“It’s sharing the intimacy of a story – that special moment between you and them”: Helping dads to get reading

Published on: 25 June 2023

Keith Cullen, Family Support Worker for Splash SureStart Brownlow Lurgan has been using BookTrust’s support to help dads overcome their previous negative experiences of reading and to show how they can tap into the fun of sharing rhymes and stories with their children.

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Keith with dads and their children at Surestart Brownlow Lurgan

In Northern Ireland, SureStart Centres are specifically located in areas of high deprivation and aim to support children's development and progress. Splash SureStart Brownlow Lurgan is one of a network of more than 20 SureStarts who are using BookTrust resources to support local children and families on their reading journeys.

"We cover the period of a child's life from when mum's pregnant up until the child is four years of age," says Family Support Worker Keith.

"We have a health team with a speech therapist and occupational therapist, plus play and family support teams. My role is to encourage dads and other 'main men' - such as uncles or grandads - to bring their children to groups where there's a play activity with developmental, educational and health benefits factored in."

Barriers the dads face when it comes to reading

"Some of the dads we work with have literacy issues," says Keith. "For them, reading with the group can feel like being back at school. You can see them physically freeze at the thought of reading aloud.

"We use WhatsApp a lot. Some dads tell me they're not confident in writing a message in the group in case it's wrong, so they'll use voice notes instead. They're not confident in filling in forms. At school, they will have hated reading because they were embarrassed, they never put their hand up.

"One of the dads who has been with us a few months is dyslexic. He said when he was at school, he was just basically told he was stupid. Sometimes they're afraid of divulging their lack of confidence in reading."

Finding an inviting route into sharing rhymes and stories

Keith takes a gentle approach to using BookTrust books, packs, resources to engage men with the benefits of taking part in rhyme and story time sessions with their children. This includes tagging story time on to the end of a group activity such as archery, paddleboarding, football games or scavenger hunts in the park.

"If I were to say: 'Come along for rhyme time,' I maybe wouldn't get the same response," says Keith. "Instead, if we say: 'We're having games and activities and oh, by the way...'

"I've got the BookTrust Storyteller backpack. The other day when we were in the play park, we all just sat down in the sunshine and I started reading some stories from it.

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"The expressions and the funny voices I do while reading out loud help parents to realise that, yes, this is about the child's learning - but I'm not a teacher. We're just having fun with it."

Over time, Keith has seen the dads and grandads feel more relaxed about getting involved with story time.

"When we first started doing rhymes together, you'd hardly get anything out of them. Now they're all singing The Wheels On The Bus. For a laugh, they'll see who can sing the loudest! That helps lower the anxiousness they have when trying to read or sing in front of anyone. And the youngsters then see them doing that - which is great."

Partnering with BookTrust to champion the importance of reading

"It's so important to promote reading as a part of language and communication," says Keith. "Everyone loves the BookTrust packs. They actually explain to people what they can try when it comes to reading.

"It's all right for people that work in the early years sector to say: 'Just do voices.' Some people don't know what they can do with a story, or what they can get out of it. The BookTrust packs have all these additional points and prompts, like: 'This is a book about a spider - why don't you do a song about Incy Wincy Spider with your child?'"

"BookTrust makes things easier for us. There's always a good social message to the books and they're always of the highest quality."

What would Keith say to encourage dads to cuddle up to a book with their child – even if they're not confident readers?

"You don't have to read a book word for word," he says. "You can pick bits out of it. You can just use the pictures. You can ad lib - children are never going to spot it.

"Just having that that bonding time, that skin-to-skin contact is very important," he says. "It's about sharing the intimacy of a story - that special moment between between you and them."

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