What makes a great storyteller? How can you make sure that storytime with your child is an enjoyable, fun part of the day for both of you? And how do you go about choosing the right books and stories for your little one?
We chatted to storyteller and award-winning Booktrust Bookstart co-ordinator Karen Wilkinson about how to help your child enjoy books and stories, and why it’s so important to make time to read together...
Hi, Karen! Tell us, why is reading aloud and telling stories to children actually important for them?
What’s the first thing we usually do when we meet a baby for the first time? Our eyebrows raise, our voice goes up and with that special smile we reserve for babies we say, ‘Hello, aren’t you beautiful?’ We wait for their answer which might be a smile, a burp or babble. These are our first one-sided conversations with children and their first lessons in how language works. Babies love the sound of our voices and the rhythm of language. They might not understand the words themselves, but they love the way our voices naturally go up and down as we speak. They babble back to us and eventually learn to say words – all because we talk to them.
Sharing a book with a child gives us something to talk about together. We can talk about things we see around us – at home, in the garden or at the supermarket and help them to understand the world around them. We can talk about things or places that are far away across the other side of the world or universe. And we can do all this sitting on the sofa at home.
Stories not only help children learn about the world and themselves, but also to learn about language and how stories and books work. For instance, babies learn to turn pages without tearing them. They learn what a ‘page’ is because we say ‘Shall we turn the page?’ or ‘I wonder what’s on the next page?’
When we talk to them about the pictures in books, we’re giving children time and opportunity to ask questions about what they see and to make connections with the world - to learn that cats come in different shapes and sizes and that tigers are just ‘big cats’.
Sharing books with young children is not about ‘teaching them to read’ - it’s about helping them to discover that books are exciting and fun. It feeds their imagination (and interests) so that when the time comes to learn to read they are eager to read stories for themselves. In this way, we can help our children to learn to read because they want to, not because they have to.
What do you think is the secret to telling a story well?
The secret is to enjoy yourself and have fun with your child. When we share a book with our children we’re doing something very special, and for those few minutes the outside world stops while we read about elephants or pirates or mermaids.
Enjoy yourself! Turn off the television or anything that will distract you. Choose a book that you think you can talk about for 5 minutes and that you both enjoy. Make a cosy spot to share the story – a couple of cushions on the floor will do. Be brave and put on the silly voices or animal noises and just enjoy doing something together.
What advice would you give to parents who are nervous of reading aloud?
Remember that there are very few people who tell stories for a living. Most of the book-sharing happens in our own homes, sitting on the floor or the sofa – it’s just us and our child/children. There is no one to judge us or say ‘you did that wrong’ or ‘your neighing doesn’t sound very horse- like’. There is no-one to notice that we’ve said the wrong word or missed a page – although if it’s a book you’ve read before your child might tell you, but you can always turn that into a game and tell them how clever they were to spot your deliberate mistake!
Children love spending time with the grown-ups in their lives. They are not critical or judgemental; they just love sharing that time and experience with us and babies just love to hear the sound of our voices. If you can find the courage to do the ‘silly voices’ or animal noises, then your child will respond and their smile or laugh will make you want to do it again and again!
What should I do as a parent if my child’s just not very interested in books, how can I get them involved?
Some children want you to read book after book after book and will virtually empty the bookshelf or toy box until you have read every book they own. They will sit and enjoy every story, turn every page, talk about everything they see on every page, laugh and giggle at our silly voices. But children are individuals with different interests and personalities. Some children are so busy moving from one thing to another that they can’t find time to sit and share a book.
