Category archives: children’s and young people’s reading

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Picture books about flowers and gardening and their value for children’s wellbeing

gdnThe beneficial impact of books and reading on children’s mental health is well established. National Literacy Trust research tells us that children who are engaged with reading and writing are three times more likely to have high mental wellbeing than children who aren’t. Books are great stress reducers. The arrival recently of two beautiful new picture books that highlight the nurturing qualities of plants and gardening has led me to ponder the role of such books in terms of children’s wellbeing, a matter of huge concern in these very difficult times. Many commentators have noted how especially valuable gardens, plants and flowers have been to mental health during lockdown. Flowers and gardening symbolise hope, and what could be more important right now? So for Mental Health Awareness Week, here are my recommendations of picture books that explore the healing power of flowers and gardens, and that offer positivity and optimism.

  • Mrs Noah’s Garden by Jackie Morris and James Mayhew, Otter Barry Books, 2020 (there are activities related to this)
  • Bloom by Anne Booth and Robyn Wilson-Owen, Tiny Owl, 2020
  • The Extraordinary Gardener by Sam Boughton, Tate Publishing, 2018
  • Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs, Childs Play, 2018
  • The Garden of Hope by Isabel Otter and Katie Rewse, Caterpillar Books, 2018
  • Sidewalk Flowers by Jonarno Lawson and Sydney Smith, 2015
  • The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin, Walker Books, 2013
  • The Flower by John Light and Lisa Evans, Child’s Play, 2007

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

What remote story times have taught me

remote story books

There is nothing to beat the delights of sharing books with a child or children right there with you. I blogged recently about the multiple benefits of reading aloud. Sadly, in these days of lockdown, for the moment many of us are having to resort to remote story times. I certainly miss the physical connection, but I’ve also realised that doing storytelling via video link has been a valuable learning opportunity for me. I’ve been observing what works well, and what less so, and I’m sure this will inform my post-lockdown practice.

It’s been fascinating to find out what sorts of book best suit remote book sharing. (Anyone sharing books on a public platform, do make sure to check out copyright issues through the publishers’ websites.) The photo shows some that I’ve found to go down particularly well with a toddler audience. A good many tried and tested old favourites here, as well as several delightful newer titles. All the books are engaging and visually attractive. All offer lots to discuss. Several have flaps. Video storytelling has served as a useful reminder to me that the more we build anticipation the more we increase involvement and pleasure. Flap books work so well because of the excitement we can develop in advance of the big reveal. But novelty-free books also provide plenty of potential for enjoyable speculation about what’s going to happen next.

It is perhaps an obvious point, but it’s certainly worth remembering that clarity of illustration is crucial. Any illustration that is difficult to understand will be even harder for a child to grasp when it can only be seen on a device. I’ve discovered that it’s vital to hold each page up close to the camera, and to give enough time for it to be taken in . At times it’s helpful to bring particular details into focus.

What else makes a difference? Whole-hearted involvement from a parent or carer at the receiving end has a massive positive impact in terms of children’s focus and fun. Props propsat either end can provide extra stimulation and aid comprehension, soft toy animals, for example. Again, we need to position them carefully so they can be seen easily at the other end. I haven’t tried dressing up, but I’m sure it would be a big hit. In the absence of physical nearness, body language takes on particular importance. I’ve realised the value of using lots of expression. Different voices for different characters greatly bolster enjoyment, engagement and understanding. Rhymes that tie in with the books we are sharing help break things up and provide opportunities for movement and interaction. If I’ve just shared a book with transport in it, we might do ‘the wheels on the bus’, for instance. ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’, perhaps with a torch to provide added twinkle, is great before or after any book featuring starry skies.

One of the keys to success, as with all book sharing, is that we love what we are reading. Our enthusiasm transmits. Keying into our audience’s personal interests and passions, whatever they may be, is also very worthwhile, as is including some of their favourite books in each session. Young children love repetition and need it for learning. I have rediscovered that when using a book children have not come across before, I usually need to read it at least twice before moving on to to something else. If the child or children have copies at their end of the books we read, that offers something extra. They can have the physical pleasure and interactivity of turning the pages at the same time as enjoying listening, sometimes looking up at the book and the reader on screen. Even very young children seem to adapt easily to this different way to sharing.

There’s something else I’ve learnt, or rather re-learnt. It’s far better to keep story times short and sweet than to keep going if a child has lost interest. Everyone’s attention spans are limited right now.

I can’t wait to get back to the particular pleasures of reading up close, but in the meantime video story times are very special.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Reading news – latest research and articles

IMG_0764Lots of valuable and interesting research about children’s and young people’s reading has been published in the last couple of months, and several useful articles. The run-up to World Book Day seems a good time for a round-up.

Depressing news first. A new study shows that children are reading less than ever before, and reading enjoyment is going down.

Several recent surveys focus on reading aloud, some looking at the home reading environment, others at reading aloud in school. ‘Reading aloud with your class – what does the research say?’ provides a useful overview, and introduces the new EEF Story Time Trial.

Research by publishers Egmont indicates that regular reading and listening to stories for pleasure improves reading comprehension in children by double the expected rate, and that comprehension falls without storytime.

A study by BookTrust reveals that more than a quarter of a million UK primary school children are experiencing literary poverty. 345,000 primary school children in the UK receive less than 15 minutes of shared reading a week. One in seven parents or carers never read their child a bedtime story.

In further disturbing news, it seems that formally taught phonics sessions are happening from the age of 2 in some early years settings. ‘We seem to be trying to run before we can walk.’

