Reading Aloud, a Nourishing Tradition With No Age Limit
Natalie Bernstein was the elementary librarian for many years and passed on her lifelong passion for reading and books to students and their parents every day. She and her husband Matthew are the parents of two Paideia graduates, Justin and Adam.
When my children were ages 11 and 7, we rented a house for a month in France. Of all the things we did in France that summer, the most memorable was the time we spent reading aloud to our children. Because dinners tended to go very late, we settled in to read every afternoon for an hour. My husband would read to one son and I would read to the other, and when we finished books, we switched reading partners. I was a new elementary librarian at the time and had packed at least 20 paperbacks. It was my first discovery of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Cricket in Times Square. One day, when Adam and I were happily immersed in the world of Henry Huggins, my husband and Justin burst in on us, breathless and overcome, telling me I just had to read A Bridge to Terabithia that very day. It was a profoundly rich summer for us as we talked about what we loved in the books. We also had a fabulous recording of The Wind in the Willows, which we listened to incessantly as we drove, chortling over the pompous and insufferable Toad.
I love remembering my own early experiences of being read to. The intimacy of sitting on a lap, and later of snuggling up next to a parent, as I followed my mother’s or father’s voice, was an essential part of my child-hood. There had to be thousands of these experiences. I always enjoy asking adults what books they remember from their earliest childhood and many of the same titles resonate decade after decade; we never seem to forget our first books. Goodnight Moon, Madeline, Babar, Corduroy, Where the Wild Things Are, The Story of Ferdinand... But just as striking as the titles is the glow that comes over a grown-up’s face as he or she remembers being read to. As a child, it was always important to me that whichever parent was reading also enjoy the book and show that pleasure: when my mother laughed out loud over Sendak’s Higglety Pigglety Pop and Pierre, I felt validated. When my father wanted to read just one more chapter of Stuart Little or All-of-a-Kind Family to find out what happened next, I was thrilled that we shared the sense of urgency.
Reading aloud is a shared experience in which adults and children enter imaginary spaces together. Those imaginary spaces can be actual fantasy worlds (Hogwarts, Narnia) or distant time periods (St. George and the Dragon, Johnny Tremain), but those spaces can also be the consciousness of the characters. By entering together into the mindset of a girl in the Middle Ages, a boy with a club foot on an 18th century pirate ship, or an enslaved boy in the American South, we can help our children develop empathy: we get a sense of what it feels like to be the shy one, the excluded one, the fat one or the one who has suffered loss. And by reading together many books by many writers with different viewpoints, we can talk with our children about the complexity of reality and human nature.
So often, parents read aloud to their young children with great enthusiasm but abandon the practice when a child becomes an independent reader. Sadly, I see many, many children who are 10 or 9 or even 8who say that their parents no longer have time to read aloud to them. Families do get very busy in our culture, but it is an awful sacrifice to put sports ahead of reading aloud. Reading researchers have noted that children can listen to books far above their own reading level; listening level and reading level don’t converge until about eighth grade. Reading aloud to children gives them access to higher level literature and vocabulary than they could read on their own. It helps create lifelong readers.
As we read aloud with an eye to inculcating empathy, we can talk to our children about our own values.
Reading aloud to children, especially to older children, provides an exquisite opportunity for a parent to initiate conversations about uncomfortable or puzzling topics. Race immediately comes to mind: how do we talk to children about race? Recent studies of babies and young children have shown that they are deeply aware of race, even when their parents and teachers claim that they don’t notice it. When parents don’t ever talk about race, or make vague statements like “We are all alike,” children learn that the topic is forbidden. For young children, an antidote to such silence could be as simple as the parent pointing to an illustration in a picture book and noting the differences in the characters’ skin color. Parents can be mindful about the books they choose to read aloud, selecting stories that feature a diversity of characters, to foster such conversations. For older children, reading aloud books with historical characters during slavery or the Civil Rights era allows a parent to talk about the family’s experiences and beliefs. One parent recently told me that her 6-year old was utterly thrilled by the picture book biography of Wilma Rudolph, the victim of childhood polio who was told she would never walk again, and who went on to win three Olympic gold medals. Their family conversations on resilience and grit have continued as they devour one biography after another, talking about hardship in their own lives and how they admire Jesse Owens, Ruby Bridges, Mary Anning, and many others.
