December 5, 2016

The short road to happiness and the long road to failure

why reading aloud to our children changes their entire life’s journey

 

Thank you very much for that kind introduction and for the invitation to open this national conference of the National Education of Young Children. I’m honestly overwhelmed by the honour. I mean, why me?

Our daughter’s career has meant that we have become the main daytime carers of our grandson, Theo who is two and half. We are ecstatic to be caring for him, but exhausted, so half a day a week, on Tuesdays, Theo goes to child care. I can hardly bear to be parted from him so I‘m always a little early to pick him up. I stand at the door and wait as the carer finishes reading a story to the children. As I stand there listening I always think: three cheers for Catherine! She’s reading to the little lambs! Hurrah! Of course she’s reading to them. I wouldn’t have put my only grandchild in a childcare centre where reading aloud never happened. I checked that out before I checked him in, needless to say.

There are educators in positions of influence today who believe that reading aloud to children is a waste of time. Such a belief is not only foolish, it’s frightening and dangerous. Research around the world has proved that children who are read to regularly are better able to learn to read easily, happily and quickly. Listening to beloved stories again and again is a step on the road to literacy that cannot be ignored, no matter how gifted children might be, or how disadvantaged; no matter what grade a child is in, or how young or old; no matter which language children speak; no matter when they start school; no matter which country or city or town or suburb they live in; no matter how far behind they are in their schooling.

Reading aloud cultivates the essential enchanting engagement with books, stories, rhymes and songs that every child has to experience before the formal teaching of reading can begin. The books that children listen to provide the best possible words in the best possible places. They teach children the language they will need.

Learning language—learning how to speak—is the most important pre-reading skill of all. Learning how to talk clearly, with a wide, interesting vocabulary is far more important than anything else in preparing children to learn to read—much more important than learning the letters of the alphabet or letter/sound relationships. Put simply, children who can’t talk can’t learn to read. We have to teach them to talk first, and reading aloud to them is the best way of doing it.

When a great story is read aloud listeners, even very young listeners, learn and understand new words that would normally be beyond them because they occur within a story they know and love, a story they hear again and again. I made up a story for Theo a few months ago in which I called a giraffe’s legs ‘spindly’. I used the word ‘spindly’ for some weeks and then thought that ‘spindly’ was really too grown up for a little kid so I one day I said ‘thin’ instead. He looked at me, puzzled and confused for a moment and then said, as if were an idiot, ‘You mean “spindly”!’

Adults tend to think that children find new or literary words difficult to understand. Children don’t find difficult words difficult: they easily guess their meanings in the context of the surrounding story. It’s like learning any language. I was recently in France and after a while I was able to understand most of what I heard, having been taught French at high school by a fearsome, old-fashioned teacher. But when I tried to speak French myself I found I couldn’t do it without a struggle. So although Theo understands ‘spindly’, it’s a word that he probably won’t use himself for some time, but he certainly understands it and it will be there in his head when he needs it.

Children also learn lots of new words, and ways of using them, when the story is finished and there’s a buzz of excited conversation about it. Chatting to children, having two-way, normal, adult-like conversations is incredibly important in developing their language. Question and answer conversations don’t do much for language development but free-range gossip about a book, if we allow children to lead the conversation, provides huge benefits. As soon as a story is read there is something to talk about: pictures, characters, plot, feelings, reminiscences, and so on. Stories tend to get tongues wagging, and wagging tongues mean language is developing, and if language is developing then those lucky children will be better able to learn to read quickly, happily and easily.

Reading to children not only teaches them thousands of words, it also helps to make the proper flow and grammar of language become familiar. Correct expectations are set up about what word might come next in a sentence; and what might happen on the next page; and how the story might end and so on. All of this guessing helps children to learn which word follows this word in that sentence, until finally they can confirm their guesses by looking at the print on the page. In other words being read to helps them in a profound way to learn to read. Here’s a message from a mother to prove my point:

My family loves your books and [we] own most of them… I find it interesting that even at an early age children recognise the pattern of a problem with resolution at the end. I brought home “Where is the green sheep?” one day and announced to my boys that I had purchased a new book called “Where is the green sheep?” My four year old said “Probably on the last page, but I want you to read it to us anyway.” Anna Starrett

Let me read you the book so you can see if he’s right. Read Where is The Green Sheep?

I don’t know if you noticed how short a book Green Sheep is, but it is short and that brings me to another point. Very often the books we choose to read to little kids are too long and involved for the age and stage that the children are at, so they fidget and we wrongly assume they don’t enjoy being read to. We need to read books to very young children that are as close as possible in length and style to the songs we sing them in early childhood. For example, let’s all sing this one…how many of you know it?

Three little monkeys
jumping on the bed;
one fell off
and bumped his head.
Mama called the doctor
and the doctor said,
“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

Two little monkeys
jumping on the bed;
one fell off
and bumped his head.
Mama called the doctor
and the doctor said,
“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

One little monkey
jumping on the bed;
one fell off
and bumped his head.
Mama called the doctor
and the doctor said,
“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

From that song to this book is one easy step: read ‘Two Little Monkeys.’ I didn’t choose to read Two Little Monkeys because it was about monkeys. That was just a happy circumstance. I chose to read that book because, like the song ‘Three Little Monkeys’, it is short and has rhyme, rhythm and repetition.

Dyslexics, who can barely learn to read, and others who find it difficult to learn to read often have a poor sense of rhythm and can’t hear simple rhymes such as ‘red and bed’ or ‘house and mouse’. So getting rhyme and rhythm into children’s heads at a young age is incredibly important to their success as future readers.

