How many parents look forward to the day when they no longer need to read bedtime stories to their children? I didn’t! And, thankfully, neither did my children. Both of them learned to read fluently at fairly young ages. But I continued reading aloud to them at bedtime, as I had done since they were less than a year old.
From a general education perspective, it seemed like a good way of introducing new concepts and vocabulary. More importantly, it gave us a regular and cosy family time doing something relaxing together. Once my children could read picture books to themselves, I started reading them longer story books with just a few line drawings.
Some of our choices when they were about four to six years old were the magical ‘Faraway Tree’ series by Enid Blyton; the AA Milne books about Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters; the ‘Sophie’ series by Dick King-Smith about a small but determined girl who wants to be a farmer; The American ‘Ramona’ series by Beverly Cleary, featuring another small but determined girl. Having sons did not mean that I could only read books about boys!
Most of these have short chapters which are complete in themselves, rather than being part of a complex plot. So they are appropriate for children of about four to six. I continued reading other favourite books as well – those by Shirley Hughes were always popular, for instance. Dr Seuss books are fun for all ages. The boys also enjoyed the classic illustrated books by Beatrix Potter.
Longer chapter books
When my sons were able to concentrate for longer, and able to wait for the rest of the story, we began on slightly longer books, where the chapters were not complete in themselves. Again, we continued to read old favourites, including some picture books; the most important thing, after all, is for the child to enjoy the experience.
For books with a more complex story-line, suitable for children of around six to eight (or more) we particularly enjoyed some of the other books by Dick King-Smith, often featuring anthropomorphic farm animals; some of Roald Dahl’s books; many more of Enid Blyton’s books, and the wonderful Narnia series by CS Lewis.
Gradually, as my sons grew older, we progressed through children’s classics such as Kenneth Graham’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington’ series and JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. My children relaxed in other worlds as they listened to these stories.
Some of them were books they would probably not have picked up by themselves, but which made excellent bedtime read-alouds. I often found that when I had read one of the books in a series to them, my sons would often decide to read more by the same author to themselves.
Childhood favourite books
A year or two later, we decided to introduce the boys to our own childhood favourites. My husband began reading some of his favourite books, such as Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series. This is about children in the mid 20th century who had adventures with sailing holidays. Then he started on the ‘Biggles’ series by Captain W E Johns.
I introduced the boys to Noel Streatfeild. Her books usually appeal to girls – but, read aloud, the boys found them equally enjoyable. I read them ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by JRR Tolkien (over a couple of months!). Then I tried ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by LM Montgomery. ‘Linnets and Valerians’ and ‘The Little White Horse’ by Elizabeth Goudge were also good.
By this stage our sons were about 9 and 11. Both often decided to read the rest of a series by themselves once we had introduced the first by reading aloud.
Home education and reading aloud
When we started home educating, it provided a perfect opportunity for more reading aloud during the daytime. After all, in primary schools there is often time in the day when the teacher reads to the class. As the boys’ bedtimes got later – sometimes later than mine! – I found that I was reading to them in the daytime far more often than in the evening, sometimes for an hour or more at a time if we got involved in the story and didn’t want to put it down.
Some authors seem designed to be read aloud. Brian Jacques, who wrote the ‘Redwall’ series, remained popular for in our household over many years. And as we progressed to adult books, the PG Wodehouse ‘Jeeves’ series seemed perfect for reading aloud too, with the subtle humour that is so often missed when reading to oneself.
A few years later I read them Jerome K Jerome’s classic ‘Three Men in a Boat’, and Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, prompting my younger son to read the rest of Jane Austen’s books for himself. As they progressed through the teenage years I read some of Agatha Christie’s popular crime novels, some of Georgette Heyer’s less well-known detective novels, and every new Terry Pratchett ‘Discworld’ book that was published. I also read aloud the Harry Potter books as they were published, so that we would not have to argue over who would be the first to read each new one.
We never ran out of books to read aloud
Sometimes I wondered if we would run out of appropriate books, since the boys read vast amounts for themselves by this stage, and we have no local library here in Cyprus. But we kept on finding more authors, more books, more worlds. We talked sometimes about the books we read – the situations characters are in, the style of writing.
Occasionally we started something and decided it was too boring, or unsuitable in some way. So we stopped and try something else. I encouraged my sons to make their own decisions about their reading, and I am sure that in having so many books read aloud, they’ve been better able to develop an awareness of what makes a good book.
When my older son was five, in school in the UK and beginning to read for himself, he went through a traumatic phase when he suddenly didn’t want to learn to read any more. He was worried that I would stop reading to him, if he could read for himself. I promised him that I would continue reading to him as long as he wanted – until he was fifteen, if he liked.
I had no expectation that he would still want me to read beyond the age of about eight or nine. But I often used to think of that promise. Perhaps if I hadn’t made it, I would have encouraged my sons to give up their bedtime stories. But I am very glad that we continued for all those years!
Reading aloud happened less often, inevitably, as the boys’ lives became busier. But it remained an important part of our life as a family, right up until January 2006 when my older son left home, aged 19.
Further reading about parenting and home education: