From crib to school: the importance of reading to babies

Neil Béchervaise

In 1984, Arthur Applebee, in an editorial Musing in Research in the Teaching of English (18.1) complained that English educators were strong on observation, description and conjecture but short on taking up the challenge of expounding theories which might be used as a basis for understanding the observations we make. Applebee's cris ce couer has implications which are echoing with increasing intensity through the halls of an increasingly literacy-conscious fraternity of policy-makers and on an international scale.

The purpose of this paper is to propose a psychodynamic theory of readership and, subsequently, literacy as it is initiated and confirmed from earliest childhood.

Derived from ongoing research initiated in the early 1980s and first reported in 1986, this paper describes mechanisms by which reader development incorporates and substantiates discriminatory structures. The paper then explores the impact of critical emotional events and physiological conditions on reading development. In conclusion, implications for literacy policy-makers, family care providers and early childhood educators are outlined.


By now, we are all familiar with the notion that, despite several vocal detractors, reading is a natural activity (Williams, 1990), that if we read to children then they will grow up to be happy, healthy readers. The popular media support the notion; writers as diverse in their approach as Snowball (1982), Trelease (1984) and Meek (1988) reinforce the notion and the findings of researchers such as Clark (1976), Applebee (1978), Cronin (1986) and Toomey (1987, 1993) appear to confirm the notion. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly evident that the notion is no more than just that - a notion.
The process of reading acquisition is, quite clearly, a very complex operation. One which, I propose, depends substantially on the development of reading schema for both its initiation and its subsequent development.

The Cross-generational Study of Families

In 1986, I provided an interim report on a case-study exploration of seven families over three generations in which I was seeking to isolate factors which influenced the changes observable in reading habits over generations (Bechervaise, 1987). In that paper I hypothesized that attitudes to reading might be influenced by:

*attitudinal changes to education arising from developing socio- economic aspiration in parents;
*the effects of loneliness or deprivation and
*the effects of intense personal experience.

The research took place within what would usually be termed a white, western, middle-class, literacy-based society. The study involved families for whom three generations could speak for themselves and did not attempt to differentiate or represent the families by class, education or economic circumstance. In consequence, the effect of a broad disparity between families and across generations of families was included among the identifiable factors influencing reading.
In this study, the oldest respondents ranged in age from their sixties to early eighties while the youngest was fourteen. The majority of respondents lived in south-eastern Australia though individuals in Canada and England were also interviewed. to complete the family records. As previously stated, the socio-economic class of the sample was widely disparate; as was the educational standard - from self-taught semi-literate to university qualified; and the social context - from rural poverty to urban affluence.

The study was predicated in the observation that there has been a significant shift in the educational standard in most westernised countries this century and that this is clearly evident in Australia. Accepting the innate importance of home environment and early childhood experience, the study sought to identify factors which had been influential in promoting changes in attitude to reading. In other words, were there factors, events in the history of a family which could be seen as having changed the response of its members to literature?

The findings clearly demonstrated the significance of a number of key factors among which the impact of the economic depression of the 1930s, leading - as it did for Australia - into the second world war, was probably the most important. One of the least directly important appears to have been schooling. A précis of the findings can be summarised into the following ten observations.

1.The presence in the home of books which have been, and are, read by the parents is a more positive influence on the development of readership in children than any other single factor. The establishment of an observably reader-oriented environment provides the child with a pattern of living which inevitably involves books. From which it follows that:

2. Families that buy books for personal reading tend to produce families of readers.

3. In periods of family stress, children tend to use books to support the prevalent family attitude to reading. If the family are readers then reading produces solace but if the family are non-readers then books may be targeted as a source of increased tension.

4. Exclusion of a younger child from what might be seen as a family reading session may result in unreasonable feelings of deprivation and isolation. This sense of exclusion can be initiated at a very early age and, in consequence, it is worth reiterating the observation that babies of three and four months are quite capable of responding to being told stories (Ward, 1982).

5. School students who come from homes which are reading hostile and who have little or no motivation to read can be turned on to books by teachers who persevere - but, it is unlikely that the newly initiated reader will learn to discriminate better from lesser quality literature, because a framework for discrimination has never been established and so, no procedure exists for the reader to process the material being read. This point is expanded upon later in this paper later but it is this, I believe, which explains the phenomenal success of the pot-boiler novels, the pseudo-historical novels of ever-increasing dimension and the proliferation of romance genre titles observed by Gilbert & Taylor (1991), et al.

