6 Reasons to Keep Reading Aloud to Older Children
Most parents understand the importance of reading aloud to young children. We recite poetry to our pregnant bellies so our infants will be born recognizing our voices and the sound of our language. We read board books to our babies and Dr. Seuss stories to our 2-year-olds because it helps with language development and encourages our 4- and 5-year-olds to start reading on their own.
We read lying next to them in bed, or they sit on our laps or beside us, their body snuggled into ours. Their minds are open and impressionable; their bodies secure and relaxed. Unconsciously, while they are enjoying the story and sound of your voice, they are learning to love learning.
At what point do we stop reading to our children at bedtime? As soon as they can read on their own, perhaps? The first time they say they would rather read the book themselves than listen to you read it? Or maybe it’s when they have homework to finish or a friend to call, or they need to take a shower. But maybe you shouldn’t stop. There are significant reasons why parents should continue to read to older in addition to younger children.
1. Reading aloud is good advertising. Read-aloud proponent Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” describes reading to a child as “a commercial for reading pleasures.” He advises parents not to “cut [their] reading advertising budget as children grow older.” He points out that children tend to read less as they get older for a variety of reasons: access to electronics and mobile devices, homework, sports, friends and school activities, for example. Also, for some, books become linked with work rather than pleasure.
Remind kids how fun books can be by sharing a page-turner like “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman or “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead. Make it clear that you are paying attention and enjoying it, and read with expression.
“I use a lot of inflection and variation in my voice,” says Amy Godfrey, a children’s librarian and manager of children’s services at Southwest Regional Library in Durham. “Maybe not the super dramatic tones I use for little kids, but I definitely give it energy.”
You could read the whole book or, as longtime librarian at Durham’s Forest View Elementary School Kathleen Graves suggests, read the first chapter — “just a teaser … to get them interested and excited about reading.”
2. Reading aloud teaches above-level concepts and language. By familiarizing children with writing styles they might not choose on their own, you are challenging their brains to accept more complex sentence structures and advanced vocabulary. A book such as “The Giver” by Lois Lowry contains complex vocabulary and presents thought-provoking issues, such as the value of diversity. While a plot-hungry child or advanced reader might gloss over these words and themes, parents can hone in on them.
“One of the chief values of reading aloud is that you can stop and do a little coaching,” says UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Emeritus of Literacy Studies James Cunningham, who is also a member of the “Reading Hall of Fame,” which was established in 1973 with a mission to further improve reading instruction.
Coaching can be particularly valuable to middle grade students who are at the cusp of reading proficiently and identifying figurative language and themes.
“Kids need a framework to be able to apply these advanced concepts themselves,” Graves says. Reading aloud allows parents to help children build this framework so they can read more deeply on their own.
3. Reading aloud exposes children to classics. What 9-year-old boy is going to pick up “Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne rather than “Captain Underpants” by Dave Pilkey? What 12-year-old girl is going to read “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White rather than “Pretty Little Liars” by Sara Shepard?
“They won’t do it on their own,” Graves says. “It’s tricky for them to pick up the rhythm of the language in a Dickens or an Austen book. If it’s oral, they can catch the antecedents and get a better sense of the story as a whole.”
Once they’ve listened to “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte or “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, it’s easier for them to read and understand a similar book on their own, like “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading aloud is also an ideal way to interest a child in poetry or drama, both of which lend themselves to the give-and-take of oral form.
4. Reading aloud eases discussion of tricky issues. When you are reading aloud to your child, you have the opportunity to discuss not only the story’s vocabulary, but the subject matter as well. It can be easier to start talking about friend or family issues, puberty, bullies, alcohol or drugs when these issues pertain to a fictional character rather than your own child. Once you’ve read “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green, you may be able to more comfortably discuss terminal sickness, young relationships and sex.
Sometimes listening to the topic can put a different slant on it. For example, Graves says she read Sue Stauffacher’s “Donuthead,” a sensitive book about bullying, to one of her classes and had the kids rolling with laughter.
“A book might not be funny reading it to yourself, but when an adult reads it, with the right inflections, it can be hilarious,” she says.
5. Reading aloud helps parents and children maintain closeness. Whether it is 5 minutes or 30, the time you spend reading with your older children assures them that they are important to you. Whether you do it lying beside them in bed or sitting together on the couch, reading aloud evokes a physical connection, which is not easy to establish when children are younger. A book also provides a neutral ground that allows the day’s minor disagreements to be forgotten. Books create shared experiences (like that swarm of locusts from “On the Banks of Plum Creek” by Laura Ingalls Wilder) that can become cherished inside jokes. (“Moomintrolls” anyone?)
6. Reading aloud slows you down. Finally, after a day of constant Instagramming, Tweeting, texting and skimming through online information, a few minutes of reading aloud enables you and your child to focus on a single story and to relax. It’s impossible to speed-read out loud, and slow-paced reading has been touted as improving concentration, reducing stress and deepening one’s ability to think, listen and empathize, according to Jeanne Whalen, author of “Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress.”
Choosing a Book
How do you choose a title you will both enjoy? Here are some suggestions.
“Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang” by Ian Fleming
“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard (called “The Most Amazing Book Ever Written” when it was first published in 1885)
“The Giver” or “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry
“The Bronze Bow” or “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare
Not Quite Reality
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis
“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Five Children and It” by E. Nesbit
Coming of Age
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
Pushing the Limits
Challenge your child by reading a Shakespearean play such as “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Tempest.”
Find more suggestions at bankstreet.edu/center-childrens-literature/childrens-book-committee/further-resources/read-alouds-for-older-children, or at the American Library Association site at ala.org/alsc, which lists award-winning books from 1922 to the present time.
Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham