Reclaiming World Book Day

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Established by UNESCO in 1995, World Book Day was set up as a global day to celebrate books and reading. Its primary aim was to encourage children to explore books and discover the joy of reading. But over the years have we lost the central aim of the day in all the pressure to dress up?

There are few things as valuable to a child as absorbing a love of books from birth. Books have the power to transform lives. They enable children to discover new worlds, meet new people and extend their vocabulary. Books spark imaginations, stimulate critical thinking, and help develop empathy - skills every child needs to succeed at school, at work and in life. In 2020, World Book Day will fall on Thursday 5th of March in the UK.

Sadly, in Britain today, with hectic family lives and free access to screens, only around 45% of all 0-2 year olds are read to by their parents every day or nearly every day. The numbers increase slightly to 58% for 3-4 year olds (in part due to a drive to get them ‘school ready’), but sadly drop back down to 44% for 5-7 year olds. (1) A 2019 study found that more than one quarter of parents make use of technology to read the bedtime story rather than snuggling up with their child.(2) Underlying these figures is the notion that reading is a skill to be mastered and a chore to be completed rather than a love and pleasure to be fostered.

However, sharing books regularly with young children is extremely powerful. It builds self-esteem, extends vocabulary, inspires imagination and even helps to improve sleep. We know that children’s language skills matter. By 22 months a child’s language development can predict their outcomes at age 26. By age 5, a child’s vocabulary will predict their educational success and outcomes at age 30. We also know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds will have heard 19 million fewer words by age 4 than those from more affluent back grounds. (3)

Furthermore, a 2017 report found that 1 in 8 of the nation’s most disadvantaged children told the National Literacy Trust that they didn’t have a book of their own at home. The report also found that children who own just one book are 15 times more likely to read above the level expected for their age and are four times less likely to read below the expected level. (4)

With figures like those above, can we be sure we are making the most of World Book Day to tackle inequalities and to narrow the gaps for our children? Acknowledging that dressing up can be fun, we have to ask whether this is all that world book day has become? After all type ‘World Book Day’ into any search engine and on the first page of results will be costumes for sale. Have we lost the core message and aim of the day (to instil a love of reading and books)? How sure are we that children are picking characters from books they have read or are they coming from their favourite TV program, or a film adaptation of a book? Are children really dressing up as their favourite character from a book or just what the parent can cobble together?

Also if parents are already struggling to find time to read to their children and often see this as another chore to be ticked off, how does the pressure of creating a fancy dress outfit for World Book Day help them to feel any more positive about reading? And let’s not forget about the families struggling to make ends meet or put food on the table. Or the parent who simply forgot or only remembered at 11pm the night before (yup, they are busy people and it happens!). What pressure does the current World Book Day put on them?

So maybe it’s time to get back to basics and focus on the books!

Rather than promoting dressing up at your setting this year, how about you consider some of the following ideas:

Pledge to read at least one book with every child in your setting

And I’m not talking about at group story time! While these have their time and place, listening to a group story is not the same as sharing a book, one-on-one or one-on-two. Having an adult’s sole attention while exploring a book is a real treat for a child and brings so much more to the process. First of all, the child can engage with a book really of their choosing (and remember for boys this may be a factual book rather than a story). Secondly the book can be read at the child’s pace. You can take time to explore the pictures, listen to a child’s ideas or answer their questions. Finally, you can check and see if the child has understood and followed what you are both reading about.

If reading to all children one-on-one seems like too big a challenge (and yes, if done properly it will take time, quite possibly the whole week), why not start with those children who don’t engage at group story time or never (or rarely) venture to books on their own. You could also focus on those children you know don’t get read to at home, and you can make a point of giving them a rich and rewarding time with a book. (This, after all, is what cultural capital and instilling a love of learning is about, tailoring your curriculum to meet the needs of your cohort of children).

Another idea could be to ask parents or grandparents to volunteer to come in and read and explore books with children during the day. They could focus on the children who naturally gravitate to books while your staff could focus on those children harder to engage.

Create a lending library

We know that not all children grow up in a house with books. Parents may not be able to afford to buy books or see them as something important to buy. Parents may feel intimidated about visiting their local library. The library could be too far away or not open when the family can visit. An easy way to combat this would be to create a small lending library at your setting.

Creating a library doesn’t need lots of space or money. Source second-hand books from charity shops, car boots or some of your parents. Consider laminating magazines, which can often appeal more to boys. Try to position your library somewhere where every parent will see it.

Make it a cosy and inviting space where children can take time to pick a book and maybe sit and read one with their mum or dad. A rug and a few cushions would be a great start, and these can often be picked up for only a few pounds from places like Facebook Marketplace or car boot sales.

Remind parents that it is ok (and the benefits of) children borrowing the same book time and time again or indeed a book they already have at home.

You don’t need staff to run your library. Run an honesty system and just have a notebook for families to log what they have borrowed. If the odd book never makes it back, don't fret too much.

Use the information in the notebook to see who is borrowing books. If those children most likely to benefit from having books at home never borrow one, try supporting their parents to borrow a book or two. If a parent was never taken to a library themselves, they may feel very unsure about how to access even the small scale one in your setting. If their own literacy is a barrier, explain the benefits of just looking at a book and talking about the pictures.

Finally, if you already have a lending library or something similar, why not consider allocating a member of staff to it just for World Book Day, to help encourage reluctant parents to make use of it.

Invite parents in for story time

Another idea is to showcase story-telling at the very highest level on World Book Day. After all, not all parents feel confident reading out loud and many are unsure how to tell a story. So invite parents in and show them how to do it. You could read one book in the morning, another around midday pick up and another towards the end of the day, to give all your families an opportunity for attending.

Pick a book that you and the children love to read and do your best to make the story as fun and exciting as you can.

10 top tips for story telling:

  1. Use your voice and tone to set the scene and create an atmosphere

  2. Build anticipation and introduce surprises

  3. Use facial expressions

  4. Use your whole body to tell the story

  5. Move around the room or go outside if this is appropriate to the story

  6. Use your voice to develop characters and introduce sounds

  7. Vary the pace, speed and volume as appropriate

  8. Use props to make the story come to life

  9. Pause and allow children time to repeat refrains if appropriate to the story

  10. Relax and enjoy telling the story

Sign up to BookStart

We have already seen the dramatic effect that owning just one book of their own can make to a child’s ability to read and the knock-on impact that has on life outcomes.

BookStart, from the Book Trust, is a national book-gifting program and aims to encourage a love of books, stories and rhymes in children from as young an age as possible. Children should receive 2 books from their health visitor between the ages of 0-12 months. There is also the opportunity for children to get another book between the ages of 3-4 years. If you sign up to receive the Bookstart Treasure pack, you can ensure all 3 and 4 year olds in your setting get at least one book to call their own.

Sign up for the £1 World Book Day tokens

On the theme of encouraging book ownership, you can also register to receive books for £1 tokens. As part of World Book Day, and in partnership with National Book Tokens, more than 15 million £1 World Book Day book tokens are up for grabs. The tokens allow children to choose one book from a small selection and only pay £1 for it. Two of the available books have an Early Years focus this year. For those families for whom finding even £1 could be a stretch, you could consider using Early Years Purple Premium funding to buy the book for them.

With all children in your setting owning one of the same two books, you could do some fantastic spin off activities around them in the weeks after World Book Day.

To get tokens for the children at your setting simply register with World Book Day.

If you would like more support to up skill yourself or your team to make the most of books and storytelling please don’t hesitate to contact Cambridge Early Years to see how we might be able to help.


1, 4 – Literacy Trust Report

2 – Book Trust Report

3- Ican Report

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