Health

Reading is the Secret to Lifelong Health

Children need books, not apps; busy parents can't overlook this key truth

“The last book I completed was ‘Hunger Games,’ just the first one, three years ago,” said Stephen Fallon, a 32-year-old insurance salesman and photographer in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Fallon is one of many within the rising generation who prefer a number of alternate activities — watching movies, listening to music, playing sports — to reading good, old-fashioned books.

Sociologists began recognizing and reporting on this trend more than 20 years ago. One study from the University of Maryland in 1991 showed the average American adult spent only 24 minutes reading every day.

The decline has since trickled down to all age demographics. Numerous surveys from the National Endowment for the Arts reveal that the first generation of teenagers who were raised with the technological influx of video games, cellphones, iPods and laptops experienced a major reading regression.

Fallon was among that group. Now he harbors a number of regrets about how he wasn’t encouraged to read more as a child or given the help he needed to make reading a little easier.

“I always got ‘read to.’ I never read myself. Actually, it’s a fear of mine. My fear is reading a book to a child that I can’t read,” Fallon told LifeZette.

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He is not alone. The Literacy Project Foundation, a nonprofit focused on literacy, reports that today there are an estimated 44 million adults in America — about 7 percent of the total population — who are unable to read a simple story to their children.

Children who enter school without being read to at home are at a serious disadvantage. Laura Glover, a kindergarten teacher in South Jordan, Utah, said most children from middle-class families enter the school system knowing the basic reading system, such as how to identify the front and back covers, how to turn the pages, and how to identify separate words on the page.

But students from impoverished families don’t always come to school with these skills in tow. Their parents are often so busy with multiple jobs and making financial ends meet that they don’t have the time or energy to sit with their children in the evening and read.

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Glover spends one-on-one time with these students each day, trying to help bring their reading skills up to speed.

“They don’t usually make benchmark,” she told LifeZette. “Children who are read to benefit greatly. It’s one of the biggest factors in academic success. Children who spend a lot of time in front of the television don’t do as well. It’s not because they are incapable of doing well, but they haven’t had as much help.”

A number of nationwide programs are trying to help families recognize the need to put away technology and break out the books. One such program is Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit that incorporates reading education into pediatric care. Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin and medical director of Reach Out and Read, said technology is not inherently bad for reading but that parents need to be aware.

“A lot of what we see on a screen is text-based,” Navsaria told LifeZette. “Interactive apps, ebooks — the amount of text varies. Use of technology does not automatically mean illiteracy.”

But Navsaria also points out that apps are not the equivalent of books.

“There can be a great variety in the reading programs on an iPad, and not all are the same. There’s very little evidence for a lot of these programs, and parents have to be extra careful in reading the claims from the people who sell them. Very few have proper, rigorous double-blind studies to prove their effectiveness.”

As examples, Navsaria cites the recent lawsuits brought against companies such as Luminosity and Baby Einstein for fraudulent advertising.

“A well-programmed app is not a replacement for a caring adult,” he said.

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Glover agrees technology is not inherently a bad influence on reading. She uses a smartboard in her classroom to pull up ebooks, and she has five iPads with programs that help children learn important skills. But she also has a reading station with real books, and she requires the children to spend some time reading books every day.

When it comes to essential skills, there’s no substitute for reading a good book. Navsaria points out that books help children learn to navigate the multifaceted world of communication — from narrative to vocabulary to decoding text. Print media has been proven to have more rare words per thousand than television shows or casual speech, even among college-educated adults.

Just last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that physicians should now be asking parents and children about their reading habits every time they visit the doctor. And parents should be reading to their children at least a little every day from infancy.

The standard is at least 15 to 20 minutes of reading each day for children under 3 years old. Children between ages 3 and 5 should do at least 30 minutes of reading.

Navsaria follows this policy closely and works to educate his patients’ families. He brings a book with him to every checkup so that he can see how the children and parents respond.

“I cannot go into a checkup without a book in hand,” he said. “It’s worse than walking in without a stethoscope.”

When people ask him the secret to lifelong health, they often expect him to give an answer related to diet or exercise.

“No,” he said. “It’s education. If children can get a good start on reading, they will have a good start on life.”

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