Why Reading Is Most Important During Distance Learning

Kelley Spainhour

Special Education Consultant

So many of us are trying to juggle three full-time jobs these days—childcare, working and teaching. Teaching usually means facilitating distance learning or leading some type of homeschooling program. Parents or caregivers are weighing priorities and deciding how best to use their limited hours each day. Should you join that important conference call this afternoon and allow your preschooler another hour of screen time? Will you be sharp enough to save your proposal for after the kids’ bedtime so you can be present now to help your 11-year-old divide fractions? Your child with special needs requires 24/7 supervision and support, but you still have to work full-time hours to keep your health insurance and pay rent.

It’s exhausting to watch the mental movie of these scenes and think through all the tasks on any given day. What’s most important? How do you decide what to put first? None of us will get it exactly right each time. That’s OK. Ideally, your child’s teachers are identifying the most important IEP goals to focus on, providing a few simple assignments and guiding you toward facilitating learning. But if you are still struggling with competing priorities, know this:

The most important thing you can do for your children during these weeks and months of distance learning is to read with them.

Amazing benefits of reading with your child

The benefits of a parent or caregiver regularly reading with a child are truly astounding. The reach of read-alouds extends well beyond academic gains. Reading with your child also leads to:

Improved cognitive development and language skills

When you read with your child, you are helping them think and understand, which is the essence of cognitive development. Reading helps build a base of knowledge about the world and introduces a vocabulary with which to describe and make sense of the sights, sounds, smells and actions all around us. With every story your child hears or reads, new brain cells are formed and existing connections are strengthened. The language heard from books is different from the language heard in daily conversation (or on TV). Listening to read-alouds teaches children about different types of grammar structure, style and tone and vocabulary.

Close relational bonding

The importance of spending quality time with your child cannot be overstated. One of the very best things you can do to positively impact your child’s development is to spend one-on-one time with them. Reading provides a perfect opportunity to create an intimate and consistent time when your child can count on you to be fully present and paying careful attention. It also ushers in feelings of love, security and closeness for your child that forge a stronger attachment in your relationship.

Increased attention span

Young children naturally have short attention spans and have difficulty sitting still for extended periods of time. Reading with your child will help them learn to sit with a story for the duration of the whole book. It will take some time, but you will start to notice a difference that will eventually impact their behavior in other areas of daily life. Research has also shown that consistently reading with your children reduces aggression and hyperactivity.

Improved creativity

Fiction and nonfiction stories open up a world of people, places, times and events that your child can explore without having to experience everything personally. Reading with your child strengthens their imagination and expands their creative toolbox as they play, write, think and create for themselves.

So if you find yourself overwhelmed with online modules, take-home packets and learning projects in these days of remote learning, take heart. Know that reading with your child provides a benefit unlike any other. It will truly make a lasting difference.

Tips for building a reading routine

Be consistent

Children respond well to structure and routine. This is especially true for children with learning differences and behavioral challenges. To build a reading routine in your home, aim to read with your child at least once per day at the same time and in the same place for about 15–20 minutes. Your child will begin to trust that reading is as much a part of their day as mealtime and will likely look forward to this special time with you. Try to plan storytime when your child is not hungry or sleepy to optimize their ability to engage.

Guide pre-readers and early readers

It’s easy for literate adults to take for granted the most basic components of a book, but your young children need to be taught how to approach a story. Preview the book with your child—look at the cover, browse the pictures and make a prediction. Help orient your child to the nature of print by noting the difference between pictures and text. Use your finger to “scroll” the words from left to right on the page, and from the left page to the right page as you read. Point out the difference between capital letters and lowercase letters.

After your children have learned to read for themselves, continue to read with them! Choose books that are of high interest to your children but above their independent reading level. This will build motivation and sustain interest.

Read everything!

Creating a culture of reading starts with adults modeling consistent reading practice and their own pleasure in reading. It goes beyond storytime. So encourage your child to read anything and everything in the home. Have fun with it!

Ask them to read the print on:

  • Cereal boxes
  • Ingredients on packages of food
  • Shipping labels on items delivered to the home
  • Return addresses on incoming letters
  • The coffee table book covers
  • Newspaper titles
  • Names printed on toys
  • Subtitles for a favorite cartoon
  • Message of the day on a family letter board
  • The brand name on a clothing tag
  • Size and country of origin in the tongue of a shoe

Once you begin to train your mind to see the many places letters, numbers and symbols appear in your home, you will be amazed at how easy it is to prompt quick sentence or paragraph read-alouds, letter identifications, consonant practice and more.

For younger learners, you might try a letter scavenger hunt. Choose a letter and make a game for your child to find many examples of the letter. For example, choose the letter P. Write P on a few sticky notes and place the sticky notes around the house or in a specific room. Encourage your child to look for the letter P on items in the pantry, on books or anywhere else that they may find print. Make it a game by awarding a sticker or fruit snacks for finding 10 examples.

Be intentional about how you use the computer, tablet or phone. There are hundreds of high-quality educational apps, effective online reading games and free age-appropriate leveled texts available. So spend a few minutes at the start of the week or the beginning of each day to set up purposeful screen time that will boost your child’s reading skills while they have fun.

Opportunities to practice reading at home are absolutely everywhere. You are your child’s first teacher and you know them best. When all of your competing priorities feel like too much, take a few minutes to sit down and read a story with your child. It will do wonders for you both.

About the Author

Kelley Spainhour is a special education professional with a decade of teaching and leadership experience. She is passionate about the unique needs of children with medical needs and enjoys collaborating in multidisciplinary contexts. Kelley currently serves as a special education consultant and writer.