Likewise, as we read aloud with an eye to inculcating empathy, we can talk to our children about our own values. One parent came to me and complained that her daughter only wanted to check out titles in the Junie B. Jones series and that she really disliked the title character’s behavior. Often, negative models in literature are a way for children to try out, mentally, what it is like to be outside the realm of acceptable behavior. As a parent reading aloud, we can say, “Oh, I’m troubled that she’s making a really bad decision here,” or “I am so worried about him because he won’t tell the truth.” Just as a parent might explain to an older child why some music lyrics are offensive, so too a parent can talk about love, jealousy, disappointment, aggression and grief; when done in the con-text of a read-aloud, it isn’t a lecture anymore.
One of the fascinating things that adults do when they read aloud is to model their own thinking about their comprehension. Often, young children think that “reading” means merely saying the words on a page. When an adult pauses and says, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m confused. I need to back up and re-read that paragraph,” the child notes this strategy. When I read aloud to children in the library, I often struggle with an unfamiliar word or name and let the children hear my effort to sound it out. For example, when I’m reading a Greek myth or a dinosaur book and can’t pronounce something, I’ll say aloud “No, that can’t be right. Let me try again.” Likewise, when the grownup exchanges a knowing look with the child that says “I’m making a prediction here!” the child learns that mental predictions are an important part of reading. Reading aloud and talking about our thinking helps children learn to make inferences: “Even though the author doesn’t say it, I think the she wants us to suspect...” Adults use basic strategies subconsciously to monitor their comprehension all the time. When we read aloud to children, however, we can make those strategies explicit. “This book reminds me of that other book we read” can encourage a child to make connections to other literature and other experiences. By talking about our own habits of mind as we read, we let children know that no one is a perfect reader but that we all get better with practice.
I recall one vacation in which my husband Matthew pulled out a stack of Peanuts compilations he had brought along. The comic strip had never particularly worked for me as a child, but he had adored it. As I unpacked in the next room, I heard shrieks of laughter as both boys watched their father: he was shaking with laughter, unable to read, and his eyes were squeezed shut as tears poured down his cheeks. It doesn’t have to be all Newbery awards — sharing silly things is just as important. As the children’s writer Gordon Korman once said, “What do we value most at a dinner party? A sense of humor, or the ability to recognize foreshadowing? And what do we spend our time teaching?” I know that 9-year-old Justin, occasionally convinced that he was doomed to bad luck, gleefully discovered schadenfreude in seeing Charlie once again fail to kick the football. (Hey! It can’t always be about empathy.) And the marvelous thing is, there is no need to stop: as our sons grew into their early teens, we read aloud the hilarious stories of P.G. Wodehouse, featuring the devious deadpan butler Jeeves and the nitwit Bertie Wooster, as well as selections from David Sedaris and The New Yorker.
A few years ago, I was walking across campus carrying a copy of William Steig’s masterpiece Amos and Boris. Paul Bianchi saw it in my hand and beamed: “I just loved reading that one to my girls. When the mouse gets the elephants to roll the beached whale into the sea, the language was spectacular: ‘he was breaded with sand...’” Favorite lines abound. Parents return a book to the library, telling me that catch phrases (“Ready, Aim, Fire!” from The Watsons Go to Birmingham, or “Some days are like that, even in Australia” from Alexander the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) have become a permanent part of the family vernacular. Like so many parents, I treasure many memories of reading to my children. Once, when Adam was about nine, I finished reading aloud Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. and suddenly he was sobbing. “What’s wrong?” I kept asking. “It does have a happy ending!” He finally choked out an answer: “I’m so sad because it’s over and we’ll never read anything this good ever again.” But we did.
Recently I heard a story on NPR. A young soldier was about to be deployed to Afghanistan, and his pregnant wife asked him to write a letter to their unborn child in case he didn’t return. The soldier offered instead to record himself reading aloud to the baby. During her husband’s absence, the mother pressed the iPod to her belly as the words of Dr. Seuss and others moved into the womb. The young father was killed in action shortly before the birth of his son. Trying to soothe the fussy newborn in the hospital, the mother placed the iPod next to him and played his father’s voice, calming the baby almost immediately.
Although recordings can help fill a gap, reading aloud requires the participation of human partners, a pair who have keen eyes and ears and who are attuned to one another. Treasuring the days of our lives that are spent in the company of children, reading aloud to them long after they become proficient readers, is infinitely nourishing both for adults and for their children.