Cape Times

Reading with your child, telling them stories a recipe for success

- Malini Mohana

Reading for pleasure is more important than wealth or social class as an indicator of success at school

THIS month, as we celebrate World Storytelli­ng Day, it’s important to understand how stories – from amusing tales to the story of your life – are the pixels that make up your understand­ing of the world. Stories are not separate from life; they aren’t fictional pastimes, in fact, they are so prevalent that they’re woven tightly into the tapestry of every person’s life, and in incredibly different ways.

This is perhaps why the youth in South Africa have shown such an ardent love for literacy, and why teachers and psychologi­sts across the country have denounced the one textbook per subject ruling. Stories and fictional books are not just part of life, but the way children and adults learn to understand life as a whole.

Often, the public assume that stories and books are a nice, but peripheral extra in the mainstream learning process at school. Fictional books are considered pastimes for the rare few children who show interest in them, and textbooks are where the real learning happens. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Important, though textbooks are, learning does not stop once a child closes that book. In fact, what a child learns and understand­s outside the classroom is what sets the precedent for what kind of student they will be, and what kind of human being they will be.

“For we dream, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative. In order to really live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future,” said Kathy G Short.

The way children understand themselves and how they narrate their lives and themselves plays a crucial part in how they come to understand the world as they grow up. Each child’s narrative voice is one that is moulded and changed by the people around them, and the books they read. As Thomas Carlyle says: “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us.” This is even more relevant in a school setting, where children have not yet fully understood the world, and their place in it.

Stories, in and of themselves, can take various shapes and forms. They’re an integral part of any culture, and particular­ly African culture. Whether written, sung or told around a fire, these stories have an impact on the way children value and understand their culture and heritage. Engaging with tales, whether they are indeed fictional or whether they’re family stories, gives children the space and comfort to ask questions. Moreover, it gives them the choice to shape their own perception­s about the world.

Children are inherent storytelle­rs, and engage with them naturally and with enjoyment. Allowing them to embrace a love of stories, and allowing them to engage with fiction, both in and outside of the classroom, shows children that learning takes place in many forms. They come to experience reading, books and learning as fun and positive activities – not the chore that they often associate with formal education. In addition, reading fiction and enjoying stories is known to cut stress, and makes children more receptive and empathetic.

Studies further show the imprint that reading fiction leaves on the brain, physically changing neural connectivi­ties. Furthermor­e, a study of 17 000 people from birth indicates that reading for pleasure improves not just literacy but maths ability too. It was linked to greater intellectu­al progress, both in vocabulary, spelling and mathematic­s. It is vital that children enjoy reading – motivation is essential for acquiring literacy skills. Reading for pleasure is more important than either wealth or social class as an indicator of success at school.

This month, it is important that teachers, parents and other adult role models engage with the stories that children tell, and the ones they’re interested in. Often, the stories that children love resemble their lives in some way. They come to school with stories from home, and go back home with stories from school. In their first few years, children attempt to draw conclusion­s about life, and how to live from the world around them; this process is influenced significan­tly by how much you allow them to engage with stories.

Instead of simply seeing childhood imaginatio­n as an amusing personal quirk, valuing the place of stories within communitie­s and within a child’s world affirms and shows them that their voice and their narrative is valid. Moreover, it gives them the space to grow their curiosity and their love for books. Ultimately, reading with your child at home and telling them stories is the easy homemade recipe for educationa­l success and emotional intelligen­ce.

Reading and telling stories with the children in their home language provides them with a strong foundation for language learning and increases their chances of future academic success. For more informatio­n about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit

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