When you’re reading in the back seat, your eyes see that your book is still. Your eyes then tell your brain you are still.
But your ears feel the car is moving. Your ears then tell your brain you’re moving.
How can your ears tell you’re moving?
Your ears don’t just hear, they help with your balance too.
Your ear has three main parts:
the outer ear is the bit you can see on the side of someone’s head
the middle ear is your eardrum and some tiny bones and muscles
the inner ear is the part of your ear that can help with your balance.
Your inner ear contains cells that have hairs sticking out the top. Scientists call these “hair cells”.
Some of these hair cells help us to hear. When sound hits those hair cells, the hairs move and the cells send signals to the brain. Our brains use those signals to hear.
Other hair cells help us to keep our balance. When the car we’re sitting in moves, that movement makes the hairs on those hair cells move too, and they send different signals to the brain. Our brain uses those different signals to tell we’re moving.
Why doesn’t the brain like this?
Some people’s brains don’t like it when their eyes say they’re still but their ears say they’re moving.
When eyes and ears argue like this, the brain can think that something dangerous might be about to happen.
If this happens, the brain can get the body ready to fight or run away (scientists call this the “fight or flight” response).
One of the things the brain can do is take blood away from the stomach to give to the muscles.
Giving blood to the muscles can help us to fight or run away. But taking blood away from the stomach can make us feel sick.
What can you do about it?
If reading in the back seat makes you feel sick, you might need to settle the argument between your eyes and your ears.
One way to do this is to stop reading and to look out the car window. This could help your eyes to tell your brain that you’re moving as you see the world whizz by, and your ears to tell your brain that you are moving as you feel the car moving.
These are some of our own first favourite books. That was before we understood the benefits behind storybook reading. But we gave the books to our nieces and nephews based on our pure appreciation of the stories themselves. And thus began family traditions of carefully selecting, signing and gifting cherished books to one another.
Books may help children develop such skills and insights because the plots often focus on social relationships between characters and contain rich language related to feelings and identity formation. Books can also encourage children to think of ways to enrich the lives of those around them, thereby enriching their own.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply own many books; it’s the frequency of shared storybook reading with the quality of time that matters. But whether books are borrowed from the local library, or part of your own collection, having access to them in your home is a good place to start.
Here are some of our favourites.
Books that explore themes of love and community:Porcupine’s Bad Day by Emilie Corbiere is an English- and Ojibway-langugage account of how porcupine’s friends help him move beyond his grumpy mood as he tries to sleep in the daytime — and to understand they all share the forest. Nancy Tillman’s I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love explores how intimacy and love are tied to recognition and acceptance, told through the delight of animal disguises and a woman narrator. Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper narrates the love of a boy and his grandpa against the backdrop of the moon’s ever-present mystery.
Books that celebrate the occasional misstep in creativity:The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, and Ish or The Dot, by Peter Reynolds. The Dot is about a schoolgirl, Vashti, who goes from believing she can’t draw to a celebration of self-expression and creativity — beginning with a dot. These books would make wonderful gifts for the creative but cautious children in your lives.
Books for young budding professionals: Andrea Beaty’s books, including Ada Twist, Scientist and Iggy Peck, Architect would make wonderful presents that showcase new worlds opening up through science and design, and that show children the road to success is often littered with road blocks that can be overcome.
Books that celebrate themselves: The Good Little Book by Kyo MacLear, and It’s a Book by Lane Smith are stories about the love for reading, and the value of a good book. These support the message that reading is a beautiful thing. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston is a lyrical celebration of a childhood filled with books.
Books that don’t take themselves too seriously:Chester by Mélanie Watt, The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak, Oddsockosaurus by Zanib Mian and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen all provide a shared giggle between adult and child. Books like these reinforce the value that reading is a fun and intrinsically enjoyable activity.
Above we’ve included some of our favorite titles, but there is no one perfect book. We encourage you to spend some time talking to your local bookshop staff or librarians to find titles that will resonate in your family.
The psychosocial and educational benefits from shared storybook reading do not depend on whether the books are bought or borrowed or whether they’re new or used. All you need are books with convincing characters, good conversations and a place to snuggle up and read.
