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Why books?

I’m assuming if you are reading this you are already someone who reads with your child.  So in a way, this post may be redundant.  But it does no harm to remind ourselves why reading is so important.  When the days are busy, particularly when you have more than one child at home, reading can be sidelined.  If you’re not asked, sometimes it’s difficult to be the one who takes the book off the shelf and makes that suggestion.

So, why should we read with our children?  Here are lots of good reasons:

1. Bonding

Note the use of ‘with’, not ‘to’.  Reading is a bonding activity which two (or more!) people do together.  When you read with someone, you are sharing an experience.  If nothing else, reading is an excuse (as if one were needed!) to cuddle up on a chair and do something productive.  Some children are not naturally cuddly, in which case a book can be a great excuse for getting close together.  Snuggling up also helps to associate positive feelings with books and reading – you could even have a special ‘story chair’ or cushion!

2. Learning ‘book’ rules

Children don’t arrive in this world with an innate knowledge of how books work.  Reading helps teach them which bit is the cover, where to find a title, how to read from left to right, how to turn pages… This may be the era of Kindles and iPads and the internet but books are still going to have a place in the world, the classroom and the workplace for a while to come.

3. Have experiences of the wider world in your own home

Unless you are rich and blessed with infinite amounts of free time, you cannot regularly take children to the city, the countryside, the farm, the zoo, the beach, and on holiday.  But by reading about them you can give children at least a taste of what’s out there, giving them the vocabulary and a sense of what to expect.

4. Vocabulary

The more words children are exposed to at a young age, the larger their vocabulary as they grow – fairly obvious, really!  But it’s not always easy to vary your own language on a day-to-day basis.  Reading exposes children (and you) to more words than you might otherwise use.  (Read Click Clack Moo and your toddler may even drop ‘ultimatum’ into casual conversation!)

5. Exposing them to written language

To write well, children have to learn the difference between spoken and written language rules.  Literacy teaching these days tries to explain this (which is frankly pretty difficult, even at secondary level, and should really be left well alone) but the easiest way is to make sure that children get just as much exposure to the written word as they do to the spoken.

6. Narrative structure

Even books without words can teach children about narrative structure and understanding the basics of organising a text.  Readers learn about beginnings, middles and endings, about what makes something full of suspense, and when something seems unfinished.

7. Cultural heritage

Language and culture are closely interlinked.  Through reading children can learn about their own culture and about cultures different from their own.  They can also form a new culture based on the books you’ve shared as a family.  This will become something you refer back to in years to come, so be prepared for “Mum, do you remember that book? What was it called?” Many fond memories are based in books.

8. Logical thinking skills

Even picture books for very young children require interpretation and consideration.  Reading helps to develop  these logical thinking skills and through asking the right questions you can take this even further.  Instead of asking closed (yes or no, or ‘point-to-the-object’ questions), ask open questions: “how do you think this character feels?” or “what do you think will happen next?”

9. You can comment and interact

Children’s television often shows stories, and you can buy plenty of audio books, but nothing beats reading ‘live’.  The reason is that televisions can’t listen.  They can’t vary their pace to suit your child.  They won’t stop and explain the difficult words, or repeat things that sound interesting.   Even if you think your reading voice is awful, it is better than anything else because it is yours.

10. Show them that books are important

Giving books a place in your life shows your child that you respect books and that they are valued.  When you give books a special home like a shelf, or a box, when you treat them carefully and look after them, and of course when you read them, you are demonstrating that these strange cardboad things are important.

11. Learning lifeskills

Books are a great way to teach specific skills or to prepare for particular experiences.  There are lots of books about potty-training, eating, going to bed, going to the zoo, going to the dentist, seeing the doctor, losing a pet, etc.  They can be really effective at helping children deal with new situations or difficulties.

12. Concentration

Learning to sit quietly and listen is great preparation for school.  Enjoying and concentrating on pictures whilst listening to the words is a good antidote to the frenetic busy life that most toddlers lead – and to the lively television that they watch!  That said, don’t push it.  Don’t force a child to sit still and listen or you will just put them off. Always make reading pleasurable, and if they won’t sit still, try another day.

13. Bedtime routine

Reading a story at bedtime is a great way to wind-down before bed.  Most children sleep better with a consistent bedtime routine; a book is a lovely way to end the day and to calm them down.  Choose your books wisely, however.  For the sensitive, books about monsters or scary happenings are best avoided, and for the excitable, read something sedate. For some suggestions, have a look at the books listed under the ‘bedtime’ category.

