Reading Out Loud Benefits All Ages
My best friends as a child were named Laura, Anne (with an "e"), Lucy and Jo. I've introduced them to my daughter Rebecca, and they haven't aged a bit. They live in our imaginations, born as we read great books together.
Although Rebecca has been reading herself for years now, she still loves our reading ritual as we huddle in my bed, compete for covers with her sister Katie, and settle in to answer that never-ending question, "What's going to happen next?"
Experts extol reading aloud to children, directing most of their effort at parents of preschoolers. However, Jim Trelease, the foremost read-aloud specialist, says there shouldn't be a cut-off age for reading to your kids. Children of all ages benefit academically when they're read to, because it allows them to experience a wider range of books than they could handle alone and gives them constant "commercials" for the joys of reading. You're not stealing reading time from them, either; studies show that children who are read to read more on their own than children who are not.
The intellectual boost from reading out loud is not even the most exciting benefit. Quite simply, reading together brings you together. You're physically close, and kids know they're precious because you're spending time with them. Perhaps even more importantly, if you choose good books, you open doors for communication and moral teaching. Because the action in stories takes place in our imaginations, we participate in the story. We feel the characters' joy, grief, fear, even courage.
As the characters are forced to make decisions, our own moral compass grows, even if the books aren't explicitly pragmatic, or if our children can't yet put the moral into words. In The Two Towers, a despondent Frodo agonizes over whether or not their story will be worth telling. Sam reassures him, saying that whether or not children understand the moral, the story will become part of who they are. That's the beauty of stories, to give people pictures that will stay with them and change them. To capture this magic in your own home, try the following suggestions:
Make time to read
Choose a consistent time to read aloud. Many families huddle together right after dinner or for 15 minutes before bed. If children are reluctant, let them extend their bedtime if they listen to a book. Soon they'll be eager to hear what happens next!
Very young children need their own time with you reading picture books. This doesn't mean, though, that they can't be part of family reading. My 6-year-old doesn't understand all the books I read to my 9-year-old, but she likes to play in the same room, and often surprises me by recounting a story I thought she didn't hear. Give younger children special toys that come out only when the book does, so they can play as they listen. In fact, you can all try this. We often spend Sunday afternoons with Rebecca and I knitting, Katie drawing, and my husband reading to us.
Don't leave home without them
If you're tired of the "Are we there yet?" pleas from the back seat during car trips, take a book along or borrow books on CD from the library. You can also make books part of your daily life by sticking some in your bag to read while waiting at the dentist, waiting for a bus, or even while standing in line at the grocery store.
Act out stories
For my daughter's fourth birthday party, I read Where the Wild Things Are and gave the guests dress-up clothes and instruments to hold their own parade. Today my girls love making "plays," but unfortunately these often lack something vital called "plots." But when they choose a scene from a book, that problem disappears. Encourage your children to act out their favorite stories. Invite family members to watch, and tape them for posterity.
Make models of scenes
After 7-year-old Danika's parents finished reading Little House in the Big Woods to her, she decided to build a log cabin. Her grandfather helped her cut logs to make a miniature house, complete with a stone fireplace, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the book's illustration. You can do the same with a covered wagon, the boat from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or the makeshift home of the Swiss Family Robinson. Hands-on activities help children remember the stories.
Discuss stories together
A book may present you with important moral dilemmas to explore with your children. Would you have had Corrie ten Boom's courage to hide Jews during World War II? Do you have the optimism Anne had, even as an orphan? Patricia St. John's Treasures of the Snow or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings provide similar opportunities, as can Barbara Robinson's hilarious The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
Books allow children to ask these questions before they encounter similar things in life. Even if children can't put the deepest emotions they feel from a book into words, the characters they love can change them — and you — from the inside out! What a wonderful family adventure, available for the price of a library card.
Sheila Wray Gregoire frequently writes about parenting issues and is the author of four books, including To Love, Honor and Vacuum: When you feel more like a maid than a wife and a mother.