Christmas is just around the corner. If you’re wondering what to get your child, your friends’ children, your nieces, nephews or basically any very young person in your life – I highly recommend picture books.
Many people can remember a favourite book when they were a kid. Some of my favourites were the Berenstain Bears with Papa Bear trying, unsuccessfully, to teach his children how to ride a bike or gather honey.
Sadly, a 2011 report from the UK showed the number of young people who say they own a book is decreasing. The report also showed a clear relationship between receiving books as presents and reading ability.
Children who said they had never been given a book as a present were more likely to be reading below the expected level for their age.
There are lots of benefits of reading aloud to young children, including developing children’s language and print awareness. These include knowing that the squiggles on the page represent words, and that the words tell a story.
Such knowledge gives children a head start when they go on to reading at school.
Adults should discuss ideas in books with children, as they occur, as opposed to just reading a book from start to finish. Talking about the pictures, or what has happened, can lead to rich conversations and enhance language development.
The more words you know, the simpler it is to recognise them and comprehend the meaning of the text. Children who read more become better readers and more successful students.
2. Books can increase children’s maths and science skills
Picture books show children maths and science concepts through a story, which helps kids grasp them easier.
Some books (like How Many Legs and How Big is a Million) explicitly explore concepts such as numbers. Other stories, like the Three Little Pigs, have concepts embedded in them. Children can learn about the properties of materials when adults talk about the strength of hay, sticks and bricks.
A study in the Netherlands found kindergarten children who were read picture books, and were engaged in discussions of the maths concepts in the books, increased their maths performance, compared to a control group of children who weren’t read these books.
Early Learning STEM Australia has created a booklist which gives parents and teachers ideas for books that contain STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ideas. These include:
Dreaming Up, which contrasts children’s constructions with notable works of architecture.
3. Books are mirrors and windows
Nearly 30 years ago, children’s literature professor, Rudine Sims Bishop, wrote how books can be windows, through which we see other worlds. These windows can become sliding doors when we use our imaginations and become part of them.
Children need both types of books to understand people come from different cultures and have different ways of thinking and doing things. Books can show that children of all cultures are valued in society.
Children who never see themselves represented in books may feel marginalised. Unfortunately, the majority of books feature white children or animals, so many children only experience books as windows.
Children learn gender stereotypes from a very young age. Research shows by the age of six, girls are already less likely than boys to think girls are “really, really smart” and they begin to avoid activities thought to be for “really, really smart” children.
Picture books can challenge these and other stereotypes. Reading books that portray atypical behaviours such as girls playing with trucks or with girls in traditional male roles such as being doctors, scientists or engineers, can change children’s beliefs and activities.
The City of Monash in Melbourne has created a list of children’s picture books that promote gender equality and challenge gender stereotypes. This includes one of my favourite books, The Paperbag Princess, who saves herself from a dragon and decides not to marry the prince after he complains she is a mess.
5. Just having more books makes you more educated
A study that looked at data from 27 countries, including Australia, found children growing up in homes with many books got three years more education than children from bookless homes. This was independent of their parents’ education, occupation and class.
Adults need to model good reading habits and their enjoyment of reading. Giving children a love of reading can be the best present we ever give.
At the heart of every adult writer lies a novel they adored as a child. No wonder then so many try to write for kids themselves. So why do they often fail?
Perhaps it’s because, on the whole, adults are taught to write for adults, utilising the full power of the five regular senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – to evoke meaning in even the most trivial of everyday events.
This approach is less successful with younger readers, for one very simple reason: there are five other senses that speak more potently to them.
Consciously or unconsciously, successful writers use these other senses to hook young readers (and open their parents’ wallets) in ways that seem almost magical.
It’s not magical at all, though.
Here are the five story senses guaranteed to stir a child’s literary heart.
Everyone with kids in their lives knows the horror of a joke compendium: the same old gags we learned in childhood, repeated over and over, quickly lose appeal.
The only thing worse would be forcing kids to stop telling them.
