16 August, 2016 was Reading Hour in Australia, and it’s story time on a major scale. It is a mass reading event where parents were encouraged to spend some time reading aloud with their children. It’s an annual event from Love2Read and supported by public libraries and library organisations across the country. The aim of Reading Hour is to highlight the benefits of reading with children.
There are other literacy campaigns with similar goals, like Paint the Town REaD and REaDTEMBER. Paint the Town REaD began in Parkes, a town in regional Australia and is an organisation that works with local government agencies to promote early childhood literacy. It supports organisations to form reading groups and events to encourage communities to read, sing, and rhyme with children as a way to prepare them for learning how to read and write as they enter school.
REaDTEMBER is another reading event that first saw life in Parkes (that town is big on literacy!). It is a literacy project programmed and delivered by Parkes Shire Library that began in 2011. The program uses storytelling and literacy events to engage young people and local community groups runs, and through September, October and November.
These mass campaigns are big, exciting, and well-publicised. But they are not the only events that draw attention to the fun and advantages of reading aloud. There are more routine reading events that happen in libraries everywhere, every day. Story time was once referred to as the ‘cash cow’ of libraries by Kevin Hennah, an Australian library consultant and visual merchandising expert.
In a time when libraries are increasingly valued by metrics (circulation numbers, attendance at events, visitor counts), story time is a regular event that will get people through the doors. The story times I’ve been to have all been fun, noisy and colourful affairs, with singing, crafts, and books read aloud to a large group of excited children and their parents or guardians. Clearly well attended and popular, they are a key part of most libraries’ schedule of events.
The greatest benefits of story time, however, are not really for the libraries but rather for the kids and parents who attend.
Story time events at the library not only provide ways for children to be exposed to reading and language, they are ways to show parents how to read to kids, and why they should. One librarian I interviewed during my PhD explained, ‘One of the benefits of story time and baby time is that it provides role modelling (from the story teller) for parents on how to read to children and to strengthen the idea of why reading is valuable from a literacy point of view.’
She added that story time is a good bonding session for parents and their children, and at the library she worked at, ‘We actually have five minutes (between storytelling and craft) where we ask parents to pick a book and sit with their children and do some reading together, then when they have finished their book to make their way to the tables to do craft.’
A number of library user participants I spoke with reiterated these points when they talked about reading to their children and taking them to the library. One dad explained the importance of reading and books for his son:
‘He speaks very clearly for a three-year-old little boy, and it’s from reading books. Like he can pronounce all these dinosaur names I couldn’t pronounce when I was older than him.’
‘I got [a book] the other week about washing your hands because he always, after the toilet, ‘I don’t wanna wash my hands!’ and there’s a book that says ‘I don’t want to wash my hands’ so I got it and when I was reading it to him, it really sunk in, and now he gets off the toilet and says ‘I’ve got to wash my hands’ because it’s all about germs make you sick, and it’s really really sunk in. That’s what I mean, books are really helpful.’
Books and reading can have long-term outcomes like improving literacy and speaking skills, and they can also have direct and immediate effects such as teaching lessons about hygiene to a stubborn three-year-old.
For this particular dad, there was a social element too. Story time at the library offered a chance for his son to meet other kids: ‘He was a bit insecure, he’d never had a lot of interaction with other kids, and that was another thing of it, to get him to sit with more kids and start to feel okay and social skills and things like that.‘
One of the other library users I interviewed during my PhD was a retired teacher and grandmother. She summed up her feelings on story time and reading to children rather nicely: ‘That’s another thing that is so important, as a person, to pass on that love of books. You’re not imposing it, it’s not a chore, it’s something that you do from choice. It’s not a must do. That gift of reading for the children is the most important thing they do as a parent.’