Should parents read bedtime stories? Part Two

This is the second instalment of a 3-part article on the importance of reading to children.  Here’s Part One.

In September 2015 the UK education secretary, Nicky Morgan, and the children’s author and comedian, David Walliams, announced a new government target: they want to make English children the most literate in Europe within the next five years. At the moment, nine to ten year olds in England are ranked sixth in Europe.

Naturally, most of the attention will now be focused on schools and on what teachers can do – in addition to what they already do – to help young people improve their levels of literacy. But parents – not teachers – have the biggest part to play in developing children’s reading abilities because, as Emilie Buchwald said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”

As I explained in Part One, reading my daughter a bedtime story is very important to me. It is a small gift – both from my daughter and to my daughter – that will pay dividends…

I know that, whatever happens whilst she’s at school, I can give my little girl a great start in life by reading her a bedtime story and, as her own literacy ability blossoms, by listening to her read to me. Indeed, research suggests that children who read for enjoyment every day not only perform better in reading tests than those who don’t, but also develop a broader vocabulary, increased general knowledge and a better understanding of other cultures. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that reading for pleasure is more likely to determine whether a child does well at school than their social or economic background.

Parents clearly have a big role to play in this. Parents are by far the most important educators in a child’s life and it’s never too early for a child to start, even if a parent only reads with their child for a few minutes every day like I do, because even before they’re born babies learn to recognise their parents’ voices. Reading to a baby from the time they’re born gives them the comfort of their parents’ voices and increases their exposure to language.

Learning to read is about listening and understanding as well as working out the shape of letters and the formation of words. Through listening to stories, children are exposed to a rich and wide vocabulary which helps them build their own word power and improve their understanding of the world around them.

Reading is also a gift that will keep on paying dividends…

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2011 claimed that children whose parents frequently read with them in their first year of school continued to show benefits when they were as old as fifteen. The OECD examined the long-term impact of parental support on literacy and found that, discounting social differences, children with early support remained ahead in reading. It also found a strong link between teenage reading skills and early parental help.

The study, which was based on an analysis of teenagers in 14 developed countries, found that active parental involvement at the beginning of school was a significant trigger for developing children’s reading skills that would carry through until they were teenagers. On average, teenagers whose parents had helped with reading at the beginning of school were six months ahead in reading levels at the age of fifteen. The report said that parents did not have to be particularly well-educated themselves for this impact to be achieved. What was important was that parents read books regularly with their children – such as several times a week – and that they talked about what they were reading together. This parental involvement superseded other social disadvantages and in some countries represented more than a year’s advantage in reading levels at the age of 15 compared with children whose parents rarely read books with them.

And if you’re not yet convinced of the benefits of reading with your children, Time magazine ran an article in April 2015 in which it quoted a study from the Paediatric Academic Society which examined 19 pre-school children and their interactions with parents. Researchers attached brain scanners to the children as they listened to stories. The brain scans showed that reading at home with children from an early age was strongly correlated with brain activation in areas connected with visual imagery and understanding the meaning of language.

The study’s author, a paediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital called John S Hutton, said, “For parents, it adds credence to the idea of reading with kids. Getting a peek into the brain, there seem to be some differences there that are pretty exciting.”

The study also added weight to previous research that’s shown that reading has many positive effects on young children, such as teaching the rules of syntax, expanding children’s vocabularies, and helping children bond with their parents.

Despite such strong evidence of the long-term benefits of reading your child a bedtime story, it seems the practice is in decline…

An article in The Guardian in September 2015 declared that “the childhood tradition of a bedtime story is in serious peril” because “parents are not making the time to read to their children at the end of the working day and stop reading to them at too young an age”.

The article quoted Diana Gerald, chief executive of the Book Trust, who said “Parents lead very, very busy lives. We live in a world where parents are juggling work and home life. Lots of parents are working shifts and there’s a lot of pressure on families. People are increasing their hours.”

Gerald is backed by a recent YouGov poll for the publisher Scholastic which claimed many parents stop reading to their children when they become independent readers, even if the child isn’t ready to lose their bedtime story. The poll found that 83% of children enjoyed someone reading aloud to them and 68% described it as a special time with their parents. But 1 in 5 of the parents surveyed stopped reading aloud to their children before the age of nine. Almost a third of children aged six to eleven whose parents had stopped reading aloud to them wanted them to carry on.

The children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce, interviewed by the paper, expressed his dismay at the findings, saying: “The joy of a bedtime story is the key to developing a love of reading in children. They’re being taught to read before anyone has shared with them the pleasure of reading – so what motivation have they got to learn? Even the ones that attain high levels of ‘literacy’ (whatever that is) are in danger of achieving that without ever experiencing the point of reading.”

The poet and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen believes that television is partly to blame for falling levels of literacy. He said that having a TV in the bedroom is a killer of bedtime stories. “I sometimes ask audiences of children, ‘How many of you watch TV till you go to sleep?’ and it’s well over 50% in most cases.”

As Groucho Marx once said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Perhaps we should follow Roald Dahl’s advice: “Please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away. And in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

In my house we haven’t thrown the TV out but we have, I think, reached a fair compromise. My children have televisions in their bedrooms but they are only allowed to watch them at weekends. Weekday evenings are the precious preserve of books.

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