Try the 5-second rule when reading to kids

by On May 31, 2013 in General, Reading

NatalieMaynor flicker photo

“Reading” by Natalie Maynor, Flicker/Creative Commons.


Parents, I’d like to talk to you about the five-second rule.

Nope, I’m not talking about the rule that says the dropped cookie that’s been on the floor less than five seconds is still safe to eat.? (By the way, “Myth Busters” debunked that one, as did researchers at Clemson University.)

I am talking about the idea that parents should offer “five seconds of silence” at strategic times when reading with their kids.

Consider this scenario. You’re reading a book to little Johnny and point to a picture of a cow, asking, “What is this?? Is this a cow? And what does the cow say? Can you say mooooo?”

The problem here is you posed a question and before your child could blink, you asked three more (and answered two).

The instinct is right. It’s great to ask questions that help kids creatively explore a book. We may ask them to identify an image, anticipate a rhyme, or guess what will happen next.?Literacy specialists tell us these are all useful prompts for helping young readers — IF we give them time to think before responding.

Yet too often, we fill the silence with more questions, hints and comments. We may even turn (or swipe) the page before our child has responded to our question.

I get that some of our haste is because we’re tired, busy parents and, at times, we just want to wrap up story time and be done. But what I’m suggesting is a five-second pause here and there, not an extra half-hour of reading time.

The value of the five-second rule became clear to me years ago when I taught in a university setting. Most days the students seemed engaged, but there were times when my questions were met with silence. Students squirmed when this happened. I too quickly filled the silence with a reworded question, a topic shift, or even a response to my own query.

A colleague suggested that when students clammed up, I should remain silent until I couldn’t take it — then wait five seconds more. She admitted “those last five seconds will feel like forever,” but she swore I would be pleasantly surprised.?She was right on both counts. Students invariably broke the silence and had something to say.

Our young readers need that window of time to respond, too.?So yes, read with your kids and ask them creative questions. But if they respond with silence, try honoring that with five seconds of your own. It may be time well spent.




Diana is a sociologist, freelance writer and mom, though rarely in that order. Her writing spans topics from parenting joys and challenges to prevention education. She writes a monthly parenting blog for Yahoo and has published feature articles on adoption, family rituals and the childcare industry for parenting publications. Diana earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. These days find her hanging with her husband and book-loving six year old in the San Francisco Bay Area, while happily blogging and serving as a reading advocate for Bookboard.


  1. Ken

    May 31, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I like this 5-second rule. In my home, we’re always busy — seemingly always getting ready for something or coming back from something. It’s easy to rush through reading and other activities until we’re really just going through the motions and “leading” our child from beginning to end. I know it’s happened with books before. Sometimes with our son (and I wonder if it’s true with all toddlers), there will be a long pause after a question, and we start to think he wasn’t listening — but lo and behold, an answer finally comes. It’s worth waiting for.

    • Diana Dull Akers

      May 31, 2013 at 12:14 pm

      Exactly — and if we stop to think about it, 5-seconds doesn’t add a lot of extra time to our busy day, but it can have a payoff. It’s hard to take a breath and slow down sometimes though, I agree.