Emma Mactaggart

Emma Mactaggart

Our first daughter was incredibly curious, but honestly, she would not sit still for long enough to have a story read to her unless it was late in the night, and by late, I mean late. Often, I would fall asleep beside her, the books spine crashing into my nose startling me awake as it slipped out of my hands. She would still be awake! She seemed to engage with every sound, with images, with actions, but would not gently slip into a slumber after being read a story at night. She didn’t gravitate to books by choice through primary school, even though she was confident with texts, or anything associated with her schooling. And to our honest surprise when she did finally read a book of her choice purely for pleasure, she was nearly finished school. She came out of her room, with glassy eyes, in raptures at the adventure she had been taken on by the author, walking in the characters shoes, exhalated by what I can only describe as discovering the true joy of reading.

As a children’s picture book author, I often engage in conversations that start with ‘my child doesn’t even like reading,’ and I nod, share a little of our experience, for I certainly did feel as though our eldest would miss out because she didn’t embrace my love of reading. I genuinely can understand the hushed tones of parents tell me they don’t read themselves, so they don’t read to their children. There are many other reasons, each as valid at the time as the others. It may be lack of time, resources, energy, ability, but it is never because we want to knowingly jeopardise our children’s future.

This sense guilt is reinforced as we still hear the rebounding press reports about a study with data released in 2019 in the USA’s Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics that children in a ‘literary-rich home hearing over a million more words during storybook reading than children who are never read to’(1).  This is considered to equate to over a year of traditional schooling.

I can see why they worry! And yet I find myself compounding their concerns – for only a brief moment – when I suggest the parents learn to DRAW. Yes. Draw.

And I to take a deep breath, as I do now, and explain!

Drawing, or the act of making a mark on a page, is something humans have done since the dawn of time. We know this from the incredible images, stories that are left for us, that prolificate around the world in ancient rock and cave paintings. The first strike of an implement on a surface, like a stick dragging through sand, is like the first gentle gurgling babble as children start to ‘speak’. It is the beginning of becoming a literate person.

One of our ‘please, you don’t seem to need sleep but we do’ tactics with our daughter was to install a chalk board in her bedroom. Whilst she may not have enjoyed being read to, she certainly loved drawing. We would wake and our day would start with an elaborate story from her as she pointed and explained the images she had made.

I still go back to those moments when I am working with children who ‘hateeeeeeee’ reading! We start with a drawing!

With a few prompts, like planting the idea of them lying on their backs looking towards a cloudy sky, we talk about what the clouds remind us of. We can see animals gallivanting across the sky. In a classroom setting though, it is not so easy to go outside, so each child makes a mark on a page, and we swap the pieces of paper, and then they are asked to tell me what they ‘see’. Very quickly a squiggle will be described as a snail, a clown, an eyeball, an umbrella, a snake (and it goes on) and I simply ask them to make a few more marks, joining one line to another so I can ‘see’ what they see. To a child, I am not asking for a great deal, just a little more information. As I glance across the room, I can see little heads bent over pages, hands moving frantically, as line after line are added, and the characters come to formation. I move through the room, and as each child finishes a drawing, I ask them to simply name it. They may ponder, but truly, it is as though they have been getting to know it as they were drawing, and this only takes a moment. Then I ask them to describe where they are, what they can see, smell, feel, hear, taste. We look for the characters ‘flaws’ – physical attributes that may make their days challenging, or an idea of a ‘flaw’ that would make their interactions difficult and voila, we have a ‘problem’ to unravel. If they are truly on a role, we talk about the plots, they choose one, and take the character along the plot line to solve their problem. In merely moments (in the scheme of things!) an entire classroom of children has written a story.

This is an even better exercise to do outside of the classroom expectations, for often, just as they truly give over to being in a state of flow writing, a bell will ring, or time will demand

the session is to finish. Being at home means the creative process isn’t interrupted so crudely. At home, start this with two pieces of paper – one for you, and one for your child.

You do the set-up lines as well, and swap. Once you have made the first one, be comfortable to scrunch up that piece of paper and toss it into the recycling bin. Yes, toss it. Demonstrate that there is no risk associated with this. You were never intending on framing the first creation. Now, this time, with the intention of keeping the drawings, do another one, and another, and another…

As you both become confident story makers, it is easy to slip to consuming stories written by others. It creates an opportunity to explore how others draw, how they name their characters, how they solve the problems, giving a reasonable ‘why’ to read. You now also have a portable activity that you can facilitate as you both wait anywhere – for your child’s siblings to finish an after-school activity, sport, music lessons, time on public transport…

And the best bit, with what started as you working towards untangling your concerns about your child not liking reading, by drawing with your child you may discover you too have a passion for drawing – just like I did.


If you wish to read more about this study: Logan JAR, Justice LM, Yumuş M, Chaparro-Moreno LJ. When Children Are Not Read to at Home: The Million Word Gap. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: March 20, 2019. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000657