“[The fairy tale] stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
Do you remember the scenes from the Little House on the Prairie books, or from Anne of Green Gables when the family gathers in the evening and someone (usually one of the children) is asked to read aloud from the family’s book of poetry, or from the Bible, or another treasured family volume? I have always been drawn to those scenes. There was a peace in that home, a decorum, a quiet strength and joy in those moments. It always felt like a faraway bliss; just a picture from another time – a thing that we could never achieve or experience in today’s day and age. Then I began to think: why not try it? I began a habit of reading aloud together as a family, and I have been amazed at the success, at the benefits, at the bliss!
If you haven’t read aloud to your children since they were small, the older ones may balk at the idea, but just like my daughter said recently when I forced her to visit a museum, “Wow, this is more fun than I thought,” and she didn’t want to leave, you will soon be hearing, “Aww, don’t stop, Mom, just one more chapter, pleeeaaase.”
Four of the reasons you should never stop reading to your kids can be remembered using the four letters of the word READ. R for Relationship, E for Empathy, A for Adventure, and D for Dream. This article explores the first:
R is for Relationship
I have heard many people say that their child doesn’t like to read or doesn’t like books. I’ve NEVER had the parent of a child under 5 tell me that – only the parent of a school-age child. The thing is, we typically stop reading aloud to our kids when they learn to read on their own. Reading was a snuggle-with-mom time before, but for the school age child becomes a chore, a task, or homework.
Many parents have a beloved picture book, story book, or nursery rhyme book they love to read to their little ones, but as children get older, the reading together time dwindles, then completely disappears. But so many of the same benefits of reading to younger children still apply as our children grow. Not the least of these benefits is that reading together builds relationships. There is the investment of time spent together and simply a a physical connection as you sit side by side and hear each other’s voices.
One of the proofs of the relationship-building power of reading together is that it works not only with children. In the 2nd year of our marriage, my husband and I realized we were both interested in a book series that neither of us had yet read, and we spontaneously decided to read these books aloud together. We’ve been married over 15 years now and our times reading together are some of the sweetest memories we possess. We also credit those times with having helped us to bond, to understand each other better, and to improve our communication.
I have since found that these same benefits exist when reading aloud with our children. Reading together creates a stronger bond between parents and children, and even promotes bonding between siblings. Through the story they share the same adventure. Together they consider and discuss the challenges and character traits of some young hero, and their own resemblance to or dissimilarity with that hero. There is a resulting shared dialogue. It’s so gratifying to hear one of your kids remark to the other “Let’s play the ‘Glad Game’, like Polyanna!”
This year I witnessed one of the most powerful evidences of the strengthening of relationship through reading aloud. My husband’s grandfather suffered a stroke and when we were with him in the hospital, he was struggling to communicate. In what would be just hours before his death he was getting frustrated, desperately trying to make us understand him, but he just couldn’t get the words out. So, just to help calm him, my husband began to read aloud to him a well-loved passage from the Psalms. Pappy began to recite right along with him, following the rhythm, forming the familiar words line by line. And they cried, and I cried, and that beautiful connection wouldn’t have happened without orally sharing the written word!
The simple truth is that ANYtime you read aloud ANYthing with ANYone, your relationship with them is strengthened. You communicate in a new way, have something new in common. Authors Michael and Debi Pearl mention in their book To Train Up a Child the concept of tying strings. We as a family are bound by strings of “mutual love, respect, honor, and good times we have had together,” but our ties that bind can be “cut by selfishness, indifference, or pride.” We need to be constantly tying new strings. What better way to do this than by the shared experience of a good story as you read aloud together!
1. MAKE it a priority.
It will never happen if YOU don’t consider it to be worthwhile. If you’re not convinced of the value of reading aloud, read the article 4 Reasons to NEVER Stop Reading to Your Kids. I would argue that there are few more important things you can do as a family for your family. When you’re a believer, that genuine enthusiasm translates to them.
2. MAKE it a habit.
It will also never happen if you don’t purposefully set aside time for it. Make it the ½ hour after dinner clean-up. Make it the last ½ hour before bedtime. But get them used to the idea that it’s part of your daily routine. Maybe everyone can pick a favorite cozy spot where they can settle in each time to listen. And if your Wednesdays or Fridays are particularly busy with lots of other outside activities, that can be a scheduled day that you skip your reading time, but being aware of that helps you plan to make it happen the other days. And don’t be surprised when they start requesting, “Please…just a couple pages…” even on the day you’ve planned to skip!
3. MAKE creative use of time.
Sometimes I know we’ll be having company over for dinner, or we have other plans that will make our scheduled reading time difficult to meet. Those days I will sometimes read to them while they’re eating their lunch, or have my oldest read a chapter aloud to the rest of us in the car on our way to the store, or the post office, or whatever. Find those moments – in the car can really be great – when you can squeeze in a few pages at least. It will keep them connected to the story. But you will find it also keeps you connected to them, and them to to each other. You’re sharing something, rather than fighting over the cup holder, or having each one occupied with his or her own phone or video game.
4. MAKE sure to have a dictionary on hand.
This is just a small, practical point that I’ve found helpful. It’s takes the pressure off of you, as the parent, to know the answer every time your kid repeats a word you just read and says, “What’s that mean?” It’s good for them to know that some words are new or difficult for you, too, and that you love to keep learning! It’s also a great exercise for them to take turns looking up words and become increasingly familiar with the usefulness of a dictionary.
5. MAKE it fun.
I will say this the best way I know how: DO THE VOICES! It doesn’t matter if you think you’re good at it. Your kids will LOVE to hear you try! They, and you, will get more out of any story if you attempt (at least occasionally) to have a little fun with the characters’ voices. And even when you’re not doing any certain character voices, be sure to alter your tempo, pitch, and volume to reflect the action of the story and keep their interest. You can experiment with other ways to make the time fun for everyone – like acting out scenes, or giving little ones coloring pages that reinforce something from your current story to color as they listen.
6. MAKE everyone get involved.
This time together as a family is useful in SO many different ways, it’s great for helping them with listening skills, but also speaking skills. As you take turns reading aloud, the reader gets practice pronouncing difficult words, annunciating, experimenting with his or her voice to sound authentic and convincing (skills you want them to build for any kind of public speaking), they are growing their vocabulary, and they are sharpening their critical thinking skills. So, try to get them to take turns – even if it’s only a paragraph at first – and read to everyone else.
If you have one that isn’t yet comfortable reading aloud, or is too young, be sure to get that one involved by asking him or her questions about the story and characters. Even that one can narrate some of the action back to you or can give an opinion about the “bad guy,” or can verbalize what they think will happen in the end, or what they hope will happen!
7. MAKE a list.
It can happen that you begin this journey of reading aloud, hit upon a great book, read it together, and love it, then quit because you just don’t know what to read next. Don’t let this happen to you! At some point just sit down and generate a quick list of books that have been recommended to you, or that you’ve always wanted to read, or some of your own childhood favorites that you could share with your family. Don’t worry too much about the comprehension of the youngest children. Choose stories that will appeal to your oldest children and you will be amazed at what even the little ones can glean from it. But remember, even simpler stories that the little ones enjoy can contain great themes and truths that would make them valuable as a family read-aloud. If you struggle through a book and no one seems to have liked it, that’s okay, Discuss why you didn’t care for it and go in a new direction with your next choice. So get a few on your list, and get reading…aloud!