Parents, take note: Tucking your child in with a story will help raise a reader
Reading stories aloud to kids also helps improve cognitive development, and bonding between parent and child.
No such survey has been done in India recently, but in a country glued to screens it would be no surprise to find that the ritual of bedtime storytelling is fast dying out despite study after study stressing the upsides of reading stories aloud to children: from improved cognitive development, to sharper language and literacy skills, and most importantly, closer bonding between parent and child.
Publisher and founder of Pickle Yolk Books, Richa Jha, recalls reading to her children even before they could follow the words. "That's what led them to love words. My two children, now 14 and 18, latched on to books at an early age because I read to them." She continues to occasionally co-read a picture book or a novel with her 14-year-old daughter, for whom the memory of that loving routine begs a reprise.
But Jha, author of award-winning picture book 'Dance of the Wild', now largely reads to rooms full of children. The act, however, has got tougher. "Reading aloud has unfortunately become a form of entertainment, infiltrated by theatrics. Children are getting used to being entertained, and find it hard to tune their ears and minds to a story simply read," she observes.
It's now common practice for schools to inquire if visiting authors can accessorise their story with, say, a quiz, or an audio-video presentation to hold the students' attention.
"I've interacted with children in three to four countries, and I find our children in India have a 'listening' problem," says Sandhya Rao, author of several books, including 'My Mother's Sari' and 'Dream Writer'. "They are ready to share their thoughts and opinions, but few really listen, and that I think is directly linked to the fact that we don't read aloud to them when they're small."
Recalling the 'Reading and Recitation' sessions that were once part of school life, Rao believes every school ought to have read-alouds, with the child too as reader. "It helps them develop an aesthetic appreciation, particularly for books that are rhythmic and musical. It also helps them speak confidently and builds vocabulary," she says, citing the example of her mother-in-law, who learnt Tamil by listening to stories read aloud to her from serialised stories in magazines.
As a children's author, Rao is often confronted with parents keen to make readers of their children. She says, "I ask them two questions in turn: Do you read? Do you read aloud to your children?"
Trishla Jain, whose books 'Sunrise, Moonrise' and 'Om the Gnome' attempt to make spirituality both meaningful and modern for children, has been reading to her children since they were three months old. Now that they're five and six years old, the reading ritual is well established. "The absolute best thing about reading aloud is the conversations that follow. The book brings everyone on the same page and serves as a springboard for a great dialogue between parents and children. I often ask them what they think of certain characters, their choices or the plot twists. What would you have done differently? That's how we connect as a family - that's how we learn what really matters to us," says Jain.
The last edition of Scholastic India's Kids and Family Reading Report (2015) said 85% of children surveyed enjoyed being read to at home. For 69%, it meant special time with parents. More than half of those aged 6-11 years (57%), whose parents no longer read to them, did not want them to stop, and 38% said they got to listen to books that may have been difficult to read themselves.
Payal Kapadia, author of the new tween title 'Twice Upon A Time', counts this last point as one of the advantages of reading aloud or co-reading. "You can pick more challenging books this way; books your children wouldn't ordinarily select," says Kapadia, who was able to help her girls wade through the tricky 19th-century dialects in Mark Twain's unabridged 'Adventures of Tom Sawyer', and also unpack the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of Samhita Arni's 'The Mahabharata'. Left to them, these books would have probably proved too difficult. Books also become a conversation starter, allowing kids to plough into difficult terrain such as death and loss. But read in the warm and comforting space of a loved one's arms guarantees a safe homecoming.