Five ways to give children access to stories and reading material during lockdown
Alison Leach, founder of BooksForTopics
With hours ticking by and many children at home looking for new kinds of entertainment, lockdown seems like the perfect time to get more children reading for pleasure. And yet, with the partial closure of classrooms and libraries, hundreds of thousands of children and families have limited access to books at home. Research by the National Literacy Trust revealed in 2015 that a staggering three-quarters of a million (770,129) UK school children didn’t own a book. Of these children, those who receive free school meals, boys of all ages and teenagers are the most likely to say they have no books of their own at home – and all this before lockdown began.
It’s a surprisingly high figure, and during this current period when teachers and librarians are less able to provide and renew physical reading material, schools may expect to see a drop off with reading engagement during the lockdown without their intervention. But some will also see an opportunity for renewed engagement here too – just as thousands of members of our population are discovering new passions for yoga, interval training, ukulele playing or crochet through the wealth of free online material, there’s also a bank of reading material to tap into that may spark a newfound enjoyment of reading for those without books at home, so long as there is access to a computer.
Best-selling author and illustrator Cressida Cowell says, “Not only do books enable children to discover new worlds, meet new people and learn about the past, but they also have the power to transform lives….Yet far too many children [in the UK] are missing out on the chance to reach their potential for one simple reason – they don’t have a single book of their own at home.” With time to spare and a wealth of free online resources, this is undoubtedly the time for schools to signpost families to a choice of free, high-quality stories to listen to and engaging materials to read. We’ve put together a list of the best places to access children’s reading materials and stories during lockdown, from phonic readers and online comics to read-alongs and full length chapter books. All of these resources are free to access, although some may require an account to be created by an adult first.
1. Online Reading Book Libraries
A number of publishers have made high quality ebook libraries temporarily free to access. For children working through school reading schemes, Oxford Owl is our top recommendation. Once parents have created a free account (teachers can do this on behalf of their class), readers can access a host of books that may look familiar to children used to seeing the Oxford Reading Tree or Read, Write Inc. schemes at school. The books are available to filter by age group, text type, book band, phonics phase or reading level. A similar resource is Collins Connect, which offers free access to 330+ Collins Big Cat ebooks from pink to lime level, including worksheets and quizzes to use at home.
Outside of the reading schemes, the US ebook library GetEpic offers parents a free 30-day trial. The site offers online browsing and reading of a library of fiction and non-fiction, with themed collections based on interest and a few popular favourites like Wimpy Kid, Rebel Girls and Big Nate too. BookTrust HomeTime also has a section of interactive picture books to read along with online, with much-loved favourites including Owl Babies, Hairy Maclary and Rumble in the Jungle.
Families can also get a free 30-day trial of Kindl Unlimited, offering unlimited access to over 1 Million eBooks during the trial period. With unlimited choice of what to read, you may wish to use our free Year Group reading lists to guide pupils towards a range of age-appropriate reading for pleasure choices.
Also worth exploring if you wish to point your pupils to particular handpicked books or relevant collections are the US sites MyOn and Vooks, also offering free trials. With these sites, we recommend that teachers or parents browse first and pick out the most suitable titles or collections, as the choice can feel overwhelming without guidance and not all of the books are familiar to a UK audience. Finally, LoveReading4Kids is a brilliant source of information about books, and once you have signed up for an account you can read short extracts of most books for free.
2. Tap into Storytime Online
Encourage children to sit back and listen to stories being read aloud. With access to libraries, classrooms and bookshops limited for many, BooksForTopics HQ has been busy finding some of the best online storytimes for children to access freely at home and you can find our recommendation sheets for different age groups in our Storytime Online hub. The QR codes and links in the document link to story readings on Youtube and all of the books we’ve chosen are read aloud by their fabulous authors and illustrators.
If you are looking for more online storytimes, tap into the brilliant resources available from Cbeebies Bedtime Stories, Puffin Storytime, Chicken House CoupedUpKids and Booktrust HomeTime. There’s also a growing multitude of authors and illustrators to follow on social media who provide regular, live storytime or illustrating slots, like Julia Donaldson (4pm on Thursdays via Facebook), David Walliams (11am daily, via Instagram) and, Rob Biddulph (10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays via Twitter).
