Friday 24 May 2019

Word up: You can never start them too young when it comes to reading

Reading with your children has a host of educational and social benefits. Andrea Mara looks at how to get the most from story time

Reading doesn't have to be exclusively a bedtime activity
Reading doesn't have to be exclusively a bedtime activity
Lucy Kennedy at TV3 s Autumn Schedule 2014 launch at The Mansion House Dublin.
DJ Dave Moore
TV presenter Lorraine Keane

We're regularly told that reading with our children is one of the most important things we can do for them, but it can sometimes be hard to feel enthusiastic at the end of a long day. Does it really matter if we skip bedtime stories every now and then - is reading really as important as we're told, and what benefits does it bring?

We're regularly told that reading with our children is one of the most important things we can do for them, but it can sometimes be hard to feel enthusiastic at the end of a long day. Does it really matter if we skip bedtime stories every now and then - is reading really as important as we're told, and what benefits does it bring?

"Reading is a very important emotional bonding time," says Aoife Murray, programme and events manager with Children's Books Ireland, the national children's books organisation. "It might be the only time in the day when you're sitting one-on-one with your child - you're not driving a car or making dinner. It's almost like time out, I think that's very important in every child's life."

But does it make sense to read to very small babies who don't yet understand words - at what age should you start?

"You can start from in the womb!" says Murray. "Obviously they're not going to understand what you say but it's a good way to begin an emotional communication. So for example, if you're reading a newspaper, read it out loud. Then for newborns, small picture books like buggy books or tactile books are great. With bright colours you're engaging sight, if there's a squeak it's engaging sound, if there's something you can feel on the surface of the book, it's engaging touch."

Sinéad O'Higgins is a librarian with Central Library, Waterford City, and has two daughters, Anna (5) and Ava (1½). She remembers being excited about reading to Anna when she was a newborn. "I propped up books when I changed her, and cuddled her close with soft books - wanting her to get hooked by the magic. At a few months old, a child will recognise pictures and a favourite voice reading them short phrases and rhymes. By the time they're one, they will love selecting their favourite stories - often the same one again and again."

Reading doesn't have to be exclusively a bedtime activity either. "I'd be trying to incorporate reading into their daily time," advises Murray. "It's a good idea to have the books with the toys, and on a low shelf. If it's something they're able to access, it won't be like a scheduled, educational time. That's why buggy books are good, because they combine playtime and reading."

O'Higgins also feels books are not just for bedtime. "I find especially when they're smaller, bedtime can be a busy, cranky time with no one in the mood to read. Read books on a mat outside, or when you've turned the telly off and they're giving out, or if you're in a restaurant waiting for your dinner. There is no right or wrong time, and children love having you all to themselves."

Parents often find that choosing age-appropriate books can be a challenge, especially for older children who are just about able to read for themselves, but still like to have stories read to them.

"We get asked this all the time, and there isn't a hard and fast answer," says Murray. "Pick up the book and have a look - you yourself know best what your child's reading ability is and what their emotional capacity is. Also, children can feel under pressure that they're expected to read for themselves - but there shouldn't be this rush to it."

And there really is no upper age limit. Author Sarah Webb still reads to her younger children who are 13 and 10. "As Dorothy Butler, a wise New Zealand writer and bookseller once said, 'Babies are never too little to look' - or listen for that matter. I've been reading to my children since they were born. Now 22, 13 and 10, I still read to the younger two and would to the 22-year-old if he was still in the house to hear me! Reading some of my own childhood favourites to them always gave and gives me great joy. I'm a huge fan of sharing poetry with children and I love A A Milne's When We Were Very Young collection, and no child should grow up without the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh to guide them."

Parents also wonder about repetition - whether or not to read the same book every night. Children's Books Ireland's Aoife Murray has some practical advice.

"A bit of repetition inside a book is no harm but for your own sanity it's good to have a selection of books on hand. One thing to bear in mind is your local library is a great starting point - parents don't necessarily have the disposable income to buy a huge variety of books all the time."

Librarian Sinéad O'Higgins agrees. "Books can be expensive to buy and children thrive on access to lots of them, so join the library and check out second-hand shops. Let your children lead; they will go through phases. My youngest is all about bears at the moment and the older girl loves fairies and magic."

For advice on children's books, Murray recommends developing a relationship with your librarian and staff in your local bookshop. Children's Books Ireland also run free Book Clinics around the country, where children can get 'prescriptions' for new books. "Our Book Clinics are on their 2016 tour - we go all over the country with our panel of children's book experts - librarians, former book editors, teachers, and booksellers. They wear a white coat and sit down with your child to ask what they like and don't like in books they've read in the past. They chat for a little bit then write a prescription for two or three books that your child might like to read." You can find dates and locations on

And for tired parents, Murray has one last bit of advice. "Remember, the story doesn't have to be long - it might sometimes feel like another chore at the end of the day, but it's a way to put off the real chores for another few minutes, and it's a lot more enjoyable."

Some well-known names share their favourite books to read to small children

“We've always read to Jack and Holly in the evenings before bed and they love it. Their favourites at the moment are the Freddy Button books — great books written by Irish author Fiona Dillon.” — TV presenter LUCY KENNEDY.

“Favourite picture books include the classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Owl Babies by Martin Waddell with outstanding illustrations by Patrick Benson, and The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs, which never fails to make us all laugh!” — Author SARAH WEBB.

“We loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the Gruffalo series; in fact anything from Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler were favourites in our house.” — TV presenter LORRAINE KEANE.

“I love audio books and recommend them to parents as there is often great storytelling and sounds effects to them — great for a distraction if the kids are acting up.” — Parent coach AOIFE LEE

“I loved the Usborne books — That’s not your dog/ car/ monkey… For me, reading with James has become a form of escapism from everyday life. It’s truly the greatest gift we can pass on to our children.” — Model and author ALISON CANAVAN

“Right now we’re reading a lot of Julie Sykes who is a children's author that my daughter Brooke absolutely loves. We first read her book The Pet Sitter and we all became fans of her quirky, funny writing style.” — TV presenter ANDREA HAYES

“I love to read The Gruffalo, Stickman and anything by Julia Donaldson to my kids. Also the Baby Brains series by Simon James — fun for the kids and for us too." — Today FM presenter DAVE MOORE

“I absolutely love the Slinky Malinki series of books by Lynley Dodd, I think it's been at least six years since I last read them to my four children, yet I can still remember them word for word!” — Parenting expert SARAH OCKWELLSMITH

Irish Independent

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