Tuesday 6 December 2016

Pure imagination: why story time is key to your child's success

One in five Irish parents don't read to their children. Graham Clifford on the true value of bedtime stories

Graham Clifford

Published 24/04/2015 | 02:30

A world of pure imagination: Ian and Niamh Fortune read to their two daughters Cara ( 3) and Aoife (8 months) every night before bed.
A world of pure imagination: Ian and Niamh Fortune read to their two daughters Cara ( 3) and Aoife (8 months) every night before bed.
Graham Clifford reads bedtime stories for his son Aodhain (3) (pictured) Molly (8) and Aoife (6) which include members of their own family and past-times they are interested in

The nightly negotiations are Leinster House-like. Aodhan, my three-year-old son, has a knack of getting me to read more stories than pre-agreed.

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"But Dad I haven't had this one for ages," he'll say as he flashes his long lashes and gives me those puppy-dog eyes. In truly diplomatic style, he has umpteen 'favourite' bedtime stories… but I've noticed if football is involved in the plot, he's even more engaged.

In truth, reading aloud to him and my daughters at bedtime has always been a daily highlight - soothing and educational.

And the practice is to be celebrated and encouraged today at the launch of the Literacy Association of Ireland - previously the Reading Association.

The event will take place at the Mansion House with Lord Mayor Christy Burke joining school children to discuss their favourite bedtime reads.

A new survey, commissioned by booksellers Easons, found that one-in-five Irish parents don't read to their children.

And one in 10 children leave Irish primary schools with serious literacy difficulties while this figure rises to one-in-three in disadvantaged schools.

These, of course, are alarming statistics given the well-recorded benefits that reading to children delivers - studies found that children who are read to in the early years are 30pc more likely to read themselves as adults while it assists the child in literacy skills from a young age.

The obvious knock-on effects later in life lead to better academic achievement and potentially greater study and work opportunities. As my children get older I realise that the ingredients for their 'perfect' bedtime story changes - gender plays its part too.

While Aodhan is still engrossed in wonderfully illustrated Julia Donaldson classics such as The Smartest Giant in Town and Tiddler, my daughters Molly (8) and Aoife (6) have progressed to more plot-heavy titles such as Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

It's claimed that the most successful and popular bedtime-reading books for younger children are usually rhythmic and simply illustrated, but as our children age, the themes and story lines grow in importance.

For many parents though, finding that extra time to read to their children, after a hectic day at work can be difficult.

"It's not easy, especially after a long busy day when the energy levels are low," acknowledges Fiona Nic Fhionnlaoich, president of the new Literacy Association. But she believes creating a set reading time each night will have substantial benefits for both the parent and the child, saying "there isn't really anything that replaces being read to as a child.

"In terms of improving literacy skills, comprehension, questioning themes, trying to understand why the story takes this twist or that - reading offers so much to young minds.

"If parents can just find those 10 minutes before bedtime that would help so much."

Dr Mark Morgan, professor of education and psychology at St Patrick's College, says the benefits of reading to a child are substantial. He says: "Studies have shown us that children's social and emotional adjustment can be greatly benefitted by reading. It gives them their own space and they have control over how they interpret what they are reading.

"The earlier that culture is fostered in a child the greater the impact on that social and emotional sphere in their lives. That's why reading to our children when they are very young is especially important."

But in my quest to find the 'perfect' bedtime story, I wonder if perhaps reading from a book each night limits the horizons of my little ones' imaginations.

Recently BJ Novak - the American actor, comedian and writer of the multi-award winning US Office series - released The Book With No Pictures to huge international acclaim. It became an instant No 1 New York Times bestseller.

It's a children's book with few words and no pictures, designed to be read by an adult to a child. I like the idea that a story can be told without pictures, encouraging the child to naturally rest their head on their pillow and sketch out the story board in their minds, but books cost money - surely telling an old yarn off the top of my head would work best? After all aren't we known as a nation of story-tellers?

And so I created 'The Grandad Thomas Stories'. The stories are of my father as a six-year-old growing up in rural Kerry - some are true but most are not. Grandad Thomas rescues a baby elephant from the circus and hides it under his bed; scores the winning goal in the local football final; saves the day when the Postman falls off his bike .

