This is the final instalment of a 3-part article I’ve written for Autus Books on the importance of reading to children. You can read Part One on my blog or on the Autus website. You can read Part Two on my blog or on the Autus website. You can read the original version of this article here.
In his book Raising Kids Who Read, Daniel Willingham says that “When you think of activities parents might undertake to develop their child’s knowledge, reading aloud is probably high on your list”. And, he says, “there’s good evidence that read-alouds help toddlers gain broader vocabulary and understand more complex syntax”.
When the National Academy of Education in the US commissioned a report on reading in 1985, the authors – ten prominent reading researchers – named reading aloud as the most important activity to get more children reading.
Reading your child a bedtime story is clearly important, so what’s the secret of a really good one..?
An article in The Telegraph in August 2015 claimed to have discovered a formula for the ultimate bedtime story. A study of 2000 parents and their children concluded that the perfect bedtime story should last just 8.6 minutes long and include a dragon, a wizard and a fairy, and revolve around a mythical castle.
The children who were interviewed as part of the study said that they enjoyed a brief moment of peril where the hero was endangered before ultimately triumphing over the forces of evil. They also said a happy ending was essential. Over half the children surveyed thought that stories were more entertaining when the storyteller adopted different voices for each character, and a quarter of the children surveyed said they expected to have the story acted out for them.
Story-telling expert Alex Charalambous told the newspaper that, “It’s a good idea to establish a steady bedtime routine that includes reading a story. As the research shows, the familiarity of a classic tale draws children in and the happy ending makes for a pleasant night’s sleep.”
Willingham says that, although the benefits of reading to children might not be evident until they’re a little older, there’s no reason not to read to a newborn, and by ‘newborn’ he means “just home from the hospital”.
The American Academy of Pediatrics certainly recommends reading to newborn babies because, if nothing else, it is a good excuse to hold your baby. If you don’t read to your newborn, then the best time to start reading to your child is from three months because at birth babies’ vision is 20/500 (meaning they can see at twenty feet what an adult with good vision sees at five hundred feet) and they don’t have typical colour vision. However, they develop colour vision at around three months and it’s also at this age that they start to be able to focus better. What’s more, babies are much more social at three months than at three days.
Willingham says that reading to small children also helps to establish a bedtime ritual by sharing something the parent and child both enjoy and that helps them to unwind and prepare for sleep.
If your goal is to help your very young child to learn vocabulary, then – Willingham says – “your best bet is a book with one object per page” and to “read the label while pointing to the object… just say ‘cat’ not ‘look, there’s a cat. You have a cat too, don’t you?’”
If you’re concerned about maximising the chances of your child learning from reading aloud, Willingham says, you should consider using a technique called dialogic reading: “Dialogic reading makes it more likely that kids will learn new vocabulary and more complex sentence syntax from read-alouds,” he says. The four steps of dialogic reading form the acronym PEER, which stands for:
P rompt the child to say something about the book.
E valuate the child’s response.
E xpand the child’s response with new information.
R epeat the prompt.
If you’re reading a picture book and there is a barnyard scene, Willingham explains:
“You might point to a tractor and ask, ‘What’s that?’ (the Prompt). The child replies, ‘It’s a truck.’ You say, ‘Yes, it’s a type of truck’ (the Evaluation). ‘That type of truck is called a tractor’ (the Expansion). “Can you say tractor?’ (the Repetition). There are lots of different prompts you might use; not all prompts ask the child to identify something. You might ask the child to relate something in the book to his own experience. You might ask him to describe what’s happening in the picture. You can ask at the end of a book what happened to one of the characters.”
Willingham concedes that some parents will find dialogic reading somewhat too formal and that it might take some of the fun out of the bedtime story, but he says that dialogic reading has been thoroughly studied and proven to have a big impact. “Not only does it show more benefit to kids’ language ability than simply reading aloud,” he says; “the latter often doesn’t show much positive impact at all”.
However, before I undo all my good work in advocating for the bedtime story, please bear in mind that the research Willingham cites is from studies with a relatively short duration. Willingham says that “reading aloud, even if it’s casually done, is still of value over the long term…so if dialogic reading really rubs you the wrong way, don’t feel that’s the only way you can read to your two-year-old. Or do dialogic reading on occasion to feel it out.”
So we know reading to your child has educational benefits and we know there is a formula for a really great story…but what’s the best way – if we’re not comfortable with dialogic reading – of reading aloud?
In the article I cited earlier, The Telegraph shared eight tips for reading bedtime stories. These were as follows:
1. For the first 30 seconds, create sounds to set the scene – like a door banging (Bang!) or an owl tooting (tweet-to-wooo). Add narration in between these sounds to draw your child in and capture their interest immediately.
2. Ask your child if they can guess where the story is set and what might happen in this story. Predicting the events help children with understanding more about the story.
3. Now you can begin the story with an opening line such as ‘A long, long time ago’, ‘In a far off land…’ Say these slowly and smoothly and in your natural voice as you are narrating. Describe the characters by using words such as ‘She had luscious, long locks’ or ‘His voice was as gruff as a bear’s’.
4. As the story progresses, add noisy sounds to make the story more animated. Whoosh! Clang! Weeeeee! AHHHHHH!!!! The more involved you are, the more fun you and your child will have.
5. You are now about half way through and building up to the most exciting part of the story. Say some parts louder, quieter or even sing parts. Using your eyes and facial expression will enable your voice to sound more expressive. You could pick up the pace by speaking faster which should keep your child on the edge of their bed!
6. Remember to change your voice for different characters e.g. go high for the fairy or low for the menacing dragon. You could ask your child to join in on parts that are repeated, e.g.” I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”
7. Now heading towards the last minute of the story, you should slow the pace of your storytelling and use a quieter voice so that your child knows it is coming to an end. Your voice needs to be smooth, gentle and breathy; this will relax your child and promote sleepiness.
8. When the story ends, ask your child what their favourite part was. They may have questions themselves. Make sure you answer them as they may not be able to sleep if they have unanswered questions!
Willingham, meanwhile, says, “Even if you’re not going to use a prescribed method of reading aloud, I think some principles are worth your consideration…” For example:
Having a consistent time for reading will help ensure that it actually happens. Before bed is a natural time, but if that doesn’t work for your family, find another time. Maybe Dad reads aloud while Mom cooks dinner, or vice versa. When selecting books, be alert to themes that may make your child uncomfortable (e.g., books that are emotionally intense). Don’t neglect your own preferences. Bring home lots of books from the library so that you can quit a book your child doesn’t like.
If you want to snuggle, you’ll probably position the book so your child can see the pictures. If not, consider facing your child so he can’t see the pictures as you read. Instead, you read what’s on the page and then turn the book so he can see the pictures. That way he’s focusing on one thing at a time (story, then pictures). Point out the title and the name of the author and illustrator. Read a little more slowly than you think you need to. Remember that even simple stories are probably cognitively challenging for your child. For that reason, don’t balk if your child wants to hear the same story again and again. It may well be that he simply didn’t get all the details on the first or even the third listening. If the repetition drives you crazy, suggest that you alternate the favourite book with a new one. Don’t demand perfect behaviour, but if your child is obviously not listening, just stop reading. Don’t say, “Settle down!” or, “I can’t read it you’re not paying attention.” Just wait. If he doesn’t care that you’ve stopped, ask if he’d rather hear another book. If your child is a habitual squirmer, consider asking her to act out the actions described in the story. That may provide an outlet for movement while keeping her mind on the narrative. If he wants to hold the book or turn the pages, let him, even if it makes it hard for you to read. He’ll probably focus more on the page turning than the story, but this will be a phase that won’t last long. If you get into a book and feel it’s too hard—long descriptive passages, lots of unfamiliar words—edit as you read. You can also stop and summarise something for your child. Or ask her if she understands what just happened. Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Don’t be self-conscious. Ham it up. If you don’t seem enthusiastic about and interested in the story, why should your child be?
The Book Trust have some downloadable guides to help parents read to babies, toddlers, and children who are learning to read by themselves…
For babies, the Book Trust advocates choosing bright, touchy-feely books with different textures and colours. They say you should encourage your baby to touch the book as you read and talk about the pictures – they’ll like the look and feel of it. They say you should choose books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition because hearing rhyming words will help them later when they learn to read. You should say the words a little more slowly than you would usually talk in order to help your baby hear the sounds you are making. They say you should read your baby’s favourite books over and over again and try to use funny voices and make silly noises. Finally, they say you don’t always have to ‘read’ a book because pictures are also very important and help to tell the story. You should ask questions about the pictures or the characters, like ‘Can you see the cow?’ ‘Does the bear look tired?’ At this age you’ll be giving the answers yourself but you will be helping your baby to learn lots of new words.
When reading to toddlers, the Book Trust says you should choose books with rhyme and repetition because they encourage your toddler to join in – this will help them later when they are learning to read. You should let your child choose the books they want you to share with them – it will make them feel involved. You should share books about things that excite your child like trains, football or fairies. When reading, you should sit close together, somewhere cosy. It doesn’t have to be in bed but it’s best to switch off the TV. They suggest using funny voices and making silly noises. Your child loves the sound of your voice so try not to be embarrassed or shy, they say. Let your child join in and tell you what’s happening. Ask questions like ‘What do you think will happen next?’ and ‘How do you think she feels about that?’ – Give your toddler plenty of time to answer. You should encourage young children to hold a book and turn the pages as you read. Books with flaps are great for getting children involved.
When supporting children who are starting to read by themselves, the Book Trust has the following advice… If your child brings a reading book home from school, encourage them to share their book with you first, so that you can help with any words they find difficult. Involve your child by letting them choose the book – don’t worry if you think it’s too young. Start to share exciting books with chapters – continue reading aloud even when they can read by themselves as this helps them learn new words. Children love to revisit stories they enjoyed when they were younger. This is a sure sign that they have enjoyed you reading aloud to them and they may have a go at reading some of them to you. You should let them ask questions – it’s a great way for children to learn to understand what’s happening in a story – an essential part of learning to read. It’s great to relate a story to real life, too, such as, ‘Do you remember when we saw a dog like that…?’
Disney’s Winnie the Pooh Story-telling Academy (yes, there really is such a thing), has some wise words of advice, too…
Their website says that reading a bedtime story helps parents to bond with their children: “Storytime is the perfect way to build relationships with your children. Having a regular time slot each day or if you’re pushed for time, once a week can help you prioritise story time. Sitting down with your children and sharing a story is a fantastic way of spending some quality time together.”
They say reading stories helps build the blocks of language: “Storytelling aids children in the learning of language in a fun and relaxed way. From a very early age, showing children images from a picture book and labelling each object by its name (be it a table, a house or a dog) helps children learn what everyday items are called. As you look at your children’s favourite picture book together with them over and over again they become familiar and comfortable with basic vocabulary. Children learn language much better by hearing it spoken than by reading what is written on a page. Most stories for younger children contain a variety of simple sentence structures that are repeated throughout a story. This repetition is very effective at reinforcing the basic building blocks of language – nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.”
They say that reading stories helps your child to develop ’emotional intelligence’: “Stories have always been a great way of teaching people about life. They help children gain an understanding of different situations and the corresponding emotions they might feel – the beauty of this is that it all happens through the safety of a story.”
They say that reading fosters a vivid imagination: “Everyone will agree that one of the most exciting things about being a child is having a vivid imagination. Our imaginations are closely linked to our wishes, hopes and dreams. Stories stimulate the imagination and open up a while world of ideas to children. A great imagination helps children develop creativity and begin to think about what might be in store for them in the future.”
They say that reading helps promote a sharp memory: “All stories have a narrative: a clear beginning, a middle and an end, and the repetition in stories you tell your children can really help them to develop their memory skills. There are simple ways you can encourage this, from simply repeating key sentences in a story to asking children to retell the events of a story after you have read it to them.”
They say that reading helps children to hold reasoned conversations: “Story time isn’t just about telling the story itself, but also about the conversations it encourages with your children through questions. Having a chat with your children about the story you have just told will help them to begin to understand the basic principles of having a reasoned conversation: formulating ideas, giving reasons for why they feel a certain way about a character in the story and communicating their points of view.”
They say that reading helps children learn to concentrate: “Shutting out all other distractions and sitting down to a relaxed and cost story with your child is a great way to help him or her to develop concentration and focus. The skills of listening and attentiveness are essential for learning in the more formal setting of a nursery or school.”
They say that reading helps create a sense of belonging: “Of course you don’t just have to read your children stories just from books some of the most enjoyable stories are personal ones about your own family, which include your child. These stories also have an extra benefit in that telling your children stories about their parents of their grandparents can help them to develop a sense of belonging in the world, which in turn aids self-esteem and confidence.”
They say that reading helps children to develop social skills: “Most stories contain a little pearl of wisdom or moral – a lesson in how we ought to live. Telling such stories and talking about them with your child will help him or her to develop a sense or fight and wrong and to think about the best ways to interact with other people.”
And they say that reading helps children to develop a routine: “Many parents know how difficult it can be to encourage their children to wake up at a sensible hour and to go to bed on time. Sharing stories with your children regularly before bedtime can help them to look forward to going to bed as well as relax and unwind after they day’s activities before drifting off to a peaceful sleep.”
My personal advice would be to start reading to your child as early as possible. Make sure you do so regularly and regard reading a story as part of your child’s essential nourishment – you wouldn’t claim to be too busy to feed your child so don’t cite tiredness or busyness as an excuse for not reading to your child. A story doesn’t have to be told at bedtime if the timing is a struggle. If you work late, carve out other corners of the day to share a special moment. And if all else fails, find some time at the weekend – perhaps on a Saturday morning in bed – to share a good book.
Don’t regard reading to your child as a chore – regard it as a great opportunity to enjoy a good book, perhaps to read all those books you missed out on the first time around when you were a child, the books you want to read but would be embarrassed to be seen with whilst on the train or by the pool on holiday.
Don’t be afraid to read challenging books with vocabularies wider than your child’s own. Children may not understand every word but they will understand what’s happening and will also begin to gain exposure to new words. I have just read George’s Marvellous Medicine to my four-year-old and, although she wasn’t keen to begin with because it was much longer and had far more words on the page than, say, The Gruffalo, she soon threw herself into the story and couldn’t wait for the next instalment. I even caught her telling her mother all about the wicked old lady who grew so tall her head poked out of the roof.
Finally, – and this is a lesson I need to heed, too – when your child gets older and can confidently read alone, don’t stop reading to them. We all enjoy being told a story, so keep doing it as long as possible and let them read to you, too.
Over the course of three articles, I’ve written about the importance of the bedtime story. Reading to your child really matters, I’ve argued, because books are both an escape (taking your child to new worlds, opening up new hopes and dreams, and endless possibilities) and an education (their love of reading will feed their love of learning). Reading together is also a great way for parents to bond with their children, to share special moments tucked into the corners of a busy week. But, of course, the most important benefit of reading to children is that it develops their literacy – it helps them to get better at reading and writing. And, hot off the press at the time of writing, illiteracy is in the news again…
A BBC report in September 2015 said that a coalition of charities and businesses was calling on world leaders to make tackling illiteracy a global priority. The Project Literacy alliance claimed that 11% of the world’s population was unable to read or write and this is a major barrier to economic development, costing £1.25 trillion per year. The campaign also argued that literacy was linked to better health, reducing crime, job opportunities and democratic engagement. The impact of illiteracy, they said, was inequality, poverty and disease.
So read to your child because sharing a bedtime story will help them to economic stability, and good health and wellbeing later in life. As I say, you wouldn’t deprive your child of food and water, light and shelter,so don;t deprive them of the pleasures and benefits of reading a good book.
RD Cumming said that “a good book has no ending” so I won’t attempt a neat conclusion….
…instead, I will grant the last word to Groucho Marx who wisely said that, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
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