6. Events beyond the control of teachers - and often of families - are responsible for the development of idiosyncratic attitudes toward reading but the family remains the most potent single force in the initiation of reading.

7. Changes in the social aspiration of parents for their children are unlikely to produce changes in reading patterns regardless of whether the new aspiration requires increased reading. Upwardly mobile parents tend to believe that because they plague their children with the importance of reading, this will affect the child's attitude. Lack of parental modelling effectively foils such an outcome.

8. Positive changes in reading pattern take three generations to substantiate. In the case of a non-reading family, the decision to change the family reading pattern may be initiated by presenting reading as a valuable pursuit to the second generation. The up-take of reading by the initiating generation will not spontaneously generate any deep or abiding satisfaction with reading unless it already exists and coffee-table or pulp genre reading is the most likely outcome of the initiation.
The second generation reader, being read to and encouraged to read but with little evident support for the exercise (no books in the house, no observably positive attitude to reading) will accept the value of reading and of books without any need to establish a framework with which to process the reading. Nevertheless, this generation will present a positive reading model for their offspring though the quality of the reading may still draw censure from a puritanical literature teacher.

In consequence of this history, the third generation reader is, of course, born into a home in which books are evident, in which the pleasures of reading are both extolled and observably displayed. In a reading environment, the need to read is unquestioned, the need for a framework within which to process the reading becomes essential and discriminatory reading becomes a part of living - the notion that reading is a natural activity, as Williams (1990) observes, is supported in the literary household.

9. Negative changes in reading attitudes also take three generations to substantiate but the process is by no means as certain. Readers are harder to un-make than they are to make (despite some fleeting feelings to the contrary when we try to encourage our less willing readers) and evidence of reading as a positive pursuit is difficult to suppress in a home where it is valued. Nevertheless, association of reading with traumatic experience - the death of a parent, particular unpleasantry (incest) - or with an ongoing traumatic association such as bitterness between parents may be sufficient to extinguish the positive response.

10. While some people read to define reality, others read to establish that there is a viable alternative to reality - albeit a vicarious and fictional alternative. Few of these read science fiction and fantasy, more read romance and mystery stories.
Such observations as these require explanation and there is no clear evidence that existing theories of reading acquisition and development provide satisfactory explanation.

Bonding Babies WIth Books

It has become increasingly evident that parental influence during early childhood is significant in determining later behaviour and attitudes. Indeed, such influence is now regularly entered in mitigation during criminal proceedings. The childhood victim of sexual molestation, of alcoholic parents, of wife-beating husbands is accepted as having been traumatised during a psychologically vulnerable stage of development and of having diminished control over their later behaviour as a result of this early patterning.

The presumption upon which this diminished responsibility is predicated is that there is a psychological bonding or imprinting which occurs between babies and their primary care-givers which fundamentally influences all of their future development.

A similar argument may be developed to describe many of the more positive but equally influential actions and emotions experienced during childhood. The modelling of nurturing behaviour with dolls, the tendency to aspire to similar occupations, to similar marital status, to similar educational experience are commonly observed bonding resonses.

We understand increasingly how and why reading is important, how storying is important. What we still have little comprehension of is the essential nature of early storying if later development is to occur. The works of Boomer and Spender (1976), Clark (1976), Applebee (1978) and Trelease (1984) strongly suggest that storying, how a story is, begins very early in a child's development, in the pre-speech stage certainly. But it is the determined work of writers and researchers such as Chall (1967), Chan (1974), Ferriero and Teberosky (1982), Wells and Nicholls(1985) and Meek (1989) which suggests possible mechanisms by which this might occur.

A young baby in a nursing mother's arms usually learns quickly to associate mother with food. [It should be noted that this is a learned experience and that some babies do not learn as quickly as others how to suckle]. The knowledge is rapidly expanded to include the association of mother's voice with the immediacy of food. Mother, through the agency of her voice represents a source for the removal of discomfort (hunger, in this case) even before the baby can properly focus its eyes to receive an accurate image of the provider.
Mother's voice is substantiated as a source of comfort during the extended periods in which she cleans, bathes, carries, talks to and plays with the infant.
This initial association of the voice with the removal of discomfort, with the satisfaction of primary needs, establishes the initial relationship of speaker with audience which is later fundamental to the success of the storyteller.

