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Twelve Reasons To Read Aloud to Your Children

by Cathy Cuthbert, homeschooling mom of two

Most parents read to their young children as a matter of course and stop reading to them when they reach school age. They stop, I suppose, because they don’t see the need to read aloud once their children have been handed over to the expert reading instructors or once they can read to themselves. But there are benefits to reading aloud to your children no matter their age, especially to formerly-schooled children who now homeschool.

Children Who Have Difficulty Reading

Children who have been rescued from unhappy school situations often have had trouble reading. Typically, the schools attached some damaging label to these children such as dyslexia, ADD, ADHD or whatever the Education Establishment can dream up. These children are not incapable of learning to read, however, the joy of reading has been taken from them and sometimes even the joy of being read to has been taken as well. If this describes your child’s experience, you may need a bit of patience to help him but you needn’t despair. Make the commitment to read aloud to him every day.

To begin, choose topics that interest your child and books that are good for reading aloud. Be sure to match his intellect rather than reading level. Determine the time of day he is most comfortable sitting with you to read. Then sit together on the couch and read. If his attention span seems short, make the sessions short at first, gradually lengthening them. If he doesn’t like the book you chose, pick another. Resist the temptation to test his reading ability or make him read to you. Stick to your daily commitment and simply enjoy a good book and your time together.

The idea behind this daily read-aloud commitment is to reawaken your child’s love of stories which will, in turn, lead him to a love of reading. To undo the damage done by reading instruction, don’t instruct. Draw him in without pressure, on his terms and using his interest. View your role as rescuing him from the drudgery of reading and awakening in him the uniquely human power of literacy. You will be introducting him to the evocative, enticing world of literature. There is no need to push. You need merely show the way.

There are people who never develop a taste for reading. I suspect most were pushed to read before they were ready or were discouraged by their school experience. I don’t believe this is natural – at least not in the proportion seen in this country today. But what if your child truly doesn’t like to read? Is this really a disaster – every parent’s nightmare? I don’t think so. There are plenty of vocations and avocations your child can pursue without being an avid reader. Not everyone is intellectual and the truth is that non-intellectuals are not doomed to dull, empty lives of drudgery. Besides, modern technology offers many alternatives to reading for getting information. You can always use the time-honored, low-tech alternative – reading aloud.

Reading Aloud Is for Everyone

What if your child has no reading problem? Reading aloud is still for him. My nine-year-old began reading before the age of four, yet we still read aloud together, typically two hours and up to four hours a day. She reads to herself books that I’m not interested in, while I read aloud classic literature that is beyond her reading ability. My six-year-old son, in contrast, shows very little interest in reading to himself and for the most part can’t sit still for reading aloud in the middle of the day, yet listens while we read in the early morning or late evening, especially fantasy and adventure stories. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and James Gurney’s Dinotopia books held his rapt attention when he was just four, and so did Robinson Crusoe when he was five. I would hate to deprive him of these treasured experiences because he refuses to read to himself.

Every family can benefit from the read-aloud habit. Here are twelve ways.

