The benefits of a book read to a child by a parent include better prospects at school and tighter family bonds.
Books and mortar: the importance of reading aloud to children
"I can tell which of my friends were read to as children and which weren't," says Asma Maladwala, a trained educator and co-owner and director of Inspire Children's Nursery in Dubai. "There are those of us who love reading and books and are constantly asking each other, 'what are you reading right now?' We're the ones who grew up being read to. Those who weren't, trying to get them to read a book is like trying to get them to take some awful medicine."
The long-term benefits of reading aloud to children extend far beyond a fondness for books, according to a review published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, part of the British Medical Journal, in May 2008.
"Young children whose parents read aloud to them have better language and literacy skills when they go to school," says the report, which was carried out by doctors at the department of paediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine.
"Children who have been read aloud to are also more likely to develop a love of reading," it adds, "which can be even more important than the head start in language and literacy. And the advantages they gain persist, with children who start out as poor readers in their first year of school likely to remain so."
It is all of these things that Maladwala wants to cultivate at her nursery, where even three-month-old babies are treated to story time at least twice a day.
"All the way through [the nursery takes children up to four years old], books are a huge part of our culture," she says.
"It's very much about conditioning," Maladwala adds. "The more language you expose them to, the more you're preparing them for the skills they need to be able to use and experience language."
In babies up to a year old, she says, it is less about the books themselves and more about developing a familiarity with language - "training the ear and brain", as Maladwala puts it. "One of the things we strongly encourage all of our parents to do is read with their children as often as possible."
Ros Alston, a community manager at Aldar Properties in Abu Dhabi and mother to two boys, Rex, 3 and Rafe, 1, is reaping the rewards of starting her children young.
"We started reading to Rex when he was four months old," she says. "He has always loved it, right from the beginning. We read together every night before bed. He loves the sounds and the pictures. He also really enjoys sitting quietly with us."
Books are an integral part of her family's life.
"They go in the car," she says, "they're in the bookshelves in the playroom, and then upstairs as well."
Now, says Alston, Rex can often be found leafing through a book on his own.
"He must have been around 20 months," she recalls, "when I first found him sitting with The Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson. He was looking at it, turning the pages and going, 'No, no, no, ant. No, no, no, spider'. He'd obviously picked up what we'd been talking about in the story and was able to replicate it based on the pages he was looking at, which was fantastic."
She admits, though, that not every child is so easily sold.
"Rafe hasn't been so enthusiastic about sitting down and reading. He's a lot noisier and is often busy with other things. It's only been in the last couple of months that he's been able to sit down and listen while we're all reading together."
Persistence, she says, is key.
"If you keep trying it, they'll come round in the end."
As well as helping to develop language skills, the act of reading aloud is, Alston says, a comforting family ritual.
"It's such a nice, calm moment to sit with the boys and spend some time together. It's really absorbing for them and I get to put on silly voices and act out characters, and not actually be this working, grown-up person for a few minutes."
With so many distractions, says Maladwala, it is perhaps more challenging today than it was for her parents to engage children's interest in books.
"I've seen children of 19 or 20 months who know how to work an iPhone and iPad perfectly," she says. "It's blown me away. But my friends tell me that they do books with their kids on the iPad because they love it so much. So there are ways of incorporating technology into a literacy-rich environment."
Choosing age-appropriate material, though, is crucial. "If you're reading a book to your child that their brain and attention span are not ready for," she says, "you will lose them, and they may start making negative associations with reading".
Instead she advises turning to the "abundance" of resources online, as well as local bookshops, where parents can determine what is appropriate.
Twelve benefits of reading aloud to children of all ages
1. “Getting kids actively involved in the process of reading, and having them interact with adults, is key to a lifelong interest in reading,” says BeAnn Younker, principal at Battle Ground Middle School in Indiana.
2. It helps children with language and speech development.
3. Children whose parents read to them tend to become better readers and to perform better in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the US.
4. It expands children’s vocabulary and teaches them how to pronounce new words.
5. Reading to toddlers prepares them for school, where they will need to listen to what is being said to them, in much the same way as when hearing you read.
6. It builds children’s attention spans and helps them hone their listening skills.
7. Reading to older children helps them to understand grammar and correct sentence structure.
8. Children and parents can use reading time as bonding time. It’s an excellent one-to-one opportunity and gives children the attention they need.
9. Listening to an adult read helps children learn to express themselves clearly and confidently.
10. Children learn appropriate behaviour when they’re read to, and are exposed to new situations, making them more prepared when they encounter such situations in life.
11. Curiosity, creativity and imagination are all developed.
12. By reading to them, you let children experience the rhythm and melody of language even before they can understand the spoken or printed word.