An interesting article in the School Library Journal looks at the evidence for levelled reading approaches, and finds them severely wanting. Tim Shanahan makes a strong case for children reading books at varying degrees of difficulty.

In ‘Testing takes the wonder out of reading’, Colin Harris laments the impact of testing and explores why schools need to promote reading for pleasure, for the sake of children’s wellbeing, knowledge, empathy and social skills. Testing turns reading ‘into a vehicle for comprehension, handwriting and grammar tests, at the expense of love, pleasure and enjoyment.’

A recent study shows that stereotypes about boys’ reading skills create a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor motivation and performance.

A study of students who sat GCSEs in 2018-19 found a significant correlation between students’ reading ability and their eventual performance across all GCSEs. Students who struggle with reading are at a major disadvantage in every subject.

New National Literacy Trust research shows that engagement with audiobooks can benefit children’s reading skills, comprehension and enjoyment, as well as their mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence.

There are lots of great ideas in this piece on creating a reading for pleasure culture in school.

‘Kids and authors alike love Instagram. Here’s how to leverage it to get kids reading’ explores the opportunities created by social media to excite young people about books and reading.

Families with children aged 5 and under are being encouraged to support children’s literacy and language skills from the home using six new apps.

After sharing several pieces of disheartening news here, it feels good to end with a very positive story about teenagers and reading.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Reading aloud – the benefits and importance of reading to children

me reading

I treasure this picture. It came in a thank you letter sent to me by a child in year 1 after I’d read with his class. (He wisely decided to depict just five of the thirty children.) I love it that the book I was reading was clearly so exciting that it made me levitate!

I’ve very much enjoyed giving courses for early years practitioners, family learning workers and library staff recently on effective reading aloud. What a joy to explore the importance of reading with children and to identify ways to make the experience as enjoyable and engaging as possible.

Jim Trelease, in his seminal work The Read-Aloud Handbook, says ‘People would stand in line for days and pay hundreds of dollars if there were a pill that could do everything for a child that reading aloud does.’ Why? What are the benefits of reading to and with children? These are some very cogent ones:

  • enjoyment – here’s Trelease again: ‘Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain’, and what better reason for reading aloud could there be, plus we know that it’s the children who love books who become the ones who read the most, with knock-on effects for all their learning, and for their wellbeing.
  • speech and language development – children who are read to gain a feel for language and skills that aid their spoken communication.
  • vocabulary – great again in terms of oracy, and for literacy: the size of a child’s vocabulary in the early years, in particular their knowledge of unusual words, i.e. the types of words that are found in books but not often used in everyday language, is a good predictor of their reading ability at ten.
  • literacy skills and confidence – if children have been read to they understand how written language works, so much so that an American Academy of Pediatrics report says ‘Reading to babies and children helps immunise them against illiteracy.’
  • prediction skills – the books that we read with children often have pattern and predictability, and being able to work out what might happen next stands children in good stead when they are in the early stages of learning to read.
  • comprehension – the ability to understand is at least if not more important than the ability to decode, and being read to and having discussions about the text greatly improve comprehension skills.
  • wider learning – we know for example that children who have been read to tend to be better at maths, presumably because so many of the books we share in the early years have mathematical concepts such as size, shape, number.
  • knowledge of the wider world – there are so many things in books that children will never encounter in normal life.
  • imagination and creativity – early years practitioners tell me that they know which children have books shared with them at home because it shows in their artwork, in their play and in what they talk about.
  • brain development – in the words of children’s author and literacy expert Mem Fox ‘Reading aloud and talking about what we’re reading sharpens children’s brains.’
  • social and emotional development – the books we read with children help them understand themselves and others, building empathy, resilience and wellbeing.
  • concentration and listening skills – read books with children and you can almost see their attention spans grow.

Let me finish with Dr Seuss: ‘You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.’

Monday, 27 January 2020

Children’s and young people’s reading – recent reports and research

IMG_3461The latest PISA report was published last month. These are some key national and international findings relating to reading:

  • The UK is now 13th in OECD in terms of 15 year-olds’ reading scores.
  • However pupils in all countries of the UK have more negative attitudes towards reading than the OECD average.
  • Less than 1 in 10 students in OECD countries is able to differentiate facts and opinions.
  • Girls significantly outperform boys in reading on average across OECD countries. The gender gap in the UK is less than the OECD average.

The World Bank and UN report that 90% of children in the world’s poorest countries cannot read a basic book by the age of 10 (whereas in rich countries only 9% cannot do so by the same age).

According to the International Literacy Association’s latest ‘What’s Hot in Literacy’ report the top five most critical issues in literacy education, as selected by respondents, are

  1. Building early literacy skills through a balanced approach that combines both foundational and language comprehension instruction
  2. Determining effective instructional strategies for struggling readers
  3. Increasing equity and opportunity for all learners
  4. Increasing professional learning and development opportunities for
    practicing educators
  5. Providing access to high-quality, diverse books and content

National Literacy Trust research shows that more than 380,000 children in the UK do not own a single book. It matters, because children who own books are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age and nearly three times more likely to enjoy reading.

Children’s publisher Egmont has produced a paper on trends and challenges in reading for pleasure, based on extensive research. It identifies three key things that create an environment that discourages reading for pleasure:

  • School: the curriculum makes reading a subject to learn, not something to do for fun
  • Screens: increasing time on screen means less time for reading and other activities
  • Parents: lack of awareness that they need to read to their children beyond the point at which the child can read independently

The benefits of parents reading to children are of course well known. New research proves that children have sharper vocabulary skills by age 3 when parents read with them early on.

A recent study concludes that there is little or no evidence that teaching phonics improves reading.