14. Speech, language and communication skills

Books both model good communication skills and develop them by allowing you to interact as you read together.  And it’s no surprise that children who are read to tend to develop better speech skills that those that aren’t.  The exposure to language makes a real difference to how children express themselves.

15. Word recognition

Reading begins as a passive activity – with being read to.  Listening to you read a book, children start to recognise the visual image of the words.  Although most teaching of reading is now based on phonics, most children read at least some words by recognising the outline of the word on the page.

16. Phonological awareness

Reading together helps children understand the sounds that make up language.  And the more clearly you read the better.  It doesn’t matter what your accent is, but slowing down and making each sound as clear as possible will help children when they come to learning how to spell.

17. Appreciating good writing

The best way of learning the difference between good and bad writing, and, as importantly, what kinds of writing they do and don’t like, is for children to experience as much of it as possible.  It doesn’t matter how many reports, information texts and leaflets about tourism in the Maldives they are told to produce at school, what will shape their knowledge – and hopefully love – of literature is the books they have read.  From Julia Donaldson to Jane Austen or Jack Kerouac.  From Eric Carle to Charles Dickens – via Roald Dahl.

DON’T STOP DOING IT.

When your child learns to read, it is not a sign that you should stop reading to them.  Hearing you read will improve their own confidence and skills and allow them to appreciate more difficult texts.  It will encourage them to get better at reading and will continue the enjoyment of that shared experience with you.  Even teenagers in school enjoy having books read to them, so don’t stop until you have to – perhaps when they leave for college!

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Library Lion

“One day, a lion came to the library.”

One of the most beautiful books you will ever pick up, this story is by turns funny, moving and joyful.  It describes the unlikely relationship between a stern but dedicated librarian and the lion who unexpectedly turns up for storytime.

Miss Merriweather runs the public library with a stentorian devotion to the rules.  “No running!” she says, frequently, and “If you can’t be quiet, you’ll have to leave.  Those are the rules!”  One morning, a lion walks into the library.  Apopleptic with horror, Mr McBee the assistant librarian runs to inform Miss Merriweather. “There’s a lion – in the library!” he announces.  Upon establishing that he isn’t breaking any rules, Miss Merriweather tells him to leave the lion be.  He comes to storytime, and thoroughly enjoys himself.

Upon hearing the lion roar, Miss Merriweather marches down the corridor and informs him in no uncertain terms that he will not be allowed to return to the library unless he can be quiet.  Chastened, the lion learns his lesson and from then on he is quiet.  In fact, he becomes an important part of the library.  He turns up early every day and licks stamps, tidies bookshelves, carries the children around and makes himself useful.  From initial scepticism, people come to love the library lion and look forward to seeing him there.

But then Miss Merriweather has an accident.  The lion needs to alert the deeply suspicious Mr McBee, who has been looking for an opportunity to get rid of him since day one, and refuses to listen to him. Until he roars.  As Mr McBee runs triumphantly to report his rule-breaking the lion hangs his head and leaves.  Will he ever come back?

There are so many things to love about this book.  The illustrations (by Kevin Hawkes) are beautiful, from the astonished Mr McBee being roared at to the dismally wet lion gazing at the library through the pouring rain.  The story is long, making it a great book for really avid young readers and giving plenty to discuss for those using it in school.  It’s a wonderful vehicle for learning to understand rules: they must be followed, but sometimes, if you have to help a friend in trouble, it is right to break them.  The writing is fluent, elegant and sophisticated.  So many books treat children as though they are incapable of inference and must have everything spelled out for them, but one joy of reading lies in reading between the lines and figuring out what’s going on yourself.  In Library Lion the emotion is subtle and understated, and all the more moving for it.  Bereft without her lion, we are not told how Miss Merriweather feels but it is absolutely evident from the text:

“One evening, Mr McBee stopped at Miss Merriweather’s office as he was leaving the library. ‘Can I do anything for you before I go, Miss Merriweather?’ he asked her.

‘No, thank you,’ said Miss Merriweather.  She was looking out of the window.  Her voice was very quiet.  Even for the library.”

This is a wonderful opportunity for children to talk about their understanding of the text beyond the literal and obvious, and as such a real introduction to ‘proper’ reading.  Its ending is a joyful celebration of friendship and acceptance.  One to buy and cherish.

There is more about Library Lion on Michelle Knudsen’s website, along with just a few of the positive reviews it received at publication.