores increased or decreased in recent years? Why or why not? What does the research suggest might be the cause of this change, if there are any?

DR. EBERLY: This is a tough question because we have had the Covid-19 pandemic in the recent past. There has been much discussion about the learning loss that happened for many children while their traditional schooling was significantly interrupted. While schools and teachers tried to continue teaching in new ways, it wasn’t the same.

Therefore, I think we will need to wait a few more years to see how reading scores are increasing or decreasing outside of the pandemic years. Overall scores are lower than they were pre-pandemic, but there were small gains from 2022 to 2023 when standardized testing in New Jersey resumed in 2022.

On How Parents Can Encourage a Love of Reading

TABITHA HILLIARD: What advice can you share with a parent or guardian who may not enjoy reading but who wants to make reading exciting and interesting for their children?

DR. EBERLY: Picture books for young children come in many different genres and many different topics. With such a wealth of books available, it may be possible to choose a book that appeals to both the child and the parent or guardian.

A key to successful reading experiences is the natural interaction between parent and child. Parents/guardians should talk with the child about the cover of the book, and they can jointly make predictions about what the book will be about and what will happen in the story. Then the parent/guardian should read the book with expression and occasionally stop to ask questions or talk about what is happening in the story.

Parents/guardians should offer time and space for the child to engage with the book and with their parent or guardian, for example, making note of a particular illustration or checking to see if their pre-reading predictions were accurate. In this way, reading is more than simply reading the words on the pages, but rather a quality experience between parent/guardian and child that taps into prior knowledge and builds new knowledge as a result of the shared interaction with the book.

Another option for parents that includes a shared book experience but that doesn’t involve traditional reading is a wordless book. Wordless books have illustrations but no words at all, and thus, the story is told through the illustrations alone. As such, the child and the parent or guardian can co-create the story together as they turn the pages.


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Suggested Tools for Parents and Guardians

Reading Rockets, a national public library media literacy initiative, offers a Home Literacy Environment Checklist to aid parents and guardians interested in creating a home literacy environment to support young readers. This checklist can evaluate the current environment and identify which areas require improvement.

Adults need to remember that reading is a skill that can be challenging for children to learn. Parents and guardians must take every opportunity to offer constructive praise or positive comments to celebrate their child’s accomplishments instead of criticizing or admonishing a child’s literacy mistakes.

Libraries make it possible for children to find several titles at all reading levels. Young people can be encouraged to help their caregivers select new books to read together. Many children enjoy attending storytime activities, often hosted at public libraries, bookstores, and sometimes even local museums.

As the child grows, they may be interested in participating in a PAWS for Reading program at a local library. These programs allow older school-aged children to continue practicing their reading skills aloud with registered therapy dogs. It’s also helpful for children who might struggle with anxiety surrounding reading. Sometimes, local animal shelters will offer similar programs as a way of socializing adoptable animals.

Books are more than just a collection of paper decorated with pictures and words used for recreation. For young children, books are valuable tools that help them learn to orient themselves with the world while igniting their imagination and natural curiosity. It’s especially important for children to spend time with books during their early years.

Parents and guardians must encourage a child’s relationship with books, create a supportive home literacy environment, and teach their children to build supportive literacy practices. This way, the child is more likely to enjoy the maximum benefits that come with reading.

*Dr. Eberly can be reached via email at [email protected]



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