At Campaign for Learning, we know the power that reading and sharing stories has to improve the wellbeing, engagement and attainment of families. Reading to children from an early age can have huge benefits, but fewer than half of 0-2 year olds are read to nearly every day by their parents. As a family learning practitioner, no matter your setting, story time can make a difference to both the children and adults you work with.

Given the frantic pace of life, demands on parents’ time, and competing priorities, time dedicated to reading together can often be seen as a luxury or even a chore. When combined with a commonly held view that reading is a skill to be learned at school, instead of a pleasure to enjoy during leisure time, the importance of sharing stories together can be underestimated.

Why sharing stories matters for children, adults and families

Reading for pleasure was found to be the most important indicator of the future success of a child (OECD, 2002)​. It has a four times greater impact on academic success than one parent having a degree (Centre for Longitudinal Studies 2013). In fact, no matter where a child lives, their family background, or socio-economic status, reading for pleasure opens doors intellectually. It impacts positively on education, aspiration, opportunity, and quality of life.​

Children who read for enjoyment are significantly more likely to perform better than their peers in school (Sullivan and Brown, 2013). On top of the obvious benefits to literacy and language skills, reading for pleasure has been linked to higher performance in maths and science (PISA, OECD, 2011). Children who enjoy reading are also significantly less likely to have mental health problems than those who do not (National Literacy Trust 2018).

Beyond the many benefits of reading for children, their grownups benefit too. Adults who read for pleasure get a greater sense of relaxation from reading than watching television or technology intensive activities (Billington, 2015). Regular readers have higher levels of self-esteem, increased resilience when facing difficult situations, better sleeping patterns, and even see a reduction in symptoms of diagnosed illnesses such as depression and dementia (Reading Agency).

Age UK even found that adults who spend time sharing stories with others benefit from reduced loneliness, increased mood, and a greater connection with loved ones.

The benefits of reading for children, adults and families

Encouraging a love of reading is important so that both adults and children can experience the benefits. One way to do this is by reading to children. Being read to consistently throughout childhood is key to encouraging children to read for pleasure. A Nielsen study found that 65% of 5-7 year olds read to themselves when they are read to every day or nearly every day, this increases to 73% of 8-13 year olds. Reading to children from when they’re born to when they turn 5 can expose them to 1.4 million more words than children who have not been read to during this time.

Dedicating regular time to read together shows children that their grownups want to spend time with them. On top of fostering closeness with the adult, children see that they are important enough for their grownups to focus only on them. As a chance to bond, this quality time together can improve family and group dynamics and increase communication.

Reading teaches children about the world around them. Exploring different worlds, characters and scenarios stimulates a child’s imagination and develops their empathy. Sharing this experience as a family or group enhances learning, creating chances for people to discuss ideas, beliefs and ways of life that might be different to what they know and see around them.

Sharing books with specific topics and themes is a way adults can encourage children to talk about something that they may be struggling with, helping parents and care givers to support children’s wellbeing, at any age (Booktrust).

During lockdown when families were largely confined to home, schools closed and home-schooling in full swing, Egmont Reading Club explored what could be achieved when families regularly read together for pleasure. Parents were ‘surprised by the extent of the benefits’ as reading quickly became normalised, wellbeing improved, and children’s attainment increased.

Support for practitioners

So, now you know the huge range of benefits that reading and sharing stories has, how can you encourage families to develop a culture of reading for pleasure? The best way is to role model reading together with fun, engaging and replicable story times for families. 

Read part two: How to develop story telling sessions that help the families you work with.

Campaign for Learning’s recent Ideas Box: Sharing Stories workshop was packed with resources, tips and ideas to do exactly that. Check out all the story resources we shared at this event.

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John Beattie is Deputy Director (Families) at Campaign for Learning.