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Reading to your children -- even during their infancy -- is an important first step in helping kids develop an early interest in books.

Most parents know that getting their children to read at a young age is important to their future. It’s so important, in fact, that experts say if kids fail to be at or near the reading levels of their peers by third grade, they face a tougher road in school and in life.

But what specific steps can parents do to spark an early interest in books?

Julia Irwin and Dina Moore, associate professors of psychology at Southern, say that one of the keys is to incorporate reading as the centerpiece of many activities and discussions, starting before they head to kindergarten.

Reading to your children — even during their infancy — is an important first step in helping kids develop an early interest in books.

“Discussing books together creates a time for your child to share their thoughts, worries and ideas with you, to practice new words that they have learned from the book, and to discuss conflicts and concepts that arise in the book,” Irwin says. “By talking about the perspectives and feelings of favorite characters, children learn to better understand others’ and their own feelings.”

Dealing with emotions, such as fear and sadness, in an appropriate way can be addressed through reading. For example, Irwin points to a book such as “Dog Heaven,” by Cynthia Rylant, as providing a starting point for a conversation after losing a pet.

For a child who has first day of school or daycare jitters, she recommends reading a book such as “Curious George’s First Day of School,” by Margret and H.A. Rey or “The Hello Goodbye Window,” by Norton Juster.

The authors note that another way in which books can be relevant is by planning an activity around a book. For example, parents and their children can read “Gingerbread Man,” and then make gingerbread cookies together. Or, reading “Make Way for Ducklings” can be followed up by a trip to the local park to see ducks.

Irwin points out that the social and emotional development of kids can be influenced by reading, as well as the obvious academic benefits. “Kids can learn to take turns and to listen to others through reading,” she says. “That ability to self-regulate is an important lifetime, social skill.”

They share many ideas in their book, “Preparing Children for Reading Success: Hands-on Activities for Librarians, Educators and Caregivers,” published recently by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

“We have a literacy crisis in this country, despite having the research to know what works when it comes to teaching reading,” Irwin says. “It is important to put the theoretical into practice. That’s what we sought to do in this book.”