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So, if I asked you, "What is one of the best gifts you could give to your children?" I’m sure there would be a wide range of responses. My answer? That’s easy! I’d say, "Reading aloud to them!"
As an educator and, more importantly, as a mother I am a firm believer that we should read aloud to our children every day. Some of my fondest memories have been enjoying a good book aloud with students after recess or cuddling up with one of my own children at bedtime to read aloud to them.
Reading aloud does provide these special memories and provides wonderful quality time with our children. Let’s take a look at some additional benefits as well.
By reading aloud to your children you are giving them an academic head start. Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn state in their book Baby Minds, "Countless studies have shown that children whose parents read to them from very early ages tend to talk earlier, read better, and think in more complex ways than children whose parents don’t."1
You can’t start reading aloud too early! Allow your baby to enjoy hearing you read. As you rock your infant, read aloud from your Bible. Look at picture books together—picture books with large, bright, colorful objects and very simple text are great books to start with. Even before they can talk, babies are learning language as they hear you identify objects in the pictures and as you read the simple text. They are developing vocal recognition as they learn to discriminate the sounds and words that they are hearing.
When you look at picture books with babies, you are helping them with visual recognition as well. They are learning that objects have names. That "round thing" in the picture is called a ball. This is crucial in learning language.
Very young children also enjoy nursery rhyme books. They can learn much from the sing-song rhyme schemes and patterns.
Another benefit of reading aloud to your child is the fact that he must learn to focus outside of himself. He must learn to listen and focus on what you are saying as you read. A child who is read to learns to develop a longer attention span. It will be an advantage for your child if he has developed good listening and focusing skills as well as a good attention span before he begins his formal academic training.
Remember that children never tire of their favorite books and stories—even though we quickly do! There is much for a young child to learn as a book is repeated. As children hear a story again, they are gaining better comprehension of the text. Understanding the sequence of events in a story and anticipating what comes next are valuable prereading skills. Hearing a familiar story helps a child by strengthening his vocabulary as he hears the words in context. It also improves his memory. Those of you who have read to a child who has a favorite book know that you had better not leave out a sentence or word or you will be promptly corrected, because the child has the book memorized!
Early on, teach your children to respect books. Teach them that books are their friends and need to be treated and handled carefully. Very young children can be taught to handle books properly. A favorite picture of mine is of my oldest daughter as a nine-month-old sprawled on the floor, propped up on her elbows carefully turning the pages of a "real paper" book of the story of The Elves and the Shoemaker. She is now working on her doctorate in English literature. Her love and respect for books and reading started very early.
Here are some things to consider as you select books to read to your children.
As your child’s age increases, the text of the stories you read can become longer and more involved. Pick books with good, strong story lines. Don’t waste your or your child’s time on a poorly written book.
Understand there are a lot of books out there to choose from. Pick books that you like. Pick books on topics your child will enjoy. With my first two children I found that while my daughter enjoyed fiction books, my son was more interested in nonfiction informational books.
Be aware of books that may scare your child. I remember one day pulling out a book about a cat to read to my middle daughter before her nap. She looked at the book and said, "No, Mommy, not that one!" I asked her why she didn’t want this book. She said, "It is sc-cary!" As I looked at the book again, I realized that while the story was about a nice little kitten, the illustrations—sketchy, dark pencil drawings—were scary looking to my child. We promptly picked another book.
Be aware that some books have an agenda. Some books actually teach and encourage disobedience or unacceptable behaviors and ideas. I’ll never forget the shock I received as I opened a "free book" I had received along with one of my children’s book orders. The title was If You’re Angry and You Know It. The first page said, "If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet."2 This book was encouraging children to express their anger—the complete opposite of what I was trying to teach my children. I was working with my kids to learn self-control. They certainly did not need to be encouraged to stomp their feet when they were angry! That book was added to my examples of books you do not want to read to your children as I speak on this topic at conferences.
Now let’s look at some things you can do to enhance your reading times.
When reading aloud to children, be enthusiastic! Your enthusiasm can be contagious. We want our children to be excited about books and to learn to love to read. If you are not excited about what you are reading to them, they most certainly will not be excited about hearing it.
Read with feeling—put yourself into it! The more dramatic you are, the more enjoyable for the child listening. It also can help you hold your child’s attention. Don’t be afraid to be uninhibited. If a character coughs— you cough as you read. If a character cries— you read their lines as if you are crying. When something is grrREAT BIG—you say it grrREAT BIG! Use variety in tones and pitches. Use different voices for the different characters. Use variety in volume— something can be LOUD, or you can use an intense whisper.
Stop—listen to yourself. Would you enjoy listening to yourself read this story?
A special compliment I received one year from one of my elementary students was when he told his mom, "When Mrs. Leatherwood reads to us, it is like we are there!" That should be the goal each time we read aloud.
As you read aloud, look for teachable moments. With extremely young children look for lots of opportunities to count and identify: "Let’s count the butterflies on this page. What color are these butterflies? Where is the red one? How about the blue one? Which butterfly is over the tree?"
Look for opportunities to teach and discuss right and wrong with your child. "Was that a very kind thing for that boy to do? How do you think God would feel about what that boy did? What should he have done? What would you have done?"
Make reading aloud with your child an active time, not just a passive one. Engage your child mentally by asking lots of questions. "What do you think will happen next?" "How would you feel if you came home and found a bear in your bed?" Don’t rush through a book. Have dialogue with your child and thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Engage your child physically. This is especially applicable for younger children. If the goat is "trip-trapping" over the bridge, you and your child can "trip-trap" with your hands on your laps. If Moses’ mother is weaving a basket bed, you and your child can pretend to weave.
Engage your child to respond vocally. He can make the sounds of the animals you may be reading about or count aloud the trees in the picture before you turn the page. Kids love stories with predictable refrains. Encourage your child to anticipate the refrain in the story and to say it with you. In The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle your younger children will anticipate being able to say, "He was still hungry!"3 In Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, older children will laugh and giggle as they repeat, "Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats."4
Don’t stop reading aloud to your children when they have mastered reading for themselves. Older children benefit from your reading aloud to them as well.
Continue to model good oral reading for them. Expose them to a variety of good literature. Read chapter books that are just above their own reading level but not above their comprehension level.
Reading aloud has many benefits for your children. Read aloud together every day. Instill in your kids a love for reading and for good books. Reading aloud to your children is truly on one of the best gifts you can give them.