Will reading to your
child at night set them on the path to success
Fifty years on, the poet laureate Andrew Motion still has comforting memories
of the stories his mother read to him at bedtime: “the Mary Plain books, which
my mum read herself as a child, and one book called Tim Minds the Shop.
“She started when I was very young. I went to bed, said my prayers and had a
story. It went on 15 minutes and my brother and I always begged for it to go one
longer,” he recalls. “Perfect, really.”
Next week the schools secretary, Ed Balls, will launch the national year of
reading – the first for more than a decade. Among a host of literary ventures,
Balls is urging all parents to resolve to share a bedtime story with their
With research showing that British children enjoy reading less than
youngsters in other countries and our schools slipping down literacy league
tables, Balls wants the 10-minute bedtime story to become as much part of
children’s routine as “brushing their teeth or having a bath”. The hope is that
kids will get hooked on books and go on to become avid readers themselves.
“Reading will make a radical difference to how well they do in life,” says
So what do the experts, some of whom actually write the books children read,
think about this edict? For Motion, who carried on his mother’s practice with
his own three children, bedtime stories are less about “doing well” and more
about opening up children’s minds to the sheer pleasure of books.
Although he’s aware that many people worry about pronouncements from the
“nanny state” he supports this one just because of his own experience “both as a
child and a parent”.
Motion’s mother suffered a catastrophic riding accident when he was 16 and
spent the next 10 years in a coma. Motion remembers the bedtime stories they
shared as a magical “private bonding time”.
And, in his view, it’s never too young to start. He read to his children when
they were babies using picture books and graduated to Beatrix Potter, Winnie the
Pooh and “any classics I bloody well felt they ought to know.”
While his twins loved poetry and rhymes, his older boy Andrew turned out to
be “much more interested in factual things.” His father responded by “reading
him books about how tractor engines work”.
“Children are different,” he warns. “You can’t expect the same books to work
for all of them.” Stuffing books they don’t like down their throats may in fact
turn them off reading.
Measured by Ball’s rule, all three Motion children have thrived. One twin is
doing graphic design, the other acting. “Their experience of imaginative reading
had a measurable effect,” says their father. “Mr Factual”, meanwhile, as his
father dubs him, is following a history degree.
The best-selling writer Philip Pullman was also read to by his mother as a
child – “my dad wasn’t around very much” – and particularly remembers the Just
So Stories by Rudyard Kipling.
“Children don’t need simple language, they need beautiful, rich language,” he
With his own two sons, James and Thomas, he read Mr Gumpy by John Burningham
“over and over again, it was a huge favour-ite”. Pullman thinks parents should
start by reading nursery rhymes to babies, sitting them on their laps and
clapping and singing the rhymes to make the experience fun.
“With my three-year-old granddaughter only the other day we shared Each Peach
Pear Plum by the Ahlbergs.”
But Pullman warns against using the bedtime story as a chance to teach
children phonics. “Reading is not about phonics, it is about fun,” he says. “It
is about the jolly japes the cat in the hat gets up to not about CAT.”
Boys, in particular, risk being turned off by being forcefed reading
techniques at too young an age.
Bedtime stories, he adds, shouldn’t stop when the child learns to read by
himself. “It’s not just about what happened next, it’s also the intimacy, the
cuddling up close,” he said.
For the former children’s laureate Anne Fine this is one of the most valuable
aspects of the experience. Sharing a bedtime story can give children the
security to open up to parents about issues that are vexing them.
“What parents don’t notice in their busy lives, is that this is one
opportunity kids get to talk about what is bothering them. You read a book about
a penguin kicking a lion and a little chubby hand comes out and its owner says
‘Ernie kicked me at playgroup today’.
I can remember one of my children being read to about an elephant with spots
on. She was only three and she said: ‘Granny is sick too isn’t she?’ She was,
she had cancer . . . Sharing a story gives them the chance to talk about things
in a quiet safe place.”
Fine, who wasn’t read bedtime stories by her own parents because she came
from a family of five – triplets arrived when she was three – told her own
children stories in “nests” made with duvets on the sofa as well as in bed. “On
rainy days we hardly got up,” she remembers.
“It is one of the greatest pleasures, that shared time between parents and
children,” she says. “Parents who don’t have it don’t realise how valuable it
is. Children pick up the magic of reading during these periods, which they get
less and less of in school now. Children who are not read to at night are
No doubt it will gladden Balls to know that Fine’s daughters excelled at
school too. “They are both scientists, both graduates, both have doctorates.”
And they still love books.
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