10 Tips to get kids reading independently at bedtime

When my eldest child reached the age of about nine, I realised that making the change from bedtime stories to independent reading wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was going to be a transition phase, and if I wanted my children to truly discover the joy of getting lost in a novel, I’d have to coach them. It was a slow process with a lot of reluctance along the way, but now at the ages of 11 and 13, I’m chuffed to have two book-loving kids.

Below are some of the things I tried out to help my kids discover what a brilliant experience it is to get teleported into a fictional world…

  1. CHALLENGE! I challenged them to read 12 chapter books in 12 months. If they completed the challenge, they’d win a prize such as a day out somewhere special or a voucher to spend in their favourite shop. Funnily enough, they told their friends about it which led to a bit of friendly competition!
  1. Keep it easy. We started the challenge with a chapter book that was well within my children’s capabilities, ie: 50/50 illustration/text. I didn’t up the difficulty level each time as I didn’t want to put them off. This was about learning to read by themselves – not accelerating their reading age.
  1. Start them off. I’d often read the first couple of chapters to them to get them started. Or I’d read a couple of pages every night and stop just as it was getting interesting. If they weren’t willing to read to themselves, I’d get them to read a few pages to me, then ask, “What do you think’s going to happen next? Why don’t you read the next few pages to yourself to see if you’re right?”
  1. Break it down. Suggest they read one chapter per night – or five pages if the chapters are long. Before they turn out their light, ask them what happened in that chapter. Which characters do they like? How do they think the story will turn out? Did they come across any words they didn’t understand?
  1. Strike a deal. Sometimes my kids would complain that the book was boring, so we compromised: they had to read to at least page 40 or the halfway mark before they could give up. If it still wasn’t grabbing them by then, they could choose another book. Usually, by the time they reached the agreed page, they were immersed.
  1. Know when to quit. If my kids reached the agreed page and still weren’t into it, they were free to ditch that book. I soon realised my children weren’t interested in many of the books I loved as a child. Once I read them a Famous Five novel and they forced me to abandon it at the penultimate chapter and begged me never to read them another one.
  1. Know when to get tough. For kids like mine who watch an hour or so of TV every day, asking them to read one chapter per night at bedtime is not unreasonable. I told mine if they could do it, then they’d get to stay up late on Friday and watch a film. If they couldn’t be bothered to give it a go, then no screen time the next day…
  1. Start a book log. Keeping a log of the books you’ve read and giving each one a star rating is a fun thing to do no matter how old you are. My youngest even wrote a blog for a while, writing a short review of each book she read. The rest of us all kept lists, which would get us talking – which books would we include in our Top 10 favourites? Which books would we take to a desert island? Which is better, the book or the film? Who is the worst villain ever?
  1. Talk to them about what you’re reading. Once, on holiday, I was telling my husband about the book I’d started reading (And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini). The kids were playing nearby but also listening to our conversation. “So then what happened to the little boy?” my eldest asked. I ended up recounting the first couple of chapters of the story. “Did he ever see his sister again?” the youngest asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll have to read another chapter tonight and tell you tomorrow.” They held me to my word. By the end of the holiday, I had recounted the entire novel (leaving out anything too disturbing) to my kids – at their request.
  1. Never say never. For years it seemed like my children were the only kids in the universe not to be interested in Harry Potter. They point blank refused to even watch the films. Then, one rainy afternoon (aged 10 and 12 respectively), they got bored. I dared to suggest a Harry Potter film again. They were so bored, they agreed. Since then they’ve watched all the films and read all the books. My youngest has just read the Philosopher’s Stone for the second time and is urging me to read it, too. We’ve come a long way…

 

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Please, please, tell me now!

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The bedtime routine. What should be a blissful hour of giggles in the bathtub, reading aloud a much-loved classic to an enraptured audience, followed by kisses and cuddles goodnight, is often a chaotic last hurdle to jump over before collapsing on the sofa with a large glass of wine and the next episode of Borgen.

When you’re tired, surrounded by mess, and you have to repeat the same instruction five times like a malfunctioning robot – “Have you done your teeth yet?” – it’s a real challenge not to skip bedtime stories and let them spend half an hour playing on their Kindles instead. Or, if I read them a story, I’m often yawning so much they can’t understand a word I’m saying anyway.

But failing to read bedtime stories to children just adds to the constant trickle of everyday parental guilt. (Five-a-day? Erm…not today.) So when my children were younger (they’re currently 10 and eight), I tried to solve this problem by reading them stories while they ate their tea or lay in the bath. That way, I could tick the story box and get ahead of the game, perhaps enjoying a little extra time to myself starting a little earlier in the evening…

As if. My children are smart. While I’d ticked the story box ahead of schedule, my children had a new box waiting for me: the Tell Me Something.

Every night, as I tucked them into bed, they’d beg: “Tell me something! Tell me something now – please!” Apparently, this ‘something’ had to be a true story from my childhood. Such as the time I stole my best friend’s purple stone and ended up confessing, unable to look her in the eyes – or display it in my own precious stone collection for fear of being rumbled. Or the time, aged six, I wet my knickers while standing up reading Roger Red Hat in front of the whole class. You get the gist – anything with a good dose of guilt, humiliation or general ‘epic fail’.

And when I’d run out of those, they’d demand a true story from someone else’s childhood. Such as the time their dad, at the age of nine, locked his little sister in the cupboard under the stairs after farting in it. Or the time he flicked a peanut and it landed in his sleeping father’s open mouth. (He often tells them these stories himself, as I only know so many of his childhood anecdotes.)

When I’d struggle to think of true anecdotes, they’d up the ante even more by demanding a made-up story instead. So what do you say when your head is empty, you can hardly keep your eyes open and you’re not even sure you’ve got the energy to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones? You say the first thing that comes into your head: “There once was a girl called Fartina Gasratilova…who suffered from an unfortunate condition…that kept landing her in lots of trouble…”

It’s actually quite satisfying to see what you can rummage out of the depths of your depleted imagination – especially when you’re one glass of wine away from being asleep yourself. And watching your kids’ faces light up as they picture the story you’re telling is a true delight.

Of course, that triumphant feeling didn’t last long, as they started demanding a new Fartina story every night. Eventually, having kept up with my children’s demands for weeks on end, I had enough material to put together a little ebook. I polished the stories up, persuaded the husband to knock up some illustrations, and changed her name to Fartella just in case…you know…the book became so huge, I got a letter from Martina Navratilova’s lawyers. (Well, what do you expect from a woman with a depleted imagination?)

These days the bedtime routine is a little simpler. My eldest is happy to read to herself and my youngest is, too – provided she has a book she’s happy with (my current challenge). I still read to my youngest, although more often, she likes to read to me. I’m still thrown a request for a Tell Me Something from time to time. But nowadays, it’s usually on a long car journey just as I’m getting stuck into a favourite album or Desert Island Discs. So what do you say? You say: “There once was a girl called Thirsty Kirsty, who lived on a desert island surrounded by sharks, and was only allowed to take three luxury items with her…”