I’ve mentioned some of the educational advantages of reading to children but honestly the reason I adore reading aloud is because it’s fun! For me and for the children. Fun, fun, fun, people! I love it. I love to see little kids hanging on every word. I love to see them totally and unexpectedly silent, with their mouths open. I love it when they join in with noise and laughter. I loved it when they gasp, or groan, or grin. I particularly love it when I read a familiar, lilting story when children have been upset in some way, or been in trouble, or are just over-excited—a lovely sense of peace descends. Angry, upset children climb down off the walls and creep towards the story, if you will, so as to be wrapped in its safety and warmth. The story heals and soothes. The effect is almost miraculous.

Familiar stories also build communities because everyone in the group has the same book experiences; in-jokes develop that belong to that group alone; and certain words, original words, mad words, gorgeous words come to have special meaning in that class and only in that class. It’s like having a secret code that binds everyone together. Let me expand on the kind of jokes that can emerge. I’ll read this book first: Read Counting Goats.

When children know a story we can begin to play with the text in a way that makes them pay extra attention to what we’re saying and how it relates to the print on the page. Such as in Let’s Count Goats, when they have heard it many times, we could say:

Here we see a mountain goat frisking in the sun,
And here we see a city goat going for a run.
But can we count the beach goats? (I think there’s only one.)

The children, familiar with the story, will hear the wrong rhythm of ‘beach’ instead of ‘seaside’ and they’ll laugh and yell out: ‘No! No! Not beach! SEASIDE!” And we can always pretend that we can’t count so we get the numbers wrong. The children will yell out and correct us as if we were idiots. Oh heavens, it’s such fun! Find me a bunch of kids quickly! I can’t wait to read aloud again.

I keep talking about reading familiar stories, and the effect of loved stories. There’s not much point in reading a story once. I’m not sure why so many people seem so frightened of reading the same story over and over again but honestly, it’s essential. A story will only have an educational and emotional effect if it’s familiar, if the children know it so well that it becomes a favourite. And it can only become a favourite if it’s read again and again and again, especially on the day they hear it for the first time. On that day they should also hear it for a second and third time, so they’re eager to hear it for a fourth time the next morning.

Before I go on, let’s recap: we’re going to read aloud often. We’re going to read aloud for educational reasons, for emotional reasons, for community-building, and because it’s such good fun. We’re going to read the same stories over and over again. And the stories we are going to read to the very young are going to be short and filled with rhyme, or rhythm or repetition, or all three, like the songs we sing in early childhood. Such as this:

Shoo, fly, don’t bother me!
Shoo, fly, don’t bother me!
Shoo, fly, don’t bother me!
I don’t want your…
company!

We always sing songs in the same way. We don’t change the tempo and we don’t change the tune. And it should be the same with every story we read. We need to find our own tune and our own way of reading it and stick to that exact tune every time so the children can get to know it easily and remember it more quickly.

Another thing about songs is that they’re usually sung in a lively fashion. And so it should be when we read stories: liveliness is what it takes, not special training—just the same joy and smiley liveliness that we use when we sing. I’ve heard many a story told in such a manner that I’ve wondered why the reader bothers to read at all. We have to read as if it’s madly important, because it is. As we open a book we have to think: ‘Oh man, this is SO important! I must remember that! I have to do it well. I can’t just sit here and the mouth the words on the page like person walking through mud.’ We need a smile on our faces, a twinkle in our eyes—and liveliness!

With older children, when we move into real stories with less rhyme and rhythm and repetition, the thing that I look for most in a book is something that will change the emotional temperature of the children who are listening. They have to laugh or cry or be a little scared, or grossed out, or madly cheered up and excited. Something has to happen between the first word and the last page that changes them in some emotional way. And we need to be careful that it’s the children’s emotions that are changed. Too often we choose books that change our emotions without realising that children might not react in the same way. A story that moves adults might well leave children unmoved. The story has to appeal to the age group we are reading to.

I mentioned earlier that we have to read aloud as if it’s the most important thing in the world because so much hangs on the outcome for the children in our care. If anyone in this room feels at all inadequate about reading aloud I have a whole section on my website in which I read aloud a lesson in reading aloud. That same lesson appears as a chapter in this book: Reading Magic: why reading to our children will change their lives forever. Reading Magic also has lots of other hints about games you can play with stories and words that will make education and literacy happen without any teaching. I’ll just repeat that: the hints I have provided will make education and literacy happen without any teaching. Well, almost. You’ll have to flick though the book to get what I mean!

One of the reasons we are reading to children is so they can get to know us and we can get to know them, so we can bond and form a close-knit kind of family group. This will only happen if there’s real human communication between the children and us—a two-way process through which children learn how to talk, so it’s incredibly important to keep a real conversation going. Using technology to provide stories wrecks that bonding because the live adult is removed from the situation. I’ve had to put my books on PowerPoint today because the audience is so large that I’ve had no choice. You have communicated with a screen, not me, when I have been reading, and it’s broken my heart.

But in case you do want examples of reading aloud there are many on YouTube to choose from. My publishers have made a beautiful video of this book: Hello Baby. I was tempted to show it to you but I have decided to do the very opposite: to read it as I hope you will read books to your children, without a single screen in sight, even though you can’t see it from where you are, so you can feel the humanising difference between having technology and no technology. Similarly in Green Sheep I use the book like this: ‘Here is the up sheep and here is the down sheep… Here is the near sheep and here is the far sheep….’ I can’t have that lovely connection with my audience if I am using a screen of any kind.

Well that’s it, ladies and gentlemen. It must be obvious by now that I am begging you to read aloud to the children in your lives, your care and your classrooms so they have the best possible start in life, the smoothest possible path to reading, and the greatest opportunities available when they grow up. I want our children to travel the short road to happiness, not the long road to failure. Don’t we all?

Thanks so much for listening. I know the children who listen to you as you read aloud to them will bless you for the rest of their lives.