As a new literacy drive is launched, authors including David Walliams and Michael Rosen warn of threat to storytelling from screens and busy lives.
The childhood tradition of a bedtime story is in serious peril, as experts warn that parents are not making the time to read to their children at the end of the working day and stop reading to them at too young an age.
“Parents lead very, very busy lives,” said Diana Gerald, chief executive of the Book Trust, which encourages children and families to enjoy books and develop their reading skills. “We live in a world where parents are juggling work and home life. Lots of parents are working shifts and there’s a lot of pressure on families. People are increasing their hours.”
A recent survey, by YouGov for the children’s publisher Scholastic, revealed last week that many parents stop reading to their children when they become independent readers, even if the child isn’t ready to lose their bedtime story. The study found that 83% of children enjoyed being read aloud to, with 68% describing it as a special time with their parents. (“It felt so warm, so spirit-rising,” as one 11-year-old boy put it.)
One in five of the parents surveyed stopped reading aloud to their children before the age of nine, and almost a third of children aged six to 11 whose parents had stopped reading aloud to them wanted them to carry on.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, who won the 2004 Carnegie medal for his first children’s book, Millions, was dismayed by the findings. “The joy of a bedtime story is the key to developing a love of reading in children”, he said – more so than literacy classes in school, which can be “a very negative experience”, for the many children he meets during visits to schools, whose first experience of books is in the classroom.
“They’re being taught to read before anyone has shared with them the pleasure of reading – so what motivation have they got to learn?” said Cottrell Boyce. “Even the ones that attain high levels of ‘literacy’ (whatever that is) are in danger of achieving that without ever experiencing the point of reading.” Frank Cottrell Boyce: ‘This is something people have done since the days of sitting around campfires napping flints. To stop doing now is to break the great chain of our being.’
A survey by Settle Stories, an arts and heritage charity, of more than 2,000 parents with children aged four to 10 claimed that only 4% read a bedtime story to their child every night, with 69% saying they did not have the time. In February a study by TomTom of 1,000 parents of children aged one to 10 found that 34% never read a bedtime story to their children, with 29% blaming late working and 26% the daily commute.
“Parents have definitely got the message they need to read to their children up to the age of five or six,” said Catherine Bell, managing director of Scholastic. “What’s really interesting [is that] as children acquire the skills to read themselves, parents back off. It comes across really clearly: when parents stopped, the children wanted them to continue. They thought it was a really special time with their parents and they felt really positive about it.”
On Thursday the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, and the children’s author and comedian David Walliams launched the next stage of a joint literacy drive, announcing a target to make English pupils the most literate in Europe within five years. Currently, nine- and 10-year-olds in England are ranked sixth in Europe.
The government acknowledges that the role of parents is critical and has created new activities and resources to help get more children reading before they start school. “Few things can compete with the joy of getting stuck into a good book, and I believe that is something no child should miss out on,” said Walliams. Michael Rosen: ‘When I was in my forties, [my father] was still reading to me.’
The children’s author Michael Rosen enjoyed being read to by his parents for decades. “My mum read to me from as early as I can remember. I have many of the books she read to me and I would plead with her to read some of them over and over again.”
Then it was his father’s turn. “When I was about 12, our father decided that he would read to us on our camping holidays and over several of these holidays he read the whole of Great Expectations, Little Dorrit and a Walter Scott novel, Guy Mannering.”
It didn’t end there. “Because he was in the US army, he was very good at American accents and he read us Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 when I was in my teens. Then when I was in my 40s, he was still reading to me, but this time it was his own memoir, Are You Still Circumcised?”
Rosen believes the TV in the bedroom is the killer of bedtime stories. “I sometimes ask audiences of children, ‘How many of you watch TV till you go to sleep?’ and it’s well over 50% in most cases.”
John Boyne, author of the bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and his new novel The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, said: “I’ve grown less concerned with how young people read and more fanatical about just getting them to read at all. Whether they read with their parents or away from them, on electronic screens or on paper, seems unimportant now.”
Cottrell Boyce, however, is passionate about preserving the bedtime story. “Great ideas come from people who are able to bring their whole selves – emotional as well as rational, memory as well as logic – to bear on problems. Bedtime stories give reading an emotional depth. Why would you ever stop? This is something people have done since the days of sitting around campfires napping flints. To stop doing it now is to break the great chain of our being.”