Right from when they were babies I read to my children.
I know that they couldn’t understand me.
I was not one of those pushy mothers who read them great swathes of Proust in the original French in order that they become child prodigies.
I just wanted my children to enjoy words, to hear words and to grow up having some of their earliest memories being of me reading books to them.
Children learn by copying. They are excellent mimics. They start with what they see around them. They can only learn to speak if people speak to them. They can only learn to read when people read to them, and help them to read for themselves. If you read to your children, and you talk about what you are reading, you are increasing their skills, you are increasing their vocabulary, you are increasing their potential to become brilliant readers.
You are also increasing their potential not to spend the rest of their lives bored out of their minds and seeking solace in television screens, because they can always step into the world of a book.
Children who are brought up in literate households where reading is a daily occurrence, where people read for pleasure, and where books are readily available, do better in schools and do better in life. It is a fact that has been measured by plenty of academic studies.
I have always read them a mixture of books. I read them what they want to read (usually something strange, possibly something boring, always something repetitive which I have to read ninety eight times). I read them what they should be reading. I read them what I want to read.
We get by. Some of the stuff they want to read turns out to be awful. We abandon it. Some of the stuff they should be reading turns out to be awful. We abandon it. Some of the stuff I want to read them bores them witless. We abandon it. Me with greater reluctance than them. We try other things.
Over the thirteen years I have been a parent, we have built up a vast and encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s literature. It is fantastic. We recommend books to each other. We try things. We suck it and see. Sometime I go into my twelve year old’s room to find the five year old ransacking the book shelves. He has an extraordinary, and to me, entirely inexplicable, fondness for Jacqueline Wilson. Sometimes I go into the five year old’s room to find the eight year old and the twelve year old hunkered down reading all the old stories I used to read to them, and reminiscing.
It makes me very, very happy.
I have never been a person who believes in ‘age appropriate’ books. I fizz with rage when I see children running up to parents in book shops and libraries asking to buy or borrow a book and the parent looking at the age appropriate sticker or warning and then telling the child to put the book back without even looking at what it is about.
Don’t get me wrong. There are things, like hard core pornography, and Stephen King’s back catalogue that it’s probably best for your child not to see until they are of an age to get their head around it with some degree of sophistication. But is it really going to warp their brain forever if they read Charlotte’s Web when they’re six instead of twelve, or if they tackle Wuthering Heights when they’re eight?
I doubt it.
In my experience, if a child is struggling with a book, or not enjoying a book they do the sensible thing and put it back. The rarely feel any obligation to stoically wade through War and Peace unless there is an adult standing over them, nagging at them about it. They will simply put it down and find something else they do like reading.
Usually the things you worry about them reading are not the things that affect them at all. We forget, sometimes, that we see things through the eyes of a grown up. We imagine sophisticated worries that have probably never occurred to our children to worry about. We think they are going to be harmed by them because it is what we fear, not what they fear. They worry about whether the Borrowers are going to come up through the hole in the sink and steal the soap. It is we who worry about murderers.
If my children ask me if they can read a book I have doubts about, we sit down and look at it together. If I think they might struggle with it, I try to tactfully suggest something more appropriate to their interests. If they do not take the hint, and it does not cost ninety quid, I usually give in gracefully. It’s not a big deal.
My son, who is five, takes great mountains of books to bed with him. Some of them are age appropriate, some of them are not. Sometimes I go to tuck him up and find him reading a novel by, say John Le Carre. I don’t worry about it doing him any harm. He cannot read that well, and even if he could read that well, his comprehension of the world of Seventies espionage is so poor, it might as well be written in Dutch.
I love to see his face as he sits there in bed, self importantly propped up on the pillows with his book. He sits solemnly, nodding and staring at the pages as he whizzes through it at the speed of light. He reads them like those flick books where if you flick the pages fast enough you see a woman eating a cake and then exploding.
Sometimes he is doing this holding the book upside down.
It doesn’t matter.
I sit on the end of the bed and ask him how he is liking the book. He tells me all about it. It is invariably something he has made up from random scraps he has heard over the day, and what he thinks the book might be about based on the cover art.
We talk about it.
Usually, just as I am about to tuck him up, he decides that he has ‘finished’ that book. He tosses it casually onto the floor. He informs me that he is a much better reader than me, and that he can read far more quickly than me.
I agree with him. I praise his super quick reading skills. I say I am delighted that he has learned to read so quickly. I say that he is very clever.
He puffs up with pride.
It helps him to believe that he is an excellent reader.
This belief does not last. He cannot read so many things it is not like he is going to suddenly forget that he can’t really read, but the belief that I think he can boosts his confidence. It allows him to know that he can pick up any book and give it a go. There is nothing taboo, there is nothing too difficult, there is nothing he cannot read.
It empowers him.
So. In short.
- Read to your children as often as you can.
- Talk to your children about what you are reading together.
- Talk to your children about what they are reading.
- Let your child try reading whatever they want.