It is easy to forget jokes are hilarious the first time around, and funny doesn’t mean trivial. Humourist Terry Pratchett understood a reader can learn just as much from a book that provokes a laugh as from one that doesn’t – and he was the bestselling UK author until J K Rowling came along.
Make a kid laugh and they’ll be a fan forever.
People develop a sense of fairness at a very early age, some studies suggesting it kicks in as early as 12 months. Who doesn’t love seeing justice done? For this reason, crime fiction is one of the biggest genres in the world – and kids are no different to adult readers.
Few people would seriously suggest a sense of justice should be drummed out of children, but it can definitely be quashed when parental authority is under assault. Kids therefore are constantly on the pointy end of injustice, or feel they are.
This is why Rowling takes Harry back to the despicable Dursleys at the end of every book. Exploiting the sense of justice ensures her readers never lose interest.
While not all kids will be into romantic love (The Princess Bride notwithstanding), they will have a keen sense of belonging. They have friends, family and pets in their lives, and stories engaging this sense helps them navigate these relationships, particularly when loss or denial is involved.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains a classic because, beneath everything else, it is a story about a young boy finding his place in the world, and in people’s hearts.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also contains scenes of terrible peril, as does Doctor Who. Children love to be scared by fictional stories because in life, alas, many find themselves in very real peril. Fiction gives kids a safe way to activate their sense of danger, and maybe learn a life-saving strategy or two, as well.
The sense of danger is so fundamental to our psyche that it might actually be hardwired into us: the Moro, or “startle”, reflex is innate in healthy newborns.
There are limits, of course, but no one ever ever lost a young audience by trying to push them. (Parents are a different matter.)
Everyone will have some of these senses, but some people won’t have all of them. This sense, my personal favourite, is very hard to explain to someone who doesn’t possess it. It is the engine that drives fantasy and science fiction. When something makes a reader go “wow”, their sense of wonder has been engaged.
Kids understand this sense very well, because everything to them is big and new: just note how many synonyms they have for “awesome”. While it too may be drummed out of young people as they age, it can be revived under particular circumstances. Reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been one for many avid readers.
It is easy to forget The Hobbit predated this work, and, although no less awe-some, it was originally created for children.
These senses are just the start
Hefty doses of humour, justice, belonging, danger, and wonder will go some way towards compensating for deficiencies in other aspects of the writing craft. Children, and many adults, will often choose a good story badly written over a well-made dud.
This formula will also work for other media. Take Star Wars and Avengers movies, for example: both rich in the five story senses, and both part of the Disney stable, home to many other examples.
Any author wanting to pen a bestseller could do worse than start here. As always, though, there is no substitute for hard work – and luck.
There is a hidden problem with reading in Australian schools. Ten years’ worth of NAPLAN data show improvements in years 3, 5 and 9. But reading progress has slowed dramatically between years 5 and 7.
And, somewhat surprisingly, the downward trend is strongest for the most advantaged students.
Years 5-7 typically include the transition from primary to secondary school. Yet the reading slowdown can’t just be blamed on this transition, because numeracy progress between the years has improved. So, what is going wrong with reading?
Reading base camp is higher each year
Progress in reading is like climbing a mountain. The better your reading skills, the higher you are. The higher you are, the further you can see. And the further you can see, the more sense you can make of the world.
Like a real mountain, the reading mountain must be tackled in stages. NAPLAN – the National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy – provides insight into those stages, by measuring reading skills at years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
The good news is that the average level of reading skills of year 3 students – reading base camp – is getting higher.
To make the results easier to interpret, I’ve converted the NAPLAN data into the equivalent year level of reading achievement. For instance, in 2010, children in year 3 were reading at equivalent year level 2.6 when they sat NAPLAN. This means they were four-and-a-half months behind a benchmark set at the long-run average for metropolitan non-Indigenous students.
By 2019, the mean reading achievement among all year 3 children was equivalent to year 3.0, meeting this benchmark.
Over ten years, the improvement has been worth about five months of extra learning.
Reading progress improved in years 7-9
There is more good news in secondary school. Recent cohorts have made better progress between years 7 and 9 than earlier cohorts. My best estimate is that learning progress has increased by almost three months of learning over this two-year stage of schooling.