  1. Reading Aloud Is the Most Effective Reading Instruction. Pressure on children to learn, especially before they are able, creates anxiety that blocks learning. This is the premise of John Holt’s insightful book How Children Fail. Our American practice of beginning instruction too early has been shown by researchers such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore (Better Late than Early) to be damaging. I have recently read that in the European countries where entrance into school is delayed until children are eight, illiteracy is unknown. With reading aloud there is no pressure on your child, yet he is exposed to books in anticipation of when he is ready to begin reading.
  2. Reading Aloud Saves Young Children’s Eyesight. The Moores also note that close work for long periods by children under eight leads to myopia. With reading aloud, your young child will be able to enjoy literature without damaging his/her eyes.
  3. Reading Aloud Provides Time for Close Physical Contact. If babies need plenty of physical contact to thrive and the elderly need physical contact to avoid depression, isn’t it reasonable to infer that physical contact for people of all ages is beneficial, in fact necessary? Sharing a good read together is an excellent time for a long, therapeutic snuggle that will nurture you as well as your child.
  4. Reading Aloud Builds Vocabulary and Teaches Proper Grammar. Most children today are institu-tionalized quite early, isolated with children their own age several days per week, so that their exposure to adult speech is limited. Even when homeschooling, many children watch T.V. for long periods where the spoken language is not quite the queen’s English. Reading aloud is an antidote, providing an example of proper speech so that children will develop adult vocabulary and speech patterns. Also, since the written vocabulary is larger than the spoken one, reading aloud exposes children to many words that they may not encounter at all in conversation. Further, reading aloud introduces vocabulary words in the most effective way — contextually. The subtleties of connotation are presented in a way that no vocabulary list can match.
  5. Reading Aloud Stimulates Your Child’s Imagination. All of us have had the experience of reading a wonderful book, then seeing the movie version only to be very disappointed because the characters didn’t look or act the way we had envisioned. This experience illustrates the difference between the camera and books. The former is prescriptive and limits the possibilities for imagination while the latter is descriptive and stimulates the imagination. Also, children use the stories as the starting point for their make-believe, playing dress up, acting out episodes and developing further adventures.
  6. Reading Aloud Provides an Alternative to T.V. A discussion of the dangers of T.V. can be found in Marie Winn’s The Plug in Drug. Jim Trelease also tackles the subject in The New Read Aloud Handbook. There is little I can add other than to say that I believe, if anything, they understate the damage habitual T.V. viewing does to children and families. The single most important act you can do to strengthen your family is to throw out your T.V.
  7. Reading Aloud Provides Shared Family Experiences. Many episodes from the books we’ve read have become in jokes for our family, while certain characters have become archetypes — Scrooge, of course, for an old miser; Phileas Fog for typical British flegm.
  8. Reading Aloud Creates New Family Traditions. My sister read A Christmas Carol aloud to her children every year and I do the same with my children. I’ve added reading the true story of the first Thanksgiving. Next year I’ll read to them about the first July Fourth. These are new holiday traditions in our family, our way of celebrating special days together and evolving our unique family character.
  9. Reading Aloud Exposed Children to the Lives of People in Other Circumstances and Other Cultures. Through reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, with descriptions of the everyday activities of a homesteading family, my children have a sense of how difficult life used to be and an appreciation for the comforts modern technology affords. The same is true for Walter Edmonds’ stories of colonial America, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. The possibilities to learn about other cultures are as wide as your choice of books to read aloud.
  10. Reading Aloud Presents Life’s Lessons for Discussion. All the great questions of life and love and death are in the pages of classic literature. Our family spends nearly as much time discussing the moral choices of fictional characters as we do reading aloud. There is more truth about the human condition in one classic novel than in a library full of non-fiction.
  11. Reading Aloud Provides an Emotional Outlet. We laugh, we cry, we fall in love, we rage at injustice—all from the pages of the books we read. Our daily trials are put on hold for a few hours while we enter a world of emotional release.
  12. Reading Aloud Is a Great Excuse for You to Read All That Great Children’s Literature You Missed When You Were a Child.

Which Books To Read Aloud

If you are looking for a list of good read-alouds, think of all the books referred to as classics and start with these. There is a reason these works are known as “classics” and have been read and enjoyed by generations of children, and parents, too. If you need a written list, look for The New Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (out of print). The last chapter of this book is 150 pages of read-aloud suggestions. Trelease stresses that his list in not intended to be comprehensive and it certainly isn’t since he has omitted many classics that are found in school curricula.

The Caldecott and Newbery Award books are another source of excellent read alouds. The Newbery Award has been around since the 1920s, the Caldecott since 1930s. For a list of these books, check with your local library or look for the Newbery and Caldecott Medal books published by The Horn Book that lists all the winners and include the acceptance papers of the authors.

Your library will likely have reference books that list classic literature, often with synopses and information about the authors. Our library for example, has What Do Children Read Next?: A Readers Guide to Fiction for Children by Candy Colburn, which lists the best books for children ages six through 13. Approximately half the listings are recent books and half are older classics. Colburn cross-references the many titles by awards received, time period, geography, subject, age level, author, illustrator and other books you might like. There are other, less expensive books that list literature with synopses, as well. You might find these at your library, local bookstore, used bookstore and thrift shops.

Another source of good books for reading aloud is The Horn Book Magazine. Your local children’s librarian might subscribe to this monthly, although your library may not have it for patrons to read. Ask to borrow it. If you can skip the ads in the front of each edition, which tend to be politicized, and make your way to the reviews, you will find that the books covered are generally of better quality. The reviews give plenty of information for you to make informed choices. A one-year subscription costs $29.95. For more information call 800/325-1170 or go to www.hbook.com .

Of course, you don’t have to rely on published lists and someone else’s opinion to find good read-alouds. The best way to determine if a book is a good read-aloud is to preview a couple of chapters yourself. Then, as you read to your children, notice how they respond. They will let you know if the book you’ve chosen isn’t appropriate.

Mr. Trelease cautions parents to consider the emotional level at which a book is pitched to decide if it is appropriate for your children. For example, several years ago we began reading Howard Pyle’s Tales of Pirates and Buccaneers but my daughter became quite upset at the violence among those cutthroats. The Harry Potter books would not work for my six-year-old son, who I’m certain would have nightmares about his parents being murdered. Also, at our house for the time being at least, ghost stories are definitely out.

Trelease also recommends that books with complex sentence structures may not be good for reading aloud, but I can agree with this only to a point. I have found with my children that when the story intrigues them, they can understand surprisingly complex writing, probably partly because we read aloud so much.

I invite you to revivethis old tradition, not quite as ancient as homeschooling itself, but every bit as venerated in its time. Read aloud to your children, share with them the joy of literature and prepare them for the day when they will read aloud to you. CC

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