As the comforting, caring adult/parent continues to nurture the developing infant, the rules of storying are further established. While the adult/parent carer is engaged in various tasks, baby is present. The carer talks to baby, holds baby, reads to baby. Carer/baby bonds are established through the agency of the carer's voice in association with the provision of comfort while tonal variation rather than specific content determines early comprehension.

The development of the bonding involves, as Piaget (1952) proposed, an initially continual and undirected testing. Crying brings the voice. The voice moves through a sequence of events designed to establish the reason for crying and satisfy the need. As the needs become differentiated, the crying becomes similarly specific and the carer can identify the cry with the need. Boomer and Spender(1976) describe a child lying in bed practising sound combinations, trying on the sounds of syllables and words, testing for meaning and for pleasant association with the day's events. In simple Piagetian terms this testing corresponds to the play stage wherein the exemplars of a concept are played with long before any idea of their future usefulness in ordering the world is established.

Piaget's proposal, however, provides no mechanism for development within the play stage and provides no acceptable means for the child to order activity, consciously or unconsciously, to pass beyond the stage. One is left to believe that perhaps the development is physiological, maybe maturational? However we order it, Piaget's development appears to be hierarchical but accession of the hierarchy is unexplained.

The theory expounded here submits that the development is ordered, that the ordering occurs to satisfy needs, that the needs of the reader are needs for order and the hierarchy is determined by the order in which the needs are met to reduce immediate discomfort. Once the carer/baby bonding has been established - through the agency of the carer's voice and physical proximity and on the basis of the carer's facility for removing discomfort - the characteristics which establish readership begin to emerge.

The observations of Ferriero and Teberosky (1982) that children in the pre-reading stage can identify the actions of reading and even discern the likelihood of a text deriving from a newspaper or a storybook support Applebee's (1978) proposition that children learn the way stories are by hearing them read. But Ferriero and Teberosky's (1982) observations go further to imply that the toddler learns to associate the type of story with the type of book - a point which is consistent with the concerns of Luke and Freebody (1990) for a socio-culturally directed pedagogy.

Applebee (1978) observed both the development of storying and the development of language in children but, like Wells (1981), he did not take the step which he himself demanded (Applebee, 1984), of suggesting a mechanism whereby these are internalised and ordered by the child.
In proposing such a mechanism here, it is assumed, initially at least, that the baby is physically and mentally healthy and that bonding between carer and baby is occurring without apparent problems (the bonding is, in fact, a prior condition for learning from that adult). A secondary bonding, of the baby with the book, can now be established.

The carer reading a story from the book becomes associated by the baby with a sense of comfort and well-being established in the initial carer/baby bonding. The book now becomes the source of stories which are associated with close carer presence and comfort and thus, books become associated with comfort. This triadic association between carer, baby and book is established through repetition and, ultimately, it becomes practical to leave the baby with the book as a source of story in a similar way to leaving the baby with a favorite toy.

The observation that babies will sit with books and make story noises in imitation of the sounds of a story provides further confirmation that this association occurs. That they also come to identify with the print as the source of the story and try to write their own story on the book is often less appreciated by carers who miss the connection between the two. This point has recently been most clearly articulated by Protherough (1993) in her work on the apparent interference of pictures in the peception of text among early readers.

In this model, it is accepted that the apparent bonding between carer and book need only be illusory. The book, in the early stages of the baby's development may not even be a story book. If, as a traditional role example, mother is carrying her baby on her hip as she reads a recipe aloud and prepares a cake, she may be seen to be telling a story from a book. The use of the book to determine mother's action becomes clear in the following dialogue between mother and baby,

Tammy. Mother [M] is holding both Tammy on her left hip and a recipe book in her left hand
M. Oooh, look at the lovely cake. [points to picture in recipe book]
Shall we make a cake?
What do we need?
Well, first we need an egg Where are the eggs? In the refrigerator.[goes to frig and gets egg. Returns to bench]
And then we need [Runs finger down recipe] ... some flour. Where is the flour? [moves to cupboard] That's right. In the cupboard.