Students in years 3-5 haven’t made the same gains. But (if anything) they are heading in the right direction.
But progress in years 5-7 has fallen
Something is going wrong between year 5 and 7. Students are making six months less progress than they used to. It’s not that they are getting worse at reading; they just aren’t climbing as fast as previous cohorts.
This drop in reading progress can’t simply be attributed to the transition from primary to secondary. Among other things, numeracy progress during this stage of schooling has increased by about six months since 2010.
It’s as if students have started skipping a term in each of their final two years of primary school, but only in English, not in maths. And not all groups of students are affected equally.
Advantaged students are affected the most
Reading progress has slowed the most for students from advantaged backgrounds. For instance, students whose parents are senior managers make ten months less progress from year 5 to 7 than earlier cohorts.
Interestingly, the student groups with the biggest slowdown in years 5-7 have also shown the most improvement in year 5 reading.
This pattern – big gains in year 5 that evaporate by year 7 – rules out poor early reading instruction as a cause. This reading problem isn’t about phonics, but a failure to stretch students in upper primary school.
My analysis also shows:
the years 5-7 reading slump is happening in every state and territory
Queensland and Western Australia had big drops in years 5-7 reading progress in 2015, the year those two states moved year 7 from primary to secondary
students from English-speaking backgrounds are affected more than those who don’t speak English at home
neither gender nor Indigenous status affects the strength of the slowdown.
So, what is going on?
Maybe some primary school teachers focus more on helping students reach a good minimum standard of reading, and not on how far they go. This fits with the trend in year 5; no need to push hard if students are already doing well.
But it doesn’t explain the large drop in progress in Queensland and WA the year they shifted year 7 to secondary school.
Maybe schools push hard on literacy and numeracy until students have done their last NAPLAN test in that school. This would help explain the 2015 drop in reading progress for Queensland and WA, but not the divergent picture for reading and numeracy progress, including in the Queensland/WA change-over year.
Maybe students are reading less as technology becomes ubiquitous. This could explain the difference between reading and numeracy. But why would it reduce progress between years 5 and 7 but not between years 3 and 5 or 7 and 9?
Increased use of technology also fails to explain the sudden slump in Queensland and WA in 2015.
Other potential explanations need to explain the complex pattern of outcomes, including the fact the reading slowdown is so widespread even while numeracy progress is going the other way.
My best guess is that some advantaged primary schools focus on literacy and numeracy until the year 5 NAPLAN tests are done, but then switch to project-based learning, leadership or year 6 graduation projects. These “gap year” activities don’t displace maths hour (which drives numeracy progress) but may disrupt reading hour or other activities that build reading skills.
Meanwhile, disadvantaged primary schools are very aware of the need to keep building their students’ reading levels to set them up for success in secondary school.
This story is speculative, but it fits the data.
Education system leaders need to figure out what is happening in reading between years 5 and 7, and quickly. They should look closely at upper primary years, as well as the transition to secondary school. This is much more subtle than a traditional back-to-basics narrative.
In the meantime, teachers in years 5, 6 and 7 should be aware their students are making less progress than previous cohorts, and focus on extending reading capabilities for students who are already doing well. All students deserve to climb higher on their reading mountain.
In some classrooms, students learn writing techniques and then apply them to a writing assignment. In others, students are given freedom over their writing with little teacher intervention.
Both approaches work to develop the writing craft, for similar reasons they work for authors. Authors learn discrete techniques from mentors to improve their skills and also write freely to experiment with style.
Studies show teachers who identify as writers have a positive impact on their students’ writing. This is because they empathise with the experiences of writers at different stages of the writing process.
I conducted a study to help teachers understand what the creative writing experience is like for the students they teach. I interviewed eight children in Year 6 (10-11 years old) throughout a creative writing unit in class to find out.
When children write freely, they often feel as though they’re stepping into a different world. All kids I spoke to talked about this experience, with one student summarising it this way:
I feel like I’m in that place, another world, another zone. So I go into that place where I’m writing. I take my characters there, this large meadow or something. When I come back I’m like, where’s the meadow gone?
