William Sieghart has had a distinguished career in publishing and the arts. He established the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992, and founded National Poetry Day in 1994. He is a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel, and current chairman of both the Somerset House Trust and Forward Thinking, a charity seeking peace in the Middle East and acceptance of British Muslims.
All of us who are parents want our children to prosper in their lives. There’s lots of research showing that reading and listening skills are really helpful in supporting everything they will do at school and engender skills that will be valuable all their lives.
I really enjoyed reading to my children – now off to university – from their earliest years, and even when they have become confident readers at 8 or 9, there is still such a pleasure in sharing stories; the last time my daughter asked to be read to, she was 12.
Language skills don’t just come from reading and writing, but from hearing and speaking. Children learn about the musical and lyrical qualities of language by hearing skilled speakers and readers. If children hear stories aloud, they come to love words and rhyme and rhythm.
And what is more, listening will strengthen their powers of concentration, a skill that's increasingly challenged by the pace of life and its digital distractions.
Reading with your children, spending time with them, will also allow you to detox from your day, to slow down and leave behind your worries and frustrations and give proper undivided attention to your children.
Are audiobooks a poor substitute for ‘live’ reading? I certainly don’t think so. Reading a book aloud with children helps them get used to how the words on the page come out when spoken, how the two ways of communicating are related.
A recording can do that as well, without getting tired – and an audiobook can take over when you need to go off and cook dinner or want to read your own book. Audiobooks can have music and sound effects too, and readers who, let’s face it, are probably better at doing character voices than we parents are.
In my experience, children want to listen to audiobooks long after they think they’re too old to be read to; it can be the start of a life-long habit. Listening to audiobooks isn’t a second-best to reading or being read to, but a different way of absorbing stories. Titles we all listened to on long car journeys, things like The Gruffalo, and Matilda and of course Harry Potter are shared family memories that will be with us always.
Now, on those rarer occasions when we are all in the car together, we might all share an Ian Rankin Rebus novel, or Jane Austen, or some non-fiction like Richard Dawkins or Adam Kay.