My personal reflections on reading to young children
I believe reading to children at a young age is beneficial in language acquisition. Children read to at an early age will speak well, ie have larger vocabularies and increased comprehension as they have heard the language constantly; their speech development will be enhanced by hearing speech patterns and rhythms in the reading. I suspect they will also read better and earlier than they would have if they weren't read to, as reading to children leads to better vocab and this leads to reading success. I had children in class who weren't read to at a young age and still did well at school but I imagine how much better they may have done if they were. I found that children who had parents (usually older) who spent the time to read to them when they were very young could already read before they started in my reception class and achieved far higher scores. The ability to learn and solve problems is increased in children who are read to as stories have problems in them to solve, and so the children learn this process. They also learn sequencing from stories read to them, as a written story is the same each time and in general, stories have a structure ie orientation, complications, and resolution. Without realising it children who are read to are picking up all these cues. They would have increased image recognition too from seeing illustrations. I believe children who are read to, go on to read well, and then are better writers. Repetition and rhythms are beneficial for language acquisition. Pretend play is helped too and increased imagination.
I'd start reading to children from birth. I know some parents read to their babies in the womb but I've heard there is no research yet that proves this works. I played the piano a lot when I was pregnant and my children settled better when they heard music after they were born and I also believe they knew our voices too. I think reading to them from a young age helps babies know voices, speech patterns, tones, rhythms. At this age it may not matter what is being read to the baby – even read your own novel to them – at least they are hearing rhythms and getting used to speech patterns. It also gives comfort.
The advantage of the social contact that reading gives also is conducive to cognitive development – children feel loved and confident in their efforts. They will have a healthy sense of well-being and self-esteem and will want to explore and achieve. Emotional closeness and comfort and the shared interest that comes from sharing books together is helpful.
I'd suggest to let young children set the pace when reading, ie don't force it. Obviously a baby has no say in whether she is read to or not but an eighteen-month-old may only sit for a few minutes. Keep it an enjoyable and warm activity.
Mem Fox's book, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever (2001) is a good resource on reading to children. There is a DVD too which is quite entertaining.