Think of the turning points in great stories that have shaped you. What are the moments you remember? These moments still feel as vividly real to me as my own childhood memories: Bilbo in the tunnel just before he meets Smaug, Aslan coming back to life, Mole apologizing to Rat after upsetting the boat, Puddleglum stamping out the fire in defiance of the queen of the underground, Pooh waiting on the tree limb with his pots of honey as the rain fills up his house.
Good stories shape the moral imagination. They teach children to love what is good and hate what is evil. They equip children to face difficulties in their own life, and give them lifelong friends out of the pages they turn. If you had the good fortune of being read to as a child, books like these make up the fabric of who you are.
Read-Alouds for the Love of It
As your children grow, carve out time as a family to read stories out loud together. Reading a book aloud allows the whole family to experience a good story together. By reading aloud, not only do you eliminate obstacles between your child and a good story (such as their reading ability – more on that below), you also create a communal environment in which to love the friendships and brave the dangers contained in an excellent story.
Read-Alouds for Literacy
Read-alouds also aid children as they acquire the technical skills for reading. Read-alouds steep children in knowledge about words and about the world, while giving them a mental break from the work of decoding and recoding words.
Studies show that children with aural exposure to new vocabulary fare better when learning to read. Even students past the initial stages of learning to read can gain leaps in their reading ability through new vocabulary.
Have you ever heard of the velcro theory of memory? Imagine that our brains are coated with loops and hooks, like velcro, to which new ideas can stick. The more hooks your brain possesses, the more opportunity for a new related concept to make sense and stay. Hearing a good story as a child is like receiving a few dozen velcro tabs to stick on the brain in order to catch more ideas later.
For example, when I turned 26, my very young daughter said, “Happy 16th birthday! WATCH OUT! DON’T PRICK YOUR FINGER.” This little preschooler, who was confusing the numbers 16 and 26, knew enough from hearing Sleeping Beauty read aloud countless times to be concerned that on my 26th birthday I might fall under a spell after pricking my finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel.
Around that same time, as she sat at our dining room table watching me wipe up the milk she had just spilled, she pointed out to me, “Look, Mom, little streams like the ones the mom washes the clothes in in Tikki-tikki-tembo no sa rembo chari bari ruchi pip peri pembo.”
You might think, “Well, those are meaningless connections for her brain to make.” That is true, but it does not weaken my point. Children (and adults too!) can gain knowledge of the world from a book even when the vocabulary is out of their grasp, which will help them navigate the world (and other books!) better.
To get the full benefits out of reading aloud as a family, parents (both moms and dads) should do the primary reading. This enables the family to enjoy rich works that are out of reach of younger readers’ known vocabulary or world experience. This also tells the child, “Dad or Mom thinks that this story is worth listening to!” As your children get older, it can also be a rite of passage for an older student to get to lead the family read-aloud occasionally too.
What about Movies?
Always let your child’s imagination work with a story before providing them prepackaged images or sound effects from movies or audiobooks. Think about it: If you’re one of the lucky few who read The Lord of the Rings prior to watching the movie, your vision of Aragorn is not dominated by Viggo Mortensen. After you’ve finished reading the book, certainly enjoy the movie as a family!
What about Audiobooks?
Audiobooks versus read-alouds does not have to be an either/or. There is a place for listening to audiobooks. Early readers can understand (word knowledge) on a higher level than they can read (sounding out and recoding words), so audiobooks also serve the role of removing obstacles between your child and a good story. Audiobooks in the car or during rest time are a great tool to develop a love for learning.
However, audiobooks should not be treated as a book replacement — either for reading aloud or for the hard work that your child must put in to learn to read independently. A child should never listen to an assigned book and call that “reading” the book. Reading a book along with an audiobook, likewise, will prove a hindrance instead of a help. Such a habit will teach speed without comprehension, which is not a recipe for fluency.
If they entirely replace read-alouds, audiobooks take out the relational element of gathering the family around a story. Listening to audiobooks will not have the same effect as reading aloud as a family. Chemically, it will not fire the same neurons and responses which help to cement memories in children’s minds.
Tips for Developing the Habit
Make reading aloud a regular privilege before bedtime. If your kids like a story, they will rush to get their teeth brushed and their jammies on just to find out what will happen next in Swallows and Amazons. There will be less stalling (making your life easier). Pack a read-aloud every time you take a car trip.
Making the Story Part of Your Life
When kids get caught up in a story, you can see it. The next day after finishing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when they want to be Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy, get involved in their play! Dress up as different characters! Help their little imaginations to grow. For birthdays and Christmases, consider “props” that will help feed their imagination and enrich their play. Some favorites in our family include: flashlights, lanterns, compasses, wetsuits, pocketknives, satchels, field guides, adventure dresses, wooden swords, and first aid supplies. When you’re reading aloud, take a stab at “doing the voices”! Attempt the British accent, make up tunes when the characters are singing, and demonstrate a dramatic inflection. You don’t need to be good at this in order for it to be fun.
6 Must-Reads Your Family Shouldn’t Miss Out On
If you haven’t read these read-alouds, pick one up this week (no matter the age of your children!)
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
- The Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien