Books Out LoudWhy reading aloud to a child will change their world
“I realised that, at the tender age of Not Quite Three, she hadn’t yet twigged that the squiggles on the page, the words, had anything to do with anything.”
Some years ago, a friend asked if I wanted to read his daughter a bedtime story. This was my first time taking up that role, and the ice was broken when Charlotte looked at me in astonishment as I started, a touch awkwardly, to read the words from the chosen book. ‘What, YOU know the story TOO??’ she asked, eyes wide open with genuine surprise that I happened to know her favourite book. ‘Erm, well, these words sort of give it away…’ I awkwardly responded – and then realised that, at the tender age of Not Quite Three, she hadn’t yet twigged that the squiggles on the page, the words, had anything to do with anything.
After Charlotte and I had shared equal doses of amazement, she was delighted to learn that one day she too could read something like the significantly thicker tome I was reading for myself – since words, she found out, were the key to books and the magic they held.
I’ve never spoken down to children: I wouldn’t know how, and I’ve never been any good at making those cooing noises over their cots. But I do know that they like drama and big eyes and unnecessarily exaggerated gesticulations with my arms and I love reading aloud. There’s something seriously special about being able to make a child laugh by embracing the silliness of words, or have them suddenly snuggle a little closer when a story takes a possibly alarming turn. How can people not read aloud to their children?
“There’s something seriously special about being able to make a child laugh by embracing the silliness of words…”
Have you ever been near a child and accidentally said something you shouldn’t? Chances are, they’re going to repeat that word or idea ad infinitum, and seem to specialise in finding moments when you really, really don’t want them to say it. Their brains are like sponges, they’re looking for something to soak up, and reading aloud to them gives them access to so many more words. The more words a child has the better able they are to express themselves, and in my minimal experience of Small People this can significantly reduce the chances of random tantrums.
Teachers read aloud to their classes because it teaches children to sit and concentrate. Children who are read to have much better attention spans than those who don’t. And it’s infinitely better than television: if dancing, dazzling lights and impossibly irritating voices don’t fry a child’s brain, I don’t know what does.
I read somewhere recently that you should read ‘five books to your child every night’. Crikey, there’s an ask. I realise that today many children’s books take about thirty seconds to read since they are a handful of words and a bunch of pretty pictures (I have to say that current books for children are invariably works of art; I just wish the words were as good as the illustrations). But five? A book should have more behind it than something which can be sloshed alongside four others in an evening. How is a child meant to sleep with five shiny new ideas bouncing around in their mind?
I wrote ‘Jolly Ollie Octopus’ with the intention of it being a bedtime story – and yes, I even included that on the cover. Its size is designed for sharing between two people, a Grown Up and a Little One sat snuggled together looking at the pages. The text is clear, it doesn’t dance across the pages or become extra large for the word ‘big’ or extra small for the word ‘small’. The rhyming lines are deliberately long and drawn out to add a gentle rhythm, not the stiff staccato offered by shorter stanzas. There’s a reason the final pages of the story end with a sunset (the only time I gave my wonderful illustrator any hint of direction) and a series of gentle words: as Ollie ‘floats to the ground’ so the children float towards their dreams. Yes, that much thought went into the book.
“The rhyming lines are deliberately long and drawn out to add a gentle rhythm, not the stiff staccato offered by shorter stanzas.”
You need to find the right book for the right moment when reading aloud. While a baby will be fascinated if you read a Times editorial piece with inflection and intonation, a little more thought is required as they grow. Yes, pictures are important because they are instantly appealing, but the words and the story are arguably of even more significance. A book should spark discussion and ideas, creativity and interest. It should open the door to a child asking questions and you engaging with their thoughts and feelings.
And one day, maybe your child will want to read aloud to you too. But that, dear reader, really is a whole other story…