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The Power of Bedtime Stories

I have just enjoyed a lengthy phone call to my family in the UK. Nearly fifty minutes of uninterrupted internet connection, probably helped by the late hour of my calling. Invariably, family updates come with the usual background buzz of family life (like many of our families in China, my brother and his family live in the family home with our parents, a situation both chaotic and wonderful in equal measure).


By Richard Thompson, Assistant Head of Primary

The backing track to tonight’s update: my three-year-old nephew Maxwell holding centre stage in a passionate anti-bedtime protest.  It is clear that he means business.  It is also clear that his mummy, my sister-in-law, is losing this particular battle.  Until, that is, I hear the mention of “a bedtime story”.  Almost instantly, the tantrum ceases and is replaced by the animated sounds of almost-complete compliance (my own mother informs me that earnest negotiations regarding specific story choices are now successfully underway). 

In such situations, the bedtime story routine, no doubt familiar to all of us on some level, can undoubtedly serve to safeguard parents’ sanity.  But there is also something far more significant and far-reaching at play: children are taught to love reading.  For both of these reasons (!), my nephew’s bedtime story routine is precisely that: a routine, neither rewarded for good behaviour, nor denied for poor behaviour.  Assumed on both sides, it is a channel through which the love and enthusiasm for reading is modelled at the close of every day.  

This love of literature is at the heart of our Primary English curriculum at BISS, from our ‘Talk for Writing’ use of rich, thought-invoking texts in writing lessons, to the rigours of our assessment systems in phonics and reading. 

This love of literature is at the heart of our Primary English curriculum at BISS, from our ‘Talk for Writing’ use of rich, thought-invoking texts in writing lessons, to the rigours of our assessment systems in phonics and reading.  But as both teachers and parents, what challenges do such systems bring?  As soon as students have mastered their initial letters and sounds and are able to blend independently, they are reading.  From here on, they will be guided through ever-evolving focuses centred round fluency and comprehension.  At the close of every book, every chapter, every paragraph, students are likely to encounter an ambitious teacher or parent, armed with a bank of categorised questions.

What was it about? 

How do you know? 

Where is the evidence?

Did you enjoy it? 

Why?  (Always followed by further ‘whys?’)

How else can we hope to develop students’ comprehension skills, which are, after all, both internal and silent?  And let us not forget that such questioning frequently enables the most enjoyable and enriching of discussions, ultimately deepening students’ understanding.  However, let us also for one moment reflect on this as adult readers.  Daniel Pennac, through his book ‘The Rights of the Reader’, reminds us that one of the greatest pleasures for any reader is the silence that follows after the story has been read.  Our ‘trespassing’ on such moments does, I would argue, therefore come at a cost: a lack of opportunity for the reader to reflect, to think, to wonder.  Precisely for such reasons, our busy weekly timetables at BISS, for all classes across Primary, have protected time for both library visits and whole-class reading slots, enabling teachers to stop, and read aloud from a selection of age-appropriate texts across the course of the year.  In so doing, it is an opportunity to develop and share a communal love of reading, free from assessment, free from questions, free from expectation.  Only open discussion, should the students or teacher choose it, shared in the wake of beguiling literary worlds, painted through rich vocabulary and delivered with honest enjoyment.  Pennac summarises this endeavour succinctly, stating that,

“When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book.  They give you reading as a gift.”

Continuing this theme, Pennac further alludes to the idea that when children are read to at bedtime, they are freed from their daily slog of word-decoding, and from the labyrinth of subsequent comprehension questions.  They are also trusted to be listening, and to be “paying attention”.  It is an unguarded time simply to enjoy and, on occasion, to re-kindle their growing love of reading.  A child – an adult – is never too old to listen to a story and yet, why is it that all-too-frequently we allow this ‘right’ to be forgotten as children progress through their schooling?  At what cost do the adults among us allow themselves to transition from ‘magical story-teller’ in Pre-Nursery through to Key Stage 1, to that of ‘comprehension questioner’ by the close of Key Stage 2?


Back to my nephew in the UK…  The outcome of his bedtime story negotiations? 

‘The Ning Nang Nong’ by Spike Milligan. 

At only three years old, we can safely assume that his comprehension of this fantasy poem is not going to pass muster.  Neither is his word decoding, and certainly not his fluency, given that he is unable to pronounce several of the made-up words.  But his scrambling for the book, his already negotiating a second reading before the first has commenced, coupled with his unbridled laughter as the cows inevitably “go Bong!” testify to a child learning how to love reading.  Such love, learnt at home, paves the way for all that we aspire to nurture and achieve in each and every one of our young readers at BISS.  Thus, on behalf of all our Primary teachers, I extend a heartfelt thank you to all the parents in our school, not only for their ongoing support in our teaching of reading – through their patient questioning and endless book bag reminders –  but also for their many boundless bedtime stories.  May these precious moments continue to nurture, and re-kindle, a love for reading within us all!

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