Most feel as though writing is a momentary “escape from your everyday thinking”. One student felt they don’t need to think very hard, because “my head is creating that and not me”.
This other-world experience is like watching a movie in vivid detail. Ideas “come out of the blue” and “pop in and out like a slideshow”. One student said ideas “flow into words like water, through your brain and onto your page”.
Of course, you can sit down and have something you want to say. But then you must let its expression be born in you and on the paper. Don’t hold too tight; allow it to come out how it needs to rather than trying to control it.
My thoughts have been caged up
All students I spoke to talked about the frustration of being pulled out of this other world. One student recounted moments when he thought his writing ideas did not meet the task set by his teacher:
My mind is stuck inside, like, a perfect writing thing. It’s like all those sections where all my thoughts have been […] have to be caged up.
For these children, it is impossible to be a student and a writer at the same time. Being a student means maintaining awareness of task requirements, grade-level standards and rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Addressing school requirements made one student feel as though they “need to put away good ideas, and think of what would give me an A”. Another said doing this means they “can’t let my brain fly” and “can’t add my own words”.
This leads to “so many mental blanks because I’m afraid I’m gonna fail”.
Balancing the student and the writer
Most students I spoke to expressed being frustrated when free writing time gets interrupted.
A progressive view of teaching suggests teachers allow children to explore their writing world, encouraging them to make decisions at each stage of the writing process. This is called the process approach to writing and it helps kids develop their writer identities.
A traditional view favours providing students with fundamental writing skills aimed at developing a finished product, known as the product approach. This develops kids’ knowledge of texts.
But are writing identities and knowledge mutually exclusive?
The students I spoke with understood the need to learn explicit knowledge such as text structures, vocabulary and literary techniques to grow as writers. But they did not think of these things when writing freely.
Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
We can teach kids to think more like authors.
The solution may be in striking a balance between kids as students and kids as writers. Kids, like published authors, need space to write freely first without distraction from teachers and expectations. This helps them generate ideas, motivating them to find a purpose for their writing.
Then they become students. They write another draft, but this time they seek advice from teachers to use literary techniques, like authors and their mentors.
Reading aloud can help young children learn about new words and how to sound them. There’s great value too in providing opportunities for children to enjoy regular silent reading, which is sustained reading of materials they select for pleasure.
But not all schools consistently offer this opportunity for all of their students. We regularly hear from teachers and teacher librarians who are concerned about the state of silent reading in schools.
They’re worried students don’t have enough opportunity to enjoy sustained reading in school. This is important, as many children do not read at home.
For some young people, silent reading at school is the only reading for pleasure they experience.
Silent reading silenced
Research suggests silent reading opportunities at school are often cancelled and may dwindle as students move through the years of schooling.
Where silent reading opportunities still exist, we’re often told that the way it is being implemented is not reflective of best practice. This can make the experience less useful for students and even unpleasant.
If we want young people to choose to read more to experience the benefits of reading, then silent reading needs to be about pleasure and not just testing.
2. Students choose the books
Young people should not be prevented from choosing popular or high-interest books that are deemed too challenging. Books that are a bit too hard could motivate students to higher levels of achievement.
Students have reported enjoying and even being inspired by reading books that were challenging for them, such as J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.
Silent reading of text books or required course materials should not be confused with silent reading for pleasure.
3. The space is right
Like adults, children may struggle to read in a noisy or uncomfortable space.
Schools need to provide space that is comfortable for students to enjoy their silent reading.
4. Opportunities to chat (before or after)
Discussion about books can give students recommendations about other books and even enhance reading comprehension.
But silent reading should be silent so all students can focus on reading.
5. Inspired by keen readers
If students see their teachers and teacher librarians as keen readers this can play a powerful role in encouraging avid and sustained reading.
School principals can also be powerful reading models, with their support of silent reading shaping school culture.
6. Students have access to a library
Even when schools have libraries the research shows students may be given less access to them during class time as they move through the years of schooling.
Not all students are given class time to select reading materials from the library.
7. It happens often
This is particularly important for struggling readers who may find it hard to remember what they are reading if opportunities for silent reading are infrequent.
