The benefits of taking the time to read to young children and encourage the habit independently are lifelong and profound. This is why reading to young children is so important

How much time do you get to curl up with a book and switch off from the world for a bit? With our busy schedules and constant demands of work and life, this might seem to be an attractive resolution for a new year. You won’t be wasting time either, studies quoted by the World Economic Forum in June 2019 outlined how adults can do themselves a favour by reading books – building empathy, warding off dementia and even living longer. While the advantages of book reading have been the subject of recent review for adults, the importance of introducing young children to the world of books have long been recognised.

For a child, reading a book independently opens up a whole world of discoveries and wider interests, as well as helping them to develop confidence and access opportunities on their educational journey. But for many children, a lack of basic literacy prevents them from developing crucial life skills they need. The National Literacy Trust has worked tirelessly since its establishment in 1998 in researching the issues concerned with literacy, as well as developing ways to promote reading. Most recently, it has focused on encouraging language development.

In particular, it has linked the language deficit of many pre-school children to their lack of progress through school. The Trust’s powerful report on England’s language and literacy challenge, “Language Unlocks Reading” (published April 2019), found that the language and vocabulary gap between wealthier and poorer children is already apparent at 18 months of age. By the age of five, children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are starting school 19 months behind their better-off peers, and struggle to catch up from then on.

In his 2018 book Other People’s Children, Barnaby Lenon quotes from a study by University of Bristol undertaken two years earlier. The study found that each year a quarter of boys in England (80,000) start school aged four struggling to speak a single sentence. And he notes that those children who are behind by age five find it hard to catch up. Indeed, 40% of the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and the rest at age 16 can be attributed to the gaps that were already apparent by age five. The impact is profound on these children’s life chances. Impacting health, employment, income and general well-being, these children seem to be crushed before they have even embarked on primary school. 


To tackle these issues, the National Literacy Trust has a wide number of outreach programmes. Lively and engaging activities are presented to families to show how simple, cost-free engagement can help support learning. And such activities are not just for less disadvantaged children. The experts remind us of the critical role in language development that is played by talking to your children, especially to babies and pre-school children. Singing songs and nursery rhymes, as well as reading simple stories, all develop an interest in language. Recent research shows how critical neurolinguistic development occurs in these first years, stimulated through communication with others.  

To many parents, spending time reading to their children is a non-negotiable. However, the recently launched Google Assistant and Alexa options to ‘Tell Me a Story’ might be an acceptable substitute for others, or during the busiest days of family life. And, in an age when children from all backgrounds are often met at the school gate by parents glued to their mobile phones, it is also helpful to be reminded of the huge benefits of face-to-face chatting, storytelling, playing and reading with your children. 

The National Literacy Trust’s Small Talk hopes to nudge more families into spending time chatting, playing and reading with their children – especially in the critical early years. The website gives guidance and ideas for stimulating children to talk, interact and read. Ideas it gives are age appropriate, beginning from 0-6 months and working up to 3-5 years. For more information, see

Further reading: How to support bilingual children