In my house, bedtime story time means squishing into my daughter’s bed and reading aloud until one of us (usually me) passes out. It’s lovely literacy-enriched cuddle time. But no one ever taught me how to do it the right way.

That’s because until recently there’s been very little evidence that there is a right way to read bedtime stories. Before, the experts mostly implored parents: READ TO YOUR CHILD. Just spend 20 minutes. That’s all!

Johnny can’t read and neither can his classmates

Many parents dutifully follow these vague directions — maybe not as much as they are supposed to — but research suggests that parents do read aloud regularly to their young children. And many kids learn to read despite this less-than-scientific approach. But a huge number don’t. According to a report from the Annie E Casey Foundation, only 32 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading. That’s a devastating statistic if there ever was one.

Secret to teaching reading revealed!

There’s a laundry list of social ills contributing to why American children struggle to learn even basic skills — especially given the disproven method used across the country for years despite what the science of learning to read tells us — and it’s hard to think ivory tower educational research can be their savior.  Still, I was excited to hear about new findings from a reading study conducted at the University of Ohio that uncovered a simple tip to help turn on kid’s reading brains.

Pointing out the obvious while reading bedtime stories

The research, published in the May/June 2012 issue of the journal Child Development, found that using “print references” (i.e. physically pointing out obvious things like “See how the beginning of dog starts with the d sound?” and “Look how I’m reading from left to right.”) during reading time makes a huge difference in how well kids learn to read. Studies by the same researchers have shown that untrained teachers reference print in this way about 8.5 times a reading session compared to trained teachers who do it about 36 times. We parents only do it about once. (Until now, of course.)

The study divided 300 academically at-risk preschoolers into three kinds of classrooms for a 30-week reading program. In one group, teachers trained to use print references read aloud four times a week. In the second group, similarly trained teachers read aloud only two times a week, and in the control group, teachers read to their classes as they normally did four times a week.

This reading tip improves reading comprehension, too?!

After one and two years, the children who had been taught by teachers who read four times a week with print references were not only better at word reading and spelling, but here’s the weird thing: they had better reading comprehension, too! (Even the researchers seemed confounded by this.) Even the children who only got two days a week of print-referenced reading had slightly better skills than the children in the control group.

This study seems so strange — could such a little shift change children’s reading horizons so easily? It reminds me how reading must start out as a completely baffling enterprise, a kind of magic haze that kids can spend years wandering in before they find a path. With those 100 billion neurons making connections at the speed of light, scaling a vast mountain of meaning and facts and skills, their brains need a foothold, and the more footholds you give them, the more progress they can make, letter by letter, word by word.