“To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical entry point to the larger world of literature.”
Harvard professor Maria Tatar
Meghan Cox Gurdon, in her Wall Street Journal article “The Great Gift of Reading Aloud,” says that in the not so distant past, reading aloud was the way children fell in love with stories. Enticing storytellers would captivate their listeners as unfolding sentences offered gifts to their imaginations. The child who learned to love stories by hearing them would be a child who would willingly gravitate toward more sophisticated literature on his own.
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With my own kids, who are voracious readers, I managed to fend off electronic entertainment for the first 14 years of their lives. But I am also dreadfully aware of the way our society is moving. And while Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have finally made their way into my book-saturated home, I can’t imagine how this is unfolding in other homes where reading doesn’t stand a chance.
Gurdon relates that reading together has been one of the great joys of her family life — but that it is also increasingly a torment. Because as children get older, the schedule gets busier; because it’s ever harder to get literary classics into children’s minds before they see the Hollywood variants; because childhood itself is fast disappearing into the bewitching embrace of technology.
When someone we love is reading us a story, she says, we let down our guard. We begin to exist together in a time and space of “warmth and light.” Such occurs, she says, when you read “Goodnight Moon” with a toddler sitting trustingly on your lap, entranced with each turned page.
Vocabulary, poverty and academic success
Bountiful vocabularies are cultivated at birth when children are spoken to and read to.
The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that beginning kindergarteners who had been read to at least three times a week had a greater ability to decode words compared to children who were read to less often, and were almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading readiness. Statistics also reveal that affluent students consistently score higher than students of poverty.
Looming large within the disparity is that affluent families tend to read to their children more often; their homes are rich with more books, magazines and newspapers, and more words are heard in conversation. The landmark study Meaningful Differences found that by age 4, kindergarten children of affluence heard 45 million words; middle class heard 26 million, and the poverty child only 13 million. That’s a 32-million word socio-economic gap.
Connie Matthiessen, in her GreatSchools.org article “The Hidden Benefits of reading aloud – even for older kids,” interviews Jim Trelease, the author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook” — referred to as the 33-year-old “Bible of reading aloud.”
Trelease explains that in the early years of school, almost all instruction is oral. From kindergarten through third grade, when kids are just starting to read, the focus in all subjects is typically on the teacher talking to the kids. At this stage, teaching is oral and the kids with the largest vocabularies have an advantage because they understand most of what the teacher is saying. The kids with small vocabularies don’t get what is going on from the start, and they’re likely to fall further and further behind as time goes on.
For Older Kids Too
Unfortunately, in most households, parents read to children only until the children are old enough to read by themselves.
But there are differences in reading abilities and listening abilities. Trelease points out that a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until eighth grade. For that reason, parents should be reading seventh-grade books to fifth-grade kids. They’ll get excited about the plot and this will be a motivation to keep reading. A fifth-grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than he can read himself.
Even teens have an equal and evident pleasure of hearing a story read aloud, if the writing is relevant.
Literacy connections offers tips for parents and teachers on reading aloud to all ages: www.literacyconnections.com/ReadingAloud.php
Art of conversation and attention
While it is critical that parents talk to their children, reading aloud to them is just important. Kids hear most words when they are exposed to conversation. But in many cases, we tend to speak in verbal shorthand infused with jargon.
But books, like magazines and newspapers, contain sophisticated and complex language that use complete sentences. So it makes sense that a child who hears more sophisticated words has a giant advantage over a child who hasn’t heard those words.
Matthiessen says this is the most distracted generation in the history of the world. Reading aloud increases a child’s attention span. When you read aloud, they are being subliminally lured into reading. We all know how powerful the art of advertising is — you don’t buy or use what you don’t know about. And that awareness has to come before desire. A child who has been read to will be more inclined to learn to read herself. If a child never sees anyone pick up a book, there will be little desire to do so.
Motoko Rich cites a Scholastic survey in his article, “Study Finds Reading to Children of All Ages Grooms Them to Read More on Their Own.” In children ages 6 to 17, only 31% said they read a book for fun almost daily, down from 37% four years prior.
In their own right, electronics have had a disturbing impact on reading. For many kids, when the choice is between a book and the Internet, the Internet wins. Screens are magical and the instant gratification they provide is addictive. The fact is, the more time spent in front of a screen, the less likely a child will be to open a book.
But when parents set limits on device time — and include themselves in that limit — there is more time for personal interaction, using board games or sharing a book together.
Parents play a huge role in seeding the love for reading and in keeping kids interested in books.
Rich mentions that the children who love to read are generally immersed in households with lots of books and parents who like to read. So in addition to reading to their children, parental behavior also encourages children to become frequent readers on their own.
Reading is so important to learning that the American Academy of Pediatrics announced a new policy recommending that all parents read to their children — from birth and throughout adolescence.
Reading aloud to your kids:
▪ helps to open up discussions on difficult or challenging topics. While you can lecture your child on right from wrong, reading a situational book on that topic is going to be received differently and directly. You both can discuss it right there.
▪ allows you the chance to revisit stories you loved as a child yourself, or those you never had the chance to read. Fairy tales, Greek and Norse mythology and even an old Disney story.
▪ prevents both children and adults from missing out. Missing out on fabulous illustrations they may never see, eccentric vocabulary they may never hear and thrilling epics they will never embark upon.
Role of Teachers
Even in high school, reading aloud is important. By all research measures, reading is an accrued skill; the more you read, the better you get at it. Yet, there continues to be a steady decline in reading as students age. By 12th grade, only 19% of students read for pleasure daily.
For the older child, in light of all the digital distractions, reading must continue to be advertised if it’s going to sell. Reading for class assignments is not typically pleasurable. So when school ends, so does reading. Although meaningful class assignments are important and expected, kids need to know that there are books out there that will make them laugh and cry.
Teachers are constantly faced with the dilemma of balancing pleasurable learning activities with regulated expectations. While most of us know that standardized tests have nothing to do with real life, squeezing in five minutes a day for pleasurable reading can create great memories.
Books provide kids with literary opportunities to travel outside their small worlds to become aware of how others live. By reading books, children learn about others who don’t have the things they come to expect — people with real disadvantages. Books offer a wider worldview than most of us can ever hope to achieve in our daily lives. The more they read, the stronger the empathy concept becomes.
So for at least half an hour, parents and teachers can provide children with an irreplaceable gift of storytelling. A gift that begets life, love, culture, fantasy, adventure and mystery.
The screens, the Internet and the lesson plans? Oh, they’ll still be there when the story is over.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.