3. Don’t forget about other reading formats
When families think of Reading for Pleasure, it’s easy to jump straight to fiction recommendations and in particular story books, but it’s important not to overlook the other reading formats that are often favourites with young readers. Research into children’s reading preferences undertaken by the National Literacy Trust has shown that a great deal of what children choose to read in their leisure time outside of school is not ‘book based’, with comics, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers and on-screen texts all rating highly.
For young readers who love comics or graphic novels, Marvel Comics have made 12 of their greatest graphic novels completely free to read, including Avengers, Captain America and Fantastic Four. To access these, parents need to download the Marvel Comics app and set up a free account. Another brilliant choice for comic book fans is The Pheonix Comic, which offers a few free digital sample issues online.
Non-fiction fans might enjoy Cicada Publishing’s Earth Shattering Events – an appealing non-fiction book about natural disasters, which has been recently made available as a free PDF book for children to read during lockdown. Publisher DK has also created an excellent home learning hub, which includes free access to full colour spreads from a number of their popular non-fiction titles. Another good source for non-fiction is BookLife’s selection of free non-fiction titles made available as PDF books (a popular starting point is this fact book about space), which parents can access by creating a free account. For poetry fans, we recommend Children’s Poetry Archive as the best place to listen to or read along with an incredible bank of children’s poetry, searchable by theme or poet.
There are also some brilliant children’s magazines available, and most offer sample issues to read online. Why not try the free digital issues of Scoop Magazine, Aquilla, Whizz Pop Bang, The Week Junior or National Geographic Kids?
4. Learn to love audiobooks!
If you’ve never learned to appreciate the brilliance of audiobooks, there’s no time like the present! Audible Stories has made a bank of children’s stories in a number of languages available to listen to for free, including Harry Potter, Kid Normal, Winnie the Pooh and The Tales of Beatrix Potter. And for more choice, signing up to the Audible free trial gives you access to another free e-book of your choice from their extensive catalogue. With so much choice of what to listen to, children may plunge straight away for their favourite stories or you may wish to use our free Year Group reading lists to guide listeners towards a range of age-appropriate reading for pleasure choices.
Another favourite resource for free audio stories is World Book Day’s World of Stories, with full length audio books freely available to stream online. Highlights include The Nothing to See Here Hotel, Rumblestar and A Pinch of Magic.
If you work in a school setting, why not consider uploading recordings of staff story readings on your school website too? Many of the usual copyright rules have been amended during school closures, but most publishers still have various rules to follow if you are reading their books online, and you can find all the information and requirements you need here.
5. Make the most of books especially written for this time
There’s no doubt that we find ourselves in the most unusual of times and in response, a small number of specially produced books have been created during this time for free reading online.
‘Coronavirus: A Book for Children‘ – To help children to understand more about the coronavirus, the publishers at Nosy Crow have made a new picture book available to download for free, illustrated by Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler. Click here to download the book.
‘Everybody Worries’ by Jon Burgerman – The publishers at Oxford Owl have made this picture book available to read online for FREE to help children understand feelings of anxiety about Coronavirus. Click here to read the book online.
‘Staying Home’ by Sally Nicholls & Viviane Schwarz – Free from Andersen Press, this is a picture book featuring a family of energetic raccoons going through a day in lockdown with no school, nursery or work – and explaining to the youngest members of the family how they’re doing their part to save lives just by staying at home. Download it here.
‘Winnie and Wilbur Stay at Home’ by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul – Popular duo Winnie and Wilbur are back in a new, free ebook about staying at home. At first they find it difficult. Wilbur likes to lick his paws to wash his face and Winnie’s attempts to join in with an online exercise class end in a tangle. But in the end, they discover staying at home can be just as magical as long as you have each other. Read the ebook for free here.
The Book of Hopes: Words and Pictures to Comfort, Inspire and Entertain Children in Lockdown – Completely free for all children and families and best suited for KS2 readers, the extraordinary collection of short stories, poems, essays and pictures has contributions from more than 110 children’s writers and illustrators, including Lauren Child, Anthony Horowitz, Greg James and Chris Smith, Michael Morpurgo, Liz Pichon, Axel Scheffler, Francesca Simon and Jacqueline Wilson. The collection, published by Bloomsbury, is dedicated to the doctors, nurses, carers, porters, cleaners and everyone currently working in hospitals. Read it for free here.
You’re likely to find a wealth of free reading material once you start looking – but the key is to select wisely and recommend an appropriate and appealing taster menu to young readers.
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> View our printable year group booklists.
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