My children's eyes open wide with amazement as they picture their granddad, now in his mid-70s, being a hero and finding no challenge too big. The other characters in their tales are their great grandparents, granduncles and grandaunts.

"As part of the Government-backed 'Growing Up in Ireland' study of which I was a co-director, we found that the children who read, and are read to, score much better in most things, even in recreational activities," explains Dr Morgan.

He adds: "While modern media and hand-held devices such as iPads and smart phones can undoubtedly be beneficial for increasing literacy skills, the benefits of reading and one-to-one story-telling interaction are beyond compare."

As the Literacy Association of Ireland gets into its stride, its aim is to help develop writing, reading, listening, speaking and digital literacy across Irish society - it's no easy task - but story-telling in one form or another is seen as a crucial way of bringing together many of these important abilities.

Fiona Nic Fhionnlaoich says: "the way we read to children is often as important as the text itself. Adding fun voices and sounds helps the child engage in the story."

And when Father Time eventually catches up with me and the eyesight starts to go, I'll be expecting my children to read to me - payback for all those hours spent half-falling out of their little beds, reading and putting on the daftest of voices.

For more on the Literacy Association of Ireland see reading.ie

'My girls couldn't get to sleep without their bedtime stories'

When Niamh Fortune was a young girl, her parents would read to her every night. Now that she is a mother-of-two, she continues the tradition and couldn't imagine life without the night-time ritual of story time before bed.

"My girls literally wouldn't be able to go to sleep without reading; it's part and parcel of their night-time routine. And I love that time together, cuddling up and seeing their imaginations take flight," she says.

"When I was small, the Roald Dahl books were my favourite, I'd get lost in the stories and when my girls are older I can't wait to read those amazing stories to them."

Niamh's oldest daughter Cara (3) enjoys her Julia Donaldson books with Freddie and the Fairy particularly cherished, while little Aoife (7 months) has taken to Mem Fox's Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes books.

Each of the girls gets two bedtime stories each night.

"As someone who works in education I think the development of comprehension skills is crucial, especially for Cara now at her age, and as she gets older we'll discuss what the stories mean," says Niamh, who's a teacher educator in the Froebel Department of Primary and Early Childhood Education at Maynooth University and a former President of the National Reading Association.

Her husband Ian has a different style of reading - "maybe sometimes I approach reading with my teacher's hat on whereas Ian is great at doing all the funny voices and the girls love when he reads for them too," says Niamh.

Keen to encourage a culture of reading in her girls, Niamh says getting out a book in the afternoon can be particularly beneficial.

"Reading stories during the day is great because the child's energy and attention levels are higher than at bedtime. They absorb a lot more and I always try to make some time to read in the afternoon."

And as well as being educational, Niamh believes reading to a child has other big pluses - "It's a wonderful way to bond with a child because you're sharing that same experience and space and also, of course, it's hugely enjoyable."

Making up the perfect bedtime story

Touch and feel: Babies and young toddlers need more than words and pictures alone to keep them interested. Publishers have commissioned a plethora of novel and colourful books which include different textures to keep younger 'readers' engaged. This interactive element has proved hugely popular with clever crawlers.

Rhymes and repeated text: For pre-schoolers, stories that rhyme register quicker in the memory than those that don't. The most iconic young children's books, such as Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo and Jill Murphy's Peace at Last, incorporate rhyming lines at the end of each page which leads to familiarity.

Illustration: Often young eyes look at the pictures first before deciding if a particular book is for them. Engaging illustration is key. So the best-written children's books fall flat unless accompanied by simple, colourful pictures.

Word development: As your child grows it's important to use reading to boost their word bank. Some writers use essentially simple stories to incorporate more difficult words and without knowing it the child learns additional words and phrases.

Life-learning messages: Children's authors generally use story-telling to get across a particular theme. Messages such as the importance of sharing, caring and looking after others present themselves as conclusions at the end - teaching life skills.

Plot and characters: As our children grow comfortable with reading their own books the story line is all important. Roald Dahl's works enthrall as the whacky and wonderful characters jump off the page. Who can resist the delightful unique Willy Wonka?

Irish Independent

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