The magic of story time – many of us remember those childhood evenings when we were already tucked in, our parents sat beside our beds and read to us fascinating tales of sea monsters, haunted houses, and unknown worlds. Time and again, research has acknowledged the importance of reading and, explicitly, of reading aloud. All the more worrying is a growing trend: The number of parents reading to their children has decreased significantly, as has the number of children reading for pleasure. Fortunately, there are smart and courageous book lovers fighting this tendency. One of them is German children’s author Kirsten Boie, who does not cease to publicly stress the importance of story time at home and in school.
Meet Kirsten Boie – Germany’s most successful children’s writer
Kirsten Boie, born in 1950 in Hamburg, Germany, studied German and English and earned her Ph.D. in literary criticism. She worked as a teacher at a local high school until she and her husband decided to adopt a child. Back in the 80s, the German child protective services could not fathom a working mother – and made Boie quit her job. “My life script always contained a family and a career,” she tells German Explore Life writer Sandra Goetz. Therefore, she changed plans and switched careers, from teacher to author.
In 1985, “Paule ist ein Glücksgriff” (“Paule is a lucky find”) was brought out, her first novel inspired by her adopted son. Never before in German mainstream children’s literature had there been an adoption story; sales went through the roof, and Kirsten Boie gained instant fame as an author. Today she has published about a hundred children’s books, which have been translated into several languages. She also received renowned awards for her work, such as the German Youth Literature Award and the Special Award of the German Academy for Children’s and Youth Literature.
One might think that Kirsten Boie’s books are proof enough of her commitment to inspiring children (and parents) to read. Yet she goes the extra mile. As she considers reading the entryway to society, she has become a strong advocate for literacy and is involved in numerous projects and initiatives. Her work does not go unnoticed: In October 2011, German Federal President Christian Wulff awarded Kirsten Boie with the first-class Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and in 2019, she was proclaimed Honorary Citizen of Hamburg.
Storytime is a happy place
But what is it about reading and particularly reading aloud – and therefore listening –, that Kirsten Boie identifies as indispensable? According to the author, there is no way around reading stories to children from a very early age when it comes to promoting reading, conveying ideas, and stirring the infantile imagination. “Listening is important, first of all, because that’s the way children learn to develop ‘internal images’ through language,” says Boie. “We are living in an abundant visual culture, and if children learn stories only through watching movies and gaming, they will, later on, struggle to enjoy mere reading,” she adds. The author does not want to dismiss games and emphasizes: “There are great games, no doubt!” Boie is more concerned with the early age at which some children are confronted with games, the amount of time they spend gaming, and the concepts of humankind they are presented in some cases. “Not everything children may see there is helpful for a happy development,” she says.
According to Boie, reading or simply telling stories, on the other hand, is something that most parents and adults, in general, are automatically capable of as soon as there is a child in the room. It is not just an essential step towards learning to read; it is also an excellent opportunity for bonding. The author associates story time with closeness, spending quality time with each other, and the German notion of “Kuscheligkeit”, which translates to cuddliness, coziness, softness. “This is, first of all, great for the child and the reader. But it also has the consequence that, from the beginning, the child associates books with a happy situation, contrary to when it gets to know books as sole subjects of effort not until it starts school.”
Research proves Boie right: Reading aloud matters
There is extensive literature on why and how parent-child book reading is beneficial to children. Not only does it improve young children’s language and literacy, but it also positively impacts the brain and cognitive development. The psychosocial effects of parent-child book reading on children and parents, however, had been neglected and unclear until recently, when a study published in the US-journal Pediatrics in April 2018 added clarity. The team of scientists conducted a meta-analysis of data from various sources. It came to the following results: Besides from positively impacting a child’s development, reading aloud has beneficial psychosocial effects on both children and their parents. In adults, it causes a boost of self-esteem and parenting competence, while it also helps to reduce parenting stress and symptoms of depression. For children, it fosters social-emotional competence, improves their general quality of life, and promotes interest in reading.
While all effects of reading aloud are highly valuable for children, the last one – the positive correlation between being read to and reading for pleasure – may be crucial. Let us have a look at two more studies to understand why: In 2018, the British National Literacy Trust published a report which shows that children who enjoy reading are – to a significant extent! – less likely to struggle with mental health problems. “Not only does a love of reading and writing enable children to flourish at school, but we now also know it can play a vital role in supporting children to lead happy and healthy lives,” says Jonathan Douglas, the Director of the institution. Research conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies in 2013 offers even more astounding results, suggesting that reading for pleasure has a four times greater impact on academic success than one parent having a degree. Reading, therefore, might be the one powerful possibility to compensate for socio-economic disadvantages, offering children from a multitude of backgrounds a real chance at a fulfilling, healthy, and stable life.
