If you’ve got a child in primary school and you are looking for ways to motivate and help them improve their English, reading books with them might be just what they need.
The benefits of learning English through stories
All children love a good story, but did you know that one of the best ways for young children to learn English is through stories? For a start, stories are motivating, because they are fun and entertaining. Their characters, settings and plots help children learn about the world around them, stimulate their imagination, and encourage curiosity – ‘I wonder what will happen next?’
A good story is like the glue that holds everything together, and many things can be learnt at once. Firstly, learning new words within the context of a story helps children remember the words better, because there is a strong association with the characters, the setting or the plot, and in picture books, these new words are tied to the illustrations. Then there are the rhyming words in a story, which help children learn how to pronounce and spell those tricky English words in a fun and entertaining way. Rhymes also make words easier to remember, because it helps children recall words by the way they sound. In addition to vocabulary and pronunciation, listening to or reading a story over and over again can help children internalise sentence structures, so when they come to study grammar later on, they will have many examples to draw on. Through stories, children also learn to follow a storyline and sequence their ideas – which are the building blocks for good communication skills.
But the words seem complicated, will my child understand the story?
One of the great things about children’s stories is that they come with beautiful illustrations. If your child doesn’t understand something they hear or read, they will probably be able to figure out what is going on by looking at the illustrations. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand every word, inferring the meaning of a text is a valuable reading comprehension skill. Children can also enjoy a story just for the way it sounds, rather than focusing on the meaning of every word. Many children’s stories are simply a good excuse for saying silly rhymes, having fun with tongue twisters and enjoying the funny (divertidos y raros) sounds of English – and there are plenty of those!
Create a story time routine
Whether it’s a story before bedtime, or in a comfortable chair by the fire, it’s good to have a story time routine, so that children associate reading in English with something pleasurable. Your story time routine doesn’t need to be complicated, it might just be the special time with Mum, Dad or Grandma that your child looks forward to.
What if I don’t speak English?
If reading a story out loud to your child in English is beyond your skill set, many children’s stories are available on CD. You can listen to the story together in your story time routine, with the added bonus of being able to listen to it in the car on the way to school, or for entertainment on longer car trips. There’s also the internet. The British Council’s LearnEnglish Kids has a large collection of stories your child can listen to and read at the same time.
Choosing the right story
Now that you know the benefits of reading stories with your child and how to go about it, what stories should you read? My advice is to choose a simple story with appealing illustrations, based on your child’s interests. However, chances are, if you like the story, your child will too – nothing beats an enthusiastic storyteller! But to help you get started, here are some of my favourite children’s stories, suitable for primary school children of all ages:
- Walking through the Jungle
Stella Blackstone & illustrated by Debbie Harter
This story takes us on a hike through the rainforest, a climb up a mountain, and a swim across the ocean. Through rhyme and repetition, your child will learn about animals and the sounds they make, verbs of movement, and exotic settings around the world. It’s a favourite of mine because it’s fun to act out the different scenes!
- There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly
This is another favourite of mine. It’s the story of an old woman who swallowed a fly, and to catch the fly she swallows more and more animals that increase in size, until… (I won’t spoil it for you). It’s a fun way to learn about animals and rhyming words, and its catchy rhythm means that it is a story that is fun to sing. You can listen to the song version of the story here on British Council’s LearnEnglish Kids website.
- Happy Birthday Winnie
Valerie Thomas & illustrated by Korky Paul
Winnie the Witch lives in a black house with her black cat Wilbur. Everything she has is black! In this story Winnie celebrates her birthday. Your child will practise the days of the week in a meaningful way, and learn the words for different family members, birthday presents and party games, as well as many different types of cake! Yum! There are also plenty of opportunities to practise saying the ‘w’ sound!
- The Tiger Who Came to Tea
First published in 1968, this story has been a favourite for many generations, and it is still popular today. It tells the story of a little girl called Sophie and a tiger who invites himself to tea. The tiger eats and drinks all the food and water in Sophie's house, and then leaves, never to return. This story is great for learning about food, drink and things in the kitchen. It’s a sweet and simple story, with lots of repetition that makes it easy to follow and join in.
- The Smartest Giant in Town
Julia Donaldson & illustrated by Axel Scheffler
I love this story because it teaches children about kindness and how to say thank you - and it has a beautiful ending. It’s the story of George the giant, his new clothes, and how he meets various animals who desperately need his help. Packed with rhyming words, children learn about clothes and animals, useful expressions like ‘What’s the matter?’, ‘cheer up!’ and how to say things like ‘smartest’ and ‘kindest’.
- The Gigantic Turnip
Aleksei Tolstoy & illustrated by Niamh Sharkey
This popular children's story is a Russian folk tale. It’s about an old man who plants a turnip, which grows so big that he cannot pull it out of the ground by himself. He asks his wife for help, but they still cannot pull it out. The story builds as they get more and more of their farm animals to help, until they finally pull the turnip out together. This story is great for learning about animals, vegetables, descriptions (adjectives), and actions (verbs). It’s another example of a story that is fun to act out. Remembering the story sequence encourages concentration and builds memory skills too. I really like the moral of this story – if we all work together, we can do anything!