What we read to children and when, is just as important as how often or how much.
Books are compost for the mind
I was disappointed recently, to realise that I have been mis-remembering this line, and quoting it proudly, for some time. I read it (or didn’t) in a book by Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler, called How To Be Free.
It turns out that in this excellent work on consumer culture and why it’s holding us all hostage (says the man who runs a toy store, I know, I know), Hodgkinson was actually talking about why it’s good to drink real ale made by small producers, rather than mass-produced lagers and beers:
‘Real ale is compost for the soul.’ is what he really said. Followed by: ‘this is also why it is important to read decent stuff. Put quality materials into your mind, quality ingredients. A diet of good writing will produce quality thoughts and a self-sufficient, resourceful person. Feed your mind.'
Books and minds, real ale and souls - the principle is the same. You put good stuff in, and you get good stuff out.
The concept speaks to me, both as an avid reader and a parent, but also a former teacher. Because while it is generally accepted that reading to children is a good thing, we often don’t hear about exactly why that is, or why what we read to them and when, is just as important as how often or how much. (Please note, this is about children being read to, and not teaching your child to read, which is of course linked, but is also a subject for another blog.)
A family favourite, through the generations. Which one did you want to eat? Great for learning to count, this is often one of the first books children learn to 'read' by themselves. The pages are repetitive and the story is told entirely through the pictures. What a great confidence boost to be able to read a story independently!
So why is reading to children so important? It might sound obvious but books provide them with language. And by this I don’t only mean vocabulary. Listening to stories gives them linguistic structures, ideas and concepts. Read John Burningham's Would You Rather...?, to your three-year-old and you’re not only delivering the vocabulary for some of their favourite things, you’re also teaching them how to ask this important question without having to figure out the sentence structure. (This will come in very handy when they’re hosting their next tea party and offering their teddies cakes, biscuits or chocolate.).
It’s like playing the piano - learn the scales, practice, practice, practice and eventually, the way the sequences become second nature, and you can start to compose your own music. If you read to them, your children learn the syntax of storytelling; the classic story arc; that things often come in threes (the fox, owl and snake in the Gruffalo, for example). Chunks of language that we take for granted, such as ‘Once upon a time’, are internalised and become automatic.
And just as you wouldn’t expect a pianist to play the same music or scales forever, so you need to keep presenting new challenges with the stories they hear - introducing different scales - and doing it at a time when they’re ready to make the next leap.
Rosie's Walk helps children see that a story is not only told with words. The text tells the tale of a hen taking a walk, the pictures the tale of the fox who is trying to eat her.
Reading to them also provides them with a bank of ideas. How can you imagine a world for your dressing up games, or create characters in your small-world play, or even write your own stories, if you haven’t any inspiration to draw upon? The better-read-to your pre-schooler is, the more imaginative their play will become.
And without much life-experience under their belts, children can use books and stories to understand the society they’re growing up in, living vicariously through the characters they hear about. Under-fives are especially interested in the boundary between good and bad - one of the reasons their behaviour can be so challenging. Through stories, they are free to explore actions and feelings that they know are unacceptable (or too dangerous) in everyday life.
The Ahlbergs' books, such as Each Peach Pear Plum, can be read on many levels. Younger children will enjoy the stories and delight in the detailed illustrations; older readers appreciate the references to other stories and subtle twists on traditional tales.
Stories can also help them see what’s possible. When I was growing up, I don’t remember the same range of ethnically diverse heroes and heroines - most were were white boys or men. But today, our children have a much wider variety of people to look up to and be inspired by. If you’re a young girl from an immigrant family who dreams of becoming an astronaut, there’s probably a book about that somewhere. Stories inspire them and build their confidence.
Knowing what’s good to read to them and when, is something most of us with young children know instinctively. But if you need some inspiration, or you’re buying for other people’s children, here’s our reading guide for the under-fives:
From birth: Start with nursery rhymes. Sing to your child. Teach them the rhythm of the spoken word.
3-6 months: go for high-contrast, black and white first books, to teach visual discrimination.
6 months: As vision and concentration improve, look at books of nouns with just one item per page Some OHT favourites include Dressing, by Helen Oxenbury and the Big Box of Little Books by the Ahlbergs.
12 months: Move on to simple books with a basic story like Spot, by Eric Hill and Oh Dear! By Rod Campbell. These books have simple white backgrounds and no extraneous detail, which helps children know where to look, and what the important parts of a story are. Simple themes from everyday life - playing at a friend’s house or looking for something - make them easy for children to relate to.
2 years: Move on to classics and fairy-tales, like the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood. These stories have lots of repetition and rhyme, which help cement understanding.
3-4 years: Once the building blocks and perennial themes in stories (and life) are in place, they can begin to break the rules and understand how they might tell their own stories. The Three Little Wolves And The Big, Bad Pig, by Helen Oxenbury subverts the original story with very funny results.
5 years +: your children will probably be learning to read at school. Reading to them at home will support their learning and continue to develop their imaginations, ideas and language. Then one day, you’ll realise it’s been very quiet for a while, and you’ll go to check on your child, and you’ll discover them contentedly reading, all by themselves. This is a huge milestone in their development, and in my experience, one of the best as a parent, too.
Toys and Language Development
The Power of Storytelling
The Power of Snakes and Ladders
How to teach new ideas so that your child understands