In this example the content is clearly less important for the baby than the association developing between mother, baby and the book. In an alternative example, the carer - essentially a non-reader herself - believes that babies should be read to. Having little knowledge or experience of the reading level of a baby, she sits the baby on her knee and reads aloud from a women's magazine. The baby, unconcerned with books and stories at this stage of its development, can only associate what she is seeing and hearing with the source, her mother. Since the mother is providing warmth and contact with her baby, the baby comes to associate warmth and contact with both the mother and the magazine (book).

Reinforcement of the triadic association requires sufficient positive experience to establish the book as the source of the story (Miller and Gildea, 1987). The existence of the story must come to be seen as pre-ordained by the presence of the book and much of the success of this association requires the presence of books in the home. The ownership of books becomes a necessary condition for further reinforcement of the validity of the association. If the home book presence is to remain credible books must not only be seen, they must be seen to have permanence and they must be seen to be used, and thus useful, by the primary carers.

The voice of the nurturing carer, the comfort provided and the presence of the book become an integral triad, where the presence of comfort and, at bed-time at least, the presence of the carer may come to evoke the demand for a book. The calming effect of placing a book within reach of a distressed baby demonstrates the efficacy of this mechanism. And if this triadic bonding with books is established during babyhood then the fundamental first criterion for readership [literacy] has been established - stories are for enjoying.

The model is beguiling in its simplicity. Baby, book, caring adult. A triadic bonding. Very elegant. Unfortunately, while the model provides an important initial understanding of the process by which babies come to acquire an enjoyment of stories, the observable failures of this bonding to occur need explanation. In fact, it appears, the main short-coming of the theory relates to its most obvious element - the baby bonds to the voice of the story, not to the written text. While an association with story may be initiated through the conjunction of the book and the voice, the association does not necessitate a further link between the story and the script from which it derives.

Two simple examples serve to illustrate the point:

1. Hugh appears to have failed to develop the triadic association proposed despite the fact that he was read to by his mother and despite the fact that he comes from a family of readers.
What sets Hugh apart from others is that he is a great storyteller. Hugh, as an adult, reads books indiscriminately but he doesn't enjoy reading - he only knows that he should (he is an English teacher). Hugh, however, has one further feature which is worthy of note, he wears thick spectacles. It was not always so. His sight defect wasn't diagnosed until he went to school. In fact, Hugh has a significant sight defect and he cannot see print on a page without his glasses. He cannot even see the pictures comprehensibly.
Hugh's background would suggest that he should be a reader. He now is. But his physical defect, his inability to associate print with story, has resulted in his associating voice with story.

2. Jarrod is 15 years old, a conscientious and able student with an abiding interest in film and television. An avid and unapologetic comic reader, Jarrod is, nevertheless, a capable text reader. But he is an unwilling reader. He reads what he has to, he reads at acceptable speed and without obvious comprehension problems. Jarrod aspires to becoming a lighting designer and to work in film and television.
Jarrod's mother and father insist that they read most assiduously to him when he was a baby and still treasure the books that he found most pleasing.
Like Hugh, Jarrod's early childhood background suggests that he should be a reader and, in fact, he is. But he reads the pictures rather than the print.

Further exploration reveals that Jarrod was born with club feet and that he was operated on to correct the condition soon after birth. The operation was successful but the convalescent period was extended and so painful that he could not be nursed. His early reading experience consisted of mother and father taking turns to read to Jarrod as he lay in his cot while they held the book over the side and pointed to the pictures. Notwithstanding the traumatic associations between books and carers which this might have established, Jarrod has developed an association with the pictures and their colour combinations rather than with the print from which the stories derived.

A number of similar "mis-bondings" confirm the view that the simple triadic model first proposed needs amendment to account for the variations which arise when the subjects involved in the triad are not healthily and (in the literary tradition) normally bonded with books.
The revision required does not interfere with the essentially triadic nature of the association but it does require revision of the description of both story and storyteller.

In defiance of our traditional views, beginning learners may accept their story from voice, from print, or from visual image. The book may be seen as containing sensible pictures and some black marks on the page, it may be seen as containing print or it may not be seen as the source of the story at all. Similarly, the story may derive from print, from a human voice, from the radio or from the television screen.
The importance of the association made will be quite clear to us as readers but it is far from clear to many parents and to their children when they attend school and experience failures which are otherwise inexplicable.

Cultural Background and Literary Development

It is now, I hope, well established that lack of success at school does not necessarily derive from a negative attitude towards education, paradoxical as this may seem. As Sutcliffe (1982) observes when speaking of black children and their education in Britain,

...the will to succeed in school was a strong asset that West Indians brought with them to British classrooms. Respect for education is widespread and traditional in the [Caribbean] islands. Unfortunately, school failure is just as widespread ... brought about by overcrowding and lack of equipment, and an education system that up until the present has been biased against the cultural identity of the child . (Sutcliffe, 1982:74)

Recent educational 'initiatives' in England, at least, appear to have further substantiated this bias. Sutcliffe further observes that development of confidence and fluency is fostered in the culture, not only in informal meetings but also in a variety of other settings including the church and concludes that such oral fluency "ought to be transferable to school work [because] Important growth points for education are narrative, drama and poetry" (Sutcliffe, 1982:74).

In noting the orientation towards oral proficiency, Sutcliffe substantiates the observations recorded in Heath's (1983) Ways with Words. Heath also notes the concern of her communities for the educational success of their children but, in observing their lack of success, she identifies pre-school literacy training with educational achievement. Heath's Roadville and Trackton residents want educational, literary oriented success but they do not associate, do not bond, their children with books. Similarly, the Australian Aboriginal people in repeated submissions to government committees and in both formal and informal submissions have indicated

... that they want their children to be able to speak, read and write English. This is because they accept that they live in a society alien to their traditional culture, in which their children must grow up and compete. (Ruddock, 1985:93)

but, again, the Australian aboriginal culture is an oral culture. The likelihood of achieving a bonding with books remains minimal. Which necessarily leads to a rather painful observation.

The literature-based structure of the western education system positively discriminates against children deriving from oral -based cultures.
In a period when governments are stressing the need for more and better education and Australia remains the only country in the South-Pacific region with a National Language Planning policy, we are faced with an impossible conundrum: the style of education we are offering to a greater number of children than have ever been offered education is contradictory to the style of learning of the children we are offering it to. For an oral-based culture we are offering a largely anglo-centric literature based learning experience.

And we don't understand why it isn't working?

In Australia today, as throughout the world, we have faster, more efficient methods of doing practically everything except educate our population for life in the 'clever country'. We keep revising our education systems to cope with the increased influx of migrants and refugees; we keep organising committees to arrive at consensus decisions as to how we can improve the quality of education, of life itself; but we refuse to recognise that the machine we are driving is inappropriate to the conditions of the road, that bonding with the story is not bonding with the book and that just because a story can be written in a book in a literary form does not mean that it came from, or even belongs in a book.

We hold steadfastly to the post-Gutenberg belief that written knowledge is the only worthy knowledge and that those whose values are not aligned with our own are not only deficient but probably subversive. We pay scant attention to the self-evident fact that individuals whom we often require to be at least bilingual before we will teach them the literacy forms of their most recently acquired language, have already established their intellectual credentials and should, perhaps, be educated by alternative procedures if they do not seem to take instantly and irreversibly to literature-based instruction. We represent a standard Australian English as a benchmark for academic success and test fluency in this undefined language variant by almost exclusive prescription of written examinations.


The purpose of this paper has been to highlight what I see to be one of the most significant problems facing not only English educators but Education itself as we proceed through the last decade of the twentieth century. I do not have answers to the problem but I do have some suggestions. And they are all based in the belief with which I have approached this paper from the beginning:

All children have the right to an education which will fit them for success in the society to which they aspire.

Unfortunately, not all children derive from a common background. The belief that they can be educated in the same way is demonstrably untenable. The on again, off again National English Framework provides a coherent approach to the development of English education in Australia, nevertheless, education systems being what they are and doing what they do in the way they do it, are unlikely to be able to muster the flexibility which acceptance of this observation demands. Instead, therefore, they will have to accommodate to the changes being thrust upon them by their changing and increasingly complex clientele. And this is likely to be a long and painful process.

In the meantime, as English educators, we have a responsibility to respond more quickly to what we know about how children learn and the diversity of styles in which they do so. Acceptance of the fact that the literature-based curriculum may be positively disadvantaging some of the students in front of us is a first step to action. Renewed recognition of the fact that speaking, listening and viewing are the other three touch-stones of English education provides a responsible place to begin. Introduction of strategies which empower students to utilize their oral facility and their knowledge of their home culture and which recognise the strengths that derive from their cultural diversity would provide a powerful agency for increased efficiency in our educational offerings.


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