I can't imagine anyone disputing the notion that reading to our children is important. Often the importance of reading is presented on the basis of skills: that children need to be read to in order to themselves learn to read. So in a way, reading to your children is simply another way to help them get ahead - a further part of one's parental repertoire that will lead directly to your children's academic achievement and subsequent successful, fulfilled adult lives.
As an academic I would argue that reading is one of the most basic skills needed to achieve academically. Being able to read and digest large amounts of information and being comfortable with the notion of finding information through reading is fundamental to education, in school, university and in life. Even in this age of multi-media, comfort with words is essential - technology is simply the tool that allows you to share words in different ways.
As a parent, reading is important for reasons other than academic achievement. Sharing a story means that paradoxically through reading the words of other people, you and your child are drawn closer together. There's a gift of imagination that comes through reading whereby your children are exposed to experiences other than their own and this enriches their own interior lives. There's the joy and pleasure that comes from a good story. And not the least, that when your children can themselves read, they become self-entertaining thereby gaining you precious moments of peace.
As a self-confessed readaholic, one of the things that I most want to pass on to my children is a love of books. Books and words have sustained me intellectually, emotionally and financially most of my life. Sometimes though, love of reading is not enough. How can real parents with jobs and responsibilities and busy lives sit down and read to their real children with school and homework and television and their own busy lives?
If reading is important to you, then this has to be apparent to your children. This may seem obvious, but if you yourself do not read books then your children will not realise that this is an important activity. A somewhat more technical term for this is "learning through modelling"; a principle strongly endorsed by a wide range of parenting experts. You can't expect your children to have an active life of the mind if you don't. This does not mean that you have to read in front of your children. Most people with young children know this to be impossible without reinforced earplugs and perhaps a forcefield around one's armchair. But it does mean that your children need to be aware that you read in your own time and that you enjoy books. A pile of books beside your bed, newspapers and magazines in the house, family trips to the library: all these make it clear that reading is valued in your home.
This ties in with the idea that books need to be available, accessible and read by all members of the household. Perhaps I take this to extremes, piling books on most possible, and some impossible, surfaces but the principle is sound. This does not mean that children should be able to access all bookcases. My most precious books are securely tucked away on high surfaces and more high surfaces are being created as rapidly as possible. But children should have their own bookcases filled with books. If possible, there should also be shelves on family bookcases that they can also browse.
If reading is clearly important in the family and books are available, what is needed are opportunities for reading. Valuing reading as I do, it was a shock to me to find out how little I was reading to my own children. The unrelenting labour of raising a family often means few opportunities for reading. When those few opportunities do arise, sometimes the last thing you want to do is to sit down and read with your children. Over the past few years my partner and I have come up with some solutions to creating reading opportunities.
The first is partnership. In our case, my primary job is looking after the children with writing and most other things on the side. My partner is the one who leaves the home to work. This means that my patience for reading has pretty much worn out by the time he gets home. One thing that works is that while one person cooks the dinner, the other person reads to the children. This has the dual function of providing a good time for reading and also, keeping the children out of the kitchen. Sometimes the reading time is while one person does the dishes. Reading at this time works much better than last thing at night when everyone is tired and cranky. For this early evening reading time, we pick substantial books or series that will last days if not weeks. It creates an additional element of interest to have a story that carries over from the day before.
Another opportunity that I have learnt to take advantage of is the time spent waiting in the car. Perhaps other people don't wait around much, but I have found that there are many times that I am in the car, with one or both of my children, parked outside somewhere waiting. Even if the time is fairly brief, we can fit in a few stories. I keep a thick book of fairy tales tucked under the front seat and pull it out to read whenever we have to fill in time. You may be amazed, as I was, at how much time we have to read. I was pleased recently to hear my youngest ask if I thought Dad would be late so that we would have time to read.
Part of my problem when I started carrying books around was that I thought that I had to finish a story every time. However, I have found that stopping at an appropriate place or even, if we have to quickly put the book away, continuing to discuss the story, holds the children's interest. Ask why the characters did something, what they think happens next, or play the "what if" game (what if the character did this instead of what they did?). These are all ways to maintain interest in stories and stimulate imagination. It's useful to refresh both the reader and listener's memories with a brief recap when you get back to the story, but serialised reading seems to work well with young children.
Talking about stories while doing other things can be another way of extending the reading experience. Talk about characters or activities from books while you are walking along the road, pushing the shopping trolley or playing in the park. Encourage your children to draw pictures of events or characters from books. Play make-believe games based on stories you've read together. In this way, book characters become part of the fabric of your lives and the books will be turned to again and again. To my children, Peter, Edmond, Susan and Lucy from C.S. Lewis' Narnia series are part of our lives and even the evil witch, Jadis has become part of their vocabulary. Watching the recent Eurovision song contest winners cavort onscreen, my daughter announced that they looked just like servants of Jadis with their wolfskin cloaks and whips.
Videos and computer games based on books can be part of this process though in almost all cases my preference would be to read the book together first before watching the video or playing the game. In such a way, the multi-media extends the reading experience instead of supplanting it.