Thursday, 3 November 2011


Paula Rawsthorne wonders whether we should be reading to our teenagers?
I attended a Spoken Word event this week.  The theme (very appropriately) was Halloween and writers got up and read passages from their ghostly  novels, a professional story teller enthralled us with a macabre fairy tale and (as it was held in our local art house cinema) we got to watch old footage of an exquisite reading by Tom Baker of ‘The Emissary’ by Ray Bradbury.  It was just Tom, sitting in an old leather arm chair, staring down the lens of the camera with his wild eyes and hypnotic voice, telling us the story.   The room was packed, the tension mounted and mounted and you could have heard a pin drop.   I don’t think I was the only one who gave an involuntary shudder as Mr. Baker uttered the final line. 

The whole evening made me think what a wonderful experience it can be when someone reads to you and, how being read to in a group has the added benefit of that warm glow of shared experience.   I began to think about childhood experiences of being read to and how that all seems to peter out once you get into secondary school.

During pre school days there are opportunities to take your toddler to story time at the local library (if it hasn’t been closed down!).  It’s a great habit to get into.  As the librarian sits in front of the squawking crowd and begins to read from the oversized picture book, quiet descends and little terrors, who only minutes before had been having a tantrums in Iceland, suddenly become entranced by the soothing voice and appealing pictures.

In primary school the importance of reading aloud to pupils is undisputed.  Many of us have happy memories of ‘carpet time’ when the whole class bunched up on a scratchy piece of industrial carpet and listened at the feet of our teachers as they read to us.  If this occurred after lunch when your stomach was weighed down with semolina and the classroom was hot and stuffy, you’d often be fighting to keep your eyes open or (to your horror) you’d find the head of the boy next to you, lolling on your shoulder.  But whether you were captivated, or sent to sleep, by the story, it didn’t matter because this was always a comforting, relaxing time in the school day.

And what lovelier childhood memories are there, than having a bedtime story read to you by your mum or dad; and now, if you’re a parent yourself , you have the chance to read stories to your own kids.  You have the pleasure of choosing books together from the library or bookshop, spending precious time together snuggled up on the sofa or sat on the bed trying out your ‘character’ voices on an uncritical audience.

What a shame that that experience tends to end during your secondary school years.   Of course, the chances of your teenager asking you to snuggle up to them and read is nil but (in my utopian world) what if you sit then down with some popcorn and launch into Lord of the Rings or Jane Eyre, what if, before they even realise it, they’ve listened to a couple of chapters a day and are actually quite enjoying it (and enjoying spending time with you?!!)

And what about in secondary schools?  I’ve been lucky enough to do a number of school visits now and within my talk, I read an extract from Celia Frost and it seems to hold people’s attention.   Teachers have commented to me that watching the teenagers as they listened to the extract has reminded them that they really should read aloud more to their pupils but, it’s something that tends to get lost within the pressures of secondary education.

 Being read to, at any age, can be an enjoyable, absorbing experience and has been shown to develop and improve literacy skills.  So, what do you think?  Do most teenagers enjoy being read to?  Would ‘story-time for teens’ (I’d have to think of a cooler title) work within schools and at home?  Do you enjoy someone reading to you?  


  1. Personally I find reading to an audience the most nerve-wracking part of a school visit. I get hot and fidgety and feel as if everyone in the audience must be twiddling their thumbs, sighing (or worse, laughing) at me. Yet every time the teacher comments that the kids were mesmerised (or words to that effect). I think we forget how strong the spoken story is, how important the oral tradition was.
    Personally I prefer to read for myself than to be read to (I don't like audio books for example), but then if it is the author him / herself reading then it's a different thing - getting to hear how the author intends the book to be read is really interesting.

  2. Hans Christian Anderson's Dad read to him until he was 22! I certainly find that quite lively teens sit riveted when I read a chapter from HIDDEN in schools. I do think that teens would enjoy being read to and it may well be a good way to widen their reading habits. Incidentally boys seem to enjoy this easily as much, if not more, than girls. A way to get boys reading??
    Good post Paula.

  3. I'm well beyond the teenage years, but I still like being read to! I'm a big fan of audio books and stories and plays on the radio. I'm a slow reader, so it's a way of consuming more stories, but I find it can also be a way into books that I know I probably wouldn't sit down to read.

    I still read to my 12 year old, though not every night. He and my wife both sat down to listen to the first draft of my new book. My son now prefers to read to himself, which is great and also enjoys reading to me and my wife. But I miss the nightly story time.

    I like reading to an audience at events and seeing which parts they react to. It's a rare opportunity to share the story directly with 'readers'. Unlike Bryony, it's the part I enjoy most. It would be great if authors still did reading tours the way Dickens used to. I'm sure a good story, well told, could still captivate an audience without the need for additional stimulation in the form of lights, music and special effects.