The secret magic of reading together: Smriti Halls' top tips for sharing stories

Published on: 05 November 2020 Author: Smriti Halls

Our Writer in Residence Smriti Halls loves sharing stories with her children! Here, she explains why it's so magical and offers her top tips for storytime...

A photograph of Smriti Halls and an illustration of a bear and a squirrel reading together from her book I'm Sticking With You

A few years ago, I broke my phone. It almost broke my heart. I thought I'd lost forever something more precious to me than rubies: the voice recordings of my children, when very tiny, deliciously, delightfully declaring, 'STILL no Tiddler!' and 'Bear's big BOTTOM!' and 'His favourite food is roasted FOX!'

We all know that reading is essential in forming a firm foundation for language, learning, and a love of books. But as a mother of three wonderful and wildly varied readers, I've learnt that reading TOGETHER is about so much more than this.

It's a precious cornerstone to building a deep relationship, talking about life, getting a window into each other's worlds, being close. Laughing. Listening. It's a journey of discovery – into books... and one another.

There's a secret magic that binds you together with an invisible, silken thread. A thread woven with words and verses, laughter and suspense, joy and heart and hope.

A time to connect... A time to talk... A time to believe...

After a long day of work and play, learning new things, and negotiating friendships and experiences (and that's just me), sitting close together and turning the pages of a book is a special moment of connection. An unwinding. A release. A time to just be.

It can also be a time to talk. Experiences and anecdotes from the day can spring to mind. The stories that we're reading often spark conversations about the wider world... we make connections with small details, big issues, emotional ones. We talk about how we feel. We get to hear another perspective.

But reading together goes deeper still than this. Anyone who's ever read with a child – whether as a parent at home or as a school helper, teacher or librarian – will know the extraordinary alchemy that occurs.

It's true that children develop their skill and vocabulary in leaps and bounds... But something else incredibly powerful is happening. We may think that we're simply a smiling, nodding, gently prompting face...

But what a child sees is that... someone is listening to me, I am holding their attention, I made them smile, I made them laugh, they are helping me, they are listening to me, they can hear my voice, my voice matters. I matter.

Seeing the world with new eyes

An illustration of a woman and child reading together

Pic: Erika Meza

In our busy lives, sometimes reading with a little one can feel like yet another thing to check off a too-long to-do list. But the chance to read TO children and to be read to BY children is a gift. We should treasure it. Just as the child blossoms, so too do we.

It's a chance to discover thoughts and opinions, unique responses. We find out what makes this little someone laugh or cry, what makes them angry, what gives them joy. What makes them tick. As adults we get to hear a completely fresh and individual take on subjects we might already have firm opinions on. Often it's a chance to see the world with new eyes... and a chance to share something of ourselves.

Take turns... the more the merrier

Reading TOGETHER should be just that, so make sure you take turns. You might not fancy yourself a great orator, the thought of 'doing voices' might fill you with dread... don't let that put you off. Do whatever makes you comfortable. Reading together is not a performance and there are no rules. The beauty is in our OWN voices.

And, don't forget, it needn't be a pair of readers... get a family book on the go! An older sibling might read a page, a younger one just a paragraph, a baby will be listening intently to the voices of some of their favourite people – and adding their own contribution of gurgles and giggles to storytime.

Ideas for older readers

Once your children are fully independent readers, and as they get older, these opportunities might feel few and far between – you might count yourself lucky to get a conversation, let alone time to read together! That's fine. The shape and look of reading together may change, but it needn't disappear.

Perhaps you'll find yourselves browsing together at the library or bookshop, swapping book recommendations, and sometimes maybe still sitting close together, reading books of your own and talking.

One of my tingliest delights is when one of my own children - while exploding into raucous laughter or breathlessly gripped by something they're reading - will look up and say, 'Mum, you would LOVE this!'

I know then that we've created something much more valuable than good reading... we've created an understanding of each other, a common language, a relationship that will stretch across the years and into adulthood. Togetherness.

Not everyone gets this chance – many families struggle through constraints on time or resources, through separation and difficult family circumstances. We shouldn't ever forget what an immense privilege it is to be able to share this magic together.

An illustration of a woman and child reading together

Pic: Kate Alizadeh

As a little girl I was lucky enough to be read TO and read WITH by everyone in my household. It was a risky business though... One of my earliest memories is being roundly scolded at school for having been taught to read at home.

To my deep misery, I had to stay in at lunchtime so I could learn the PROPER sound letters made: ah, buh, cuh, duh, eh, - eh? But what did I care? I ran home to read with my sisters again... about a small swallow and a prince with sapphires for eyes, with my Auntie Gertie... about a lioness called Elsa, and with my Mum... about Peter Piper and pickled peppers - which was my favourite because we would race to see who could say the tongue-twisty words the fastest.

It gave me confidence, it gave me other worlds, it gave me a life-long love of language... and it gave me a bookcase of beloved memories I'll treasure my whole life.

When you read together, there's a powerful magic that binds you together with an invisible, silken thread. A thread woven with words and verses, laughter and suspense, joy and heart and hope... magical cords that will last a lifetime.

Smriti's tips for reading together

  1. Relax. Reading together is not a performance. It's a meeting of minds and hearts. Enjoy it.
  2. Read often. Pick up a picture book, pounce on a poem.
  3. Read widely. Comics, cookbooks, poetry, picture books, non-fiction, novels, newspapers...
  4. Read TOGETHER. Take turns!
  5. Share your personal favourites. Choose a passage to begin with - it's a way of sharing a piece of yourself as much as the story (but don't get offended if it doesn't meet with the reaction you're hoping for).
  6. Grab every opportunity. It's not always possible to snuggle up somewhere cosy! 10 minutes on the bus, in the doctor's waiting room or while cooking can be special too!
  7. Read with anyone... and EVERYONE - babies, siblings, aunties, uncles, friends, grandparents – share the love!
  8. Keep it going. Even when they think they're too old... children still love being read to. They might even join in.
  9. Record snippets... but BACK UP YOUR PHONE!
  10. Feel privileged, because you are. Take every chance to share these special moments... and treasure them.

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