With everyone’s work and after-school commitments, it can be hard to squeeze in a family dinner – the sort that happens at a table, with family members actually talking to each other. But we certainly have fond memories of the family dinners of our childhoods, with conversations that connected us and taught us about each other and the world. (Even if some of them were arguments).
Anne Fishel, author and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, argues that having dinner together can boost kids’ reading skills.
Fishel cites studies which show that children who are encouraged to tell stories (for example, at the dinner table), are likely to be better readers. She lists a number of strategies you could use if you want to go further and encourage kids to tell longer stories which include more information:
- Reminisce with your children about past experiences you’ve shared with them. ‘Remember when we forgot to take the brownies out of the oven?’
- Ask a lot of open-ended questions, including plenty of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, rather than questions with yes-or-no answers.
- Encourage longer stories by repeating what your child says or by elaborating on their story.
- Instead of deciding what story to tell, follow your child’s lead on what she wants to talk about.
Hearing stories can also boost kids’ vocabularies:
‘When parents tell a story at the dinner table about their day or recount a funny family anecdote, they usually include many words that a young child hasn’t yet learned but can understand from the context of the story. Children who have rich vocabularies, packed with less common, more sophisticated words, learn to read more easily because they can make sense of the words they are deciphering.’
These kinds of conversations, involving several people of different ages, are special, and likely to expose children to a far wider vocabulary than direct conversations (one parent to one child). Fishel doesn’t make this comparison in her article, but a study in the journal‘Psychological Science’ found that the vocabulary used in direct parent to child conversations was more limited than that in children’s picture books:
‘Unlike conversations, books are not limited by here-and-now constraints; each book may be different from others in topic or content, opening new domains for discovery and bringing new words into play.’
So, we guess it comes down to doing as much talking, reading and playing together as we possibly can …