Reading aloud to children is on the downgrade
Unfortunately, parents and politicians seem to have missed the call, as international studies show there is a steep decline in parents reading to their children, and children reading for pleasure. British Nielsen Book Research’s 2019 survey results are alarming. 9 % fewer children under 13 are being read to compared to 2012. Only 19 % of eight to ten-year-olds are being read to daily by an adult – 3 % less than in 2018. While the US Read Aloud Survey Report indicates an improvement in 2018 compared to 2016, the figures remain low; a mere 30 % of parents said their child was read to aloud every day for at least 15 minutes. The older the children, however, the less likely parents are to read to them – and we are talking infants to eight-year-olds here. Only 24 % of the six to eight-year-olds are being read to daily.
In Germany, the Stiftung Lesen (Foundation Reading) annually conducts and publishes studies following up on the practice of reading aloud in families and schools. In 2019, only 68 % of the parents said they read to their children more than once a week. Therefore, 32 % read just once per week or not even once to their children. The effects of this downward trend? Hardly surprising. The international survey IGLU on the reading comprehension among elementary students conducted in 2016 proves that 18,9 % of the students cannot understand texts they read. Thus, Germany has dropped from place five in 2001 to place 21 in the international ranking. The self-proclaimed “land of poets and thinkers” is now below the average of the EU and the OECD.
Every child must learn to read! How Kirsten Boie is fighting the trend
Kirsten Boie has long been aware of this downward trend and its disturbing implications. Instead of just worrying, she has taken action. Boie regularly publishes essays and lectures on various aspects of children’s literature and the ever so important task of reading promotion. Not only does she support initiatives like Buchstart (Book Start), which donates a bag with two books, book vouchers, and reading material for the parents to each one-year-old child in Hamburg. The author also regularly visits schools and holds readings for the students. During the Corona pandemic, she offered free-of-charge live readings, broadcast by two major German companies.
Unafraid of her responsibility, she furthermore holds politicians accountable. Reading is too substantial to be a private matter. That is why in 2018, Kirsten Boie joined forces with other writers, journalists, and professors, and started the petition Jedes Kind muss lesen lernen! (Every child must learn to read!). Boie addressed the appeal to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. She demands not only that the Ministry throw the spotlight on learning to read and reading, but that the whole German education system be revised. To help children learn to read, smaller groups, more teachers, more libraries, and more readings are essential – and therefore, more money. Boie and her peers ask for nothing more than the necessary: that German elementary schools manage to teach all children to read.
Reading aloud to children – all around the world
Kirsten Boie is but one of many public figures using her influence and agency to make a change. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is publisher Egmont Books who urges politics to “make daily story time statutory for all primary school children.” The Arab Reading Challenge, founded by Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai in 2015, is the largest Arab literacy initiative so far. It encourages students all around the Arab World to read as many books as possible; each year’s winner earns a highly remunerated scholarship for further education. When it comes to inspiring American parents to read aloud to their children, The Literacy Project, the aforementioned organization Read Aloud, and the project Reach Out and Read are doing invaluable work. Just in case you are wondering what you can do: Besides the obvious – reading to your children daily, no matter their age – there are quite a few possibilities. Research children’s book clubs, libraries, or organizations looking for volunteers. Partner up with your niece, nephew, grandchild, and be their reading buddy. Organize bedtime stories for the neighborhood kids!
Learning to listen comes before learning to read
From this completely different perspective of children’s literature and reading, it becomes clear how important it is to be able to hear well. Being able to hear means being able to listen to stories – and listening to stories, the whole world unfolds before your ears, eyes, and other senses. Listening means closeness, a closeness that enables you to build relationships, to develop a sense of belonging. Anyone with a hearing impairment or actual hearing loss and deafness knows, in their heart, they lack more than just the ability to hear. That is precisely why it makes sense, for reasons far beyond the medical indication, to rely on a hearing solution. The challenge, however, is: You must learn to hear anew to be able to re-experience closeness. The correlation between hearing and closeness also emphasizes why it is crucial to provide hard of hearing children with cochlear implants as early as possible. The earlier a child receives help, the sooner it may listen to stories and develop a love for reading. Kirsten Boie is convinced that this makes all the difference, as she once stated in a speech in 2014: “A child that reads not only has it easier in life and becomes smarter, it is also more in touch with itself, more empathetic and happy than it would be without books. And for all of us, society as a whole, such a child is a godsend.”