World Book Day: 'Books must retain prominence in our children's lives - and that starts with parents reading to them'

1st March 2018 at 12:27
In a world of interactivity, mind-hopping, and distractions, reading requires patience, resilience and concentration – but it's a life skill worth the perseverance, writes ASCL leader Geoff Barton

As a child, I enjoyed regular adventures with my friends Hal and Roger. We went on safari, swam with sharks and killer whales, explored the Arctic and the Amazon, and consistently managed to punish bad people who were illegally poaching lions and tigers. After that, usually, I went to sleep.

I did, in other words, what so many of us did as children, what my own children did, what I do now. In the margins of each day – at bedtimes and in early mornings, across weekends and on holidays – I lost myself in books.

In my case, those exotic adventures were in the company of Hal and Roger Hunt, the protagonists of a sequence of 14 novels by American author Willard Price.

In truth, "author" doesn’t do Price justice. He was – to my youthful eyes – an incomparable legend, and we fans awaited the next volume of his Adventure series as eagerly as, two generations later, my children would crave the latest Anthony Horowitz or JK Rowling novel.

Truly, as that great American poet Emily Dickinson taught us: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”

It’s where my love of books began. But I’m writing this as another World Book Day arrives, and a report that shows parents find this annual school jamboree increasingly irksome.

According to a survey by Mumsnet, three-quarters of parents think the tradition of dressing up their kids as favourite characters is a "hassle". More unexpectedly, a tenth of parents report feeling "judged or disapproved of" by teachers or fellow parents over their choice of outfit.

It may be a sign that we need to use World Book Day to interact differently with parents – to explore how their energies go into actual reading, rather than rustling up costumes. Here’s why. Last week the annual "Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer" survey from Nielsen Book Research was published. It is based on interviews with 1,596 parents of 0 to 13-year-olds, and 417 14 to 17-year-olds across the UK.

It found that while 69 per cent of pre-school children were read to daily in 2013, that figure had dropped to just 51 per cent. So the proportion of toddlers being read to every day has fallen by a fifth over the last five years.

That’s worrying for a number of reasons – but not least because we know that the act of reading, and talking about what we read – are essential building blocks in socialising children.

Pragmatically, lots of us will sympathise with the first reason given to explain this decline: 19 per cent of parents of three- to four-year-olds said: “The struggle to find energy at the end of the day.”

As someone who would regularly be slapped awake by my two young children, a copy of The Jolly Postman lying askew beside me where I’d drifted off, I get the wakefulness argument. Too often, my memory of this parental hinterland tells me, the children’s wakefulness was in inverse proportion to mine. The book designed to propel them into the Land of Nod wove its magic too quickly over me.

But it’s the second reason for the decline in reading that should concern us more. Some 16 per cent of parents cited “the child’s preference to do other things”.

That’s precisely why we need children to be read to. Reading, after all, is a habit, and in a world of quick distractions, interactivity, mind-hopping between alluring activities, it’s a habit that requires patience, resilience, concentration.

These skills matter throughout life. Children fall in love with reading as a result of falling in love with being read to. It’s a reaffirmation of a key element of parenting, and one that prepares us for life.

A New York Times article in January 2016 gives us a revealing insight into how reading shapes our thinking, in one especially inspiring example.

In the final days of the Obama Presidency, the New York Times published a profile of the outgoing president: "Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years? Books."

As the author says: “Not since Abraham Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped – in his life, convictions and outlook on the world – by reading and writing as Barack Obama.”

Thus we learn that for an hour at the darkened margins of each day, Barack Obama would lose himself in reading – not in official papers or political briefings or things he was supposed to read. Instead, he read things he wanted to read – history, biographies, speeches, poetry, novels.

This World Book Day we need to find ways to make it easier for children to be read to more often, at home and in school, to tell the story of why this matters, and to help all of us navigate our way through a world of distractions so that reading retains the necessary space in all of our lives.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

In the 9 March issue of Tes, we explore the secret language of books and why reading to your children might be more important than you think. Don't forget to pick up a copy from your local news agent or subscribe to read online.

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