These students may also find it difficult to get absorbed in a book if time to read is too brief.
8. Paper books are available
Reading comprehension is typically stronger when reading on paper rather than a screen.
Screen-based book reading is not preferred by most young people, and can be associated with infrequent reading. Students can find reading on devices distracting.
9. There is a school library and a teacher librarian
Teacher librarians can be particularly important in engaging struggling readers beyond the early years of schooling. They may find it hard to find a book that interests them but which is also not too hard to read.
Librarians are also good at matching students with books based on movies they like, or computer games they enjoy.
10. We need to make the school culture a reading culture
Reading engagement is typically neglected in plans to foster reading achievement in Australian schools.
Practices such as silent reading should feature in the literacy planning documents of all schools.
Allowing students to read for pleasure at school is a big step toward turning our school cultures into reading cultures. Students need opportunities to read, as regular reading can both build and sustain literacy skills.
Learning to read is one of the most important developmental achievements of childhood, and it sets the stage for later school and life success. But learning to read is not straightforward. As child development researchers, parents often ask us how they can help their children to become good readers.
Parents can play a key role in supporting the development of children’s early language skills and fostering a love of reading, before and after children start formal schooling.
Even though babies may only be able to say sounds like “ga,” “ba,” and “da,” they benefit from having these sounds repeated back to them in what are called conversational turns. A recent study found that the number of conversational turns between babies and parents is a key ingredient to building language skills.
So, when your baby says “ba,” respond. You can repeat “ba” or ask “Is that so?” or try to guess what they are saying (“Did you see a ball?”).
Preschoolers also learn important language skills during play. Board games, games like “I Spy,” singalongs and acting out stories all help build the language skills they need for learning to read. When parents interact and talk out loud with toddlers and preschoolers during play, it supports the child’s learning of sounds and words.
Having conversations, reading books to your child and playing with your child are all activities that help your child build a positive attitude towards language and literacy. They will learn to connect reading with feelings of warmth and sharing. You can encourage them to choose the books, and the place where you will read them, and in turn start to foster their identity as a reader. These positive experiences support your child’s emotional and intellectual development.
Children need to learn that lines, curves and dots make up a letter and that each letter matches to a sound. Although the English language has 26 letters, these letters make up 44 different sounds. Children start to learn that the letters are paired up with certain sounds through various activities at school, and you can help your child practise when they read out loud to you at home.
Once children have learned to map sounds to letters, they need to learn to map the sounds to meaning or match the sounds to the words they know. They also need to build reading fluency. Fluency means reading accurately, smoothly and with expression. As a child gains fluency, they read more naturally, faster and more easily.
Parent tips for early readers
Most children begin home reading programs in Grade 1 and continue with home reading into grades 2 and 3. Below are some suggestions for nurturing and building a positive home reading experience.
Try to set aside at least 15 minutes a day for reading time.
Consider the factors that set reading up for success in your home. For example: What times of day might work best for your child to do their home reading with you? Where do they most like to read, on the couch or in their bed?
Practise reading books that are simple and easy for your child to repeat. If your child cannot get through the book, the level may be too advanced.
Point out periods and commas where your child should pause, and talk about using different voices. Point out different kinds of expressions. For example, if the character in the story said “STOP IT,” you could explain to your child that they could use a louder voice.
Indulge and support your child’s love of certain stories. The best way for children to become fluent readers on their own is through practice, and repeating beloved stories is one way to encourage practice.
Continue to read to your child. When parents read, children can listen and enjoy books that they wouldn’t be able to read yet. This helps build their vocabulary and enjoyment.
Check your child’s understanding of the book. You can help your child by asking questions before, during and after reading. Your questions create opportunities for conversation. You might ask questions like:
“Why do you think the children snuck downstairs?”
“Does this story remind you of anything we have done?”
“Leaped is an interesting word. What does that mean? Do you know another word we could have used there?”
Then you could mention jumped, hopped or skipped.
Some children will learn to read more quickly than others, but all children need practice to become skilled readers. A consistent home reading program can start children on the path to literacy and all of its benefits.