The secret to engaging your child with books is to choose those that support their interests, are interactive and fun and allow them to develop at their own pace. If your child likes tractors or crocodiles, then chose books with tractors or crocodiles in them. You don’t have to talk about everything on every page – choose the pages that they will be interested in. Touchy-feely books that have textures can be a good way to draw your child into the book. Flap books also give your child a chance to share the book with you – encourage them to lift the flaps to discover what’s underneath, and when one day you find your child with the book in one hand and the flap in another, remember that sticky tape is wonderful! If there are a couple of pages that they really don’t seem interested in then then move on- you don’t have to look at every page! Don’t worry about reading the words – tell the story from the pictures and talk together about what you see. If a picture reminds them of something they have seen or experienced, then let them talk about it. If it takes you all day to read a book because you do it a couple of pages at a time in between all the other things your child wants to do – that’s fine, because there’s no rush. Go at the pace of your child, take every opportunity you can and put books into the toybox where they can pick up a book when they want to.
Sometimes, even when your child will sit for hours with you sharing books, a particular book just doesn’t work. It might be beautifully illustrated with the most wonderful words and full of all the things your child just loves. It might have even have won some prestigious award and been recommended by a parent you met at playgroup or the librarian in the library, but your child still doesn’t like it. As adults we might choose a book, magazine or television programme because of the cover, or the blurb or the recommendation of a friend. Yet when we read or watch it we discover that we just don’t like it – it’s not a bad book or programme, it’s just that we didn’t enjoy it. If your child really isn’t enjoying the book, leave it – you don’t have to finish it, just find one that they do enjoy.
Lots of parents tell us that their children want to hear the same story over and over again – why is this, and should we be doing anything to encourage them to branch out?
About two thirds of children have favourite books and these are the stories that we are asked to read time and time again - often through gritted teeth because we get bored of them long before our children do! It can be a whole book or even particular pages that simply hold a fascination for them. But these are very special books because they are the books a child chooses to go back to time and time again. As adults we tend to read the same newspaper every day, listen to the same radio station or watch the same television programme each week – we choose to go back to something that we enjoy! If your child has a favourite book – it’s because they enjoy it and they want it ‘again, again’. It could be that the cat in the book looks like your cat, or granny’s cat, or the cat that comes into your garden. It could be that the funny voice you use makes them laugh. It could be the kiss or tickle that they get on page 4. Or sometimes you simply can’t work out what they like about it. But, these favourite stories are helping them to learn that books are fun, that literacy is fun and that reading is something they want to do! Remember that children choose the same book over and over because they enjoy it and at some point in the future they will stop choosing it and move onto another favourite book!
On the other hand, if your child doesn’t have a favourite story and likes lots of different books all the time, don’t panic - they’re not missing out. Some children simply choose to experience a wide range of stories, characters, and genres. If a young child is fascinated by animals then they might want you to read animal encyclopaedias as well as stories - feed their interest. Continue to share lots of different types of books with them because this is what they enjoy!
What tips can you give us on choosing an appropriate book or story for our little ones?
For babies and very young children, start with a book you like the look of because if you really don’t like it then this will come across in your voice and you will never convince your child that books can be exciting and you will be really bored! Choose something with good pictures or illustrations that you can talk about for a few minutes. Board books (cardboard books) are brilliant for very young children who often want to eat their books as well as look at them. Flap books are also wonderful for young children – they are really just ‘peek- a-boo’ in book format and children love the anticipation of what’s hidden beneath the flap. Talk about what you see on the page and don’t worry about reading the words at this stage.
For older children you will have to consider what sort of books your child likes – do they like books with animals in, or trains or a particular book/television character? This will affect your choice, because if your child really doesn’t like a book, then they will not give you the chance to share it - they will close the book, get off the sofa, and will never bring that book when you say ‘go and get a book and we’ll have story’. Encourage your child to choose some books for themselves – take them somewhere where there are lots of books (your local library will have hundreds of children’s books and staff who will happily help you), look at the books together and let them choose one. They may not always choose what we would, but they will learn to make choices and the books will be their own selection that they want to explore. This means that sometimes you will end up reading a book that you really don’t like, and when that happens just remember that every time you share a book with a child you are doing something really valuable - helping them to discover the pleasure of reading. What you like to read and what they like to read doesn’t have to be the same thing!