People have been telling stories since the beginning of time. They challenge us, connect us, help us make sense of the world, and activate both our imagination and creativity. As a species, story may very well be our greatest invention.
This is what makes story time so important to a child’s development. Reading stories aloud helps children fall in love with that invention. It’s a connective experience that teaches them the power of story, and it encourages them to become independent readers themselves.
Unfortunately, the latest research tells us that the number of children being read to in the UK is in decline.
Evidence in schools
Nielsen Book Research’s annual survey of children’s reading habits uncovered that only 32% of British children under 13 are read to daily, for pleasure, by an adult. And there has been a consistent decline in these numbers over the last few years.
In another recent report, Egmont Publishing showed that 74% of children who are read to every day are more likely to read independently for pleasure themselves. This number drops dramatically for children who are read to once per week, inspiring just 29% to choose to read alone.
These statistics are concerning, especially in light of the evidence that reading for pleasure has a positive impact on children’s and adults’ lives.
As an example, we know there to be a direct link between children who read for pleasure and academic performance. But the benefits go much further than success at school. A Reading Agency report from 2015 showed that reading for pleasure can markedly improve mental well-being, cultural understanding, social cohesion and cultural capital.
Story time and the curriculum
Reading for Pleasure is now a key part of the national curriculum following the Department for Education’s own research in 2012. It’s highlighted as one of the goals of the Primary English Hubs alongside early language development and phonics.
Developing children’s love of reading (and reading aloud) is included in Ofsted’s revised school inspection handbook (2019). In Scotland, the First Minister recently launched a reading challenge for schools with its foundation in Reading for Pleasure. It’s clear that the need to teach reading for pleasure is fast becoming ubiquitous.
However, due to squeezed timetables and the curriculum pressures teachers face, it can sometimes mean that story time is pushed out in favour of using books for analysis or as grammar and phonics teaching tools.
While working to meet the demands of the curriculum in terms of spelling and grammar, we have to be careful not to turn children off books altogether. Removing the joy can have a devastating impact on a child’s relationship with literature.
We don’t want to destroy the pleasure of reading. We want to encourage it.
In an interview with The Guardian, children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce recalled a school visit where, after reading one of his stories to a mesmerised class, a newly-qualified teacher addressed the children and began pulling apart his text. She said: “We’re going to use our listening skills to try and spot his wow words and his connectives so that we can appreciate how he builds the story.”
That’s how quickly we can accidentally kill the joy of a story. Yes, it’s a funny scenario, but it’s also a painfully familiar story that carries with it a very a serious message: sometimes the unintended victim of literacy teaching is the joy of reading itself.