Reading Aloud Matters

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I spent hours of my adult life nestled in the corner of the sectional, feet tucked under me, with a book in my hands. Sometimes a baby sucked on a bulging breast at the same time, and one of those babies didn’t like to listen to my voice resonating through my chest cavity. Some well-timed nips to the nipples drove home that message. Ouch!

Other times a toddler couldn’t be calmed or a middler would knock over the orange juice onto the carpet and the book would get flung back into the library basket. Reading time over! Waving the white flag.

But those were exceptions. We made it a daily priority to read together for an hour. Read aloud time signaled the start to our homeschool day. It was the “coming together” of all of us of all the ages in all our stages, and it told us: “Yes, we homeschooled today.”

Over hummus and olives one Friday night in my friend’s kitchen (homeschoolers really rock the social scene), a bunch of my mom friends and I became animated as we swapped titles and our various reactions to the children’s novels we had read over nearly 10 years time. Better than a book club! We drank wine, we got misty over Anne of Green Gables, and had a wide variety of reactions to Moccasin Trail and Across Five Aprils. We were a wealth of detail about Rome and Egypt (easily could have talked husbands under the table about ancient history—so schmart were we, aided and abetted by fiction for children).

We also laughed about the books that bored us but that thrilled our kids.

For instance, I have no idea what happens in any Redwall book. I got through (operative phrase there) the first one (not as delighted by the woodland feasts and feisty creatures in chain mail as my kidlets), but then somewhere during the second installment, I discovered I could make shopping list, consider the benefits of dying my hair, and respond to angry posters online all in my head while reading, without skipping a sentence. So I’d merrily read along and space out, until that one moment that was sure to give me away at the end of any given chapter:

“Mom what do you think is going to happen next?’

Blink.

“Um…” I scrambled. “I have a hunch the bad guys are preparing to attack the Abbey.”

Yes! That is what they thought! They knew it!

And that, friends, is the correct answer to any question about plot in Redwall. You’re welcome. You may return to kitchen remodeling in your mind.

While in this vigorous conversation about kids’ lit, one of the moms made a remarkable statement:

“I can’t figure out how you all have time to read aloud. We never have time. That’s the one thing we’ve never done in all our years. I just don’t see how it could be fitted in.”

For a tense moment, you could have heard an olive drop to that tiled floor. We were stunned, because what quickly became clear is that there were even a few us (I plead guilty to this charge) who sometimes got little more done in a day than reading aloud. I couldn’t imagine what homeschool would be if you didn’t read books to your kids.

If I had been forced to supervise workbooks all day, every day, for 5 kids, for 17 years without fiction? Without reading Laura Ingalls Wilder? Without discovering Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf or Robert Peck’s Soup? Not getting to read The Shadow Spinner or become enchanted by Toad and Mole and Badger in The Wind and the Willows?

My laundry basket of library books, the wide array of reading lists, the hours spent using my voice to share my emotional reactions in real time to the plights and adventures of heroes and heroines I grew to love as my own possession… This was/is the teaching that is/was homeschool to me… to us.

Homeschoolers rightly think reading to our children is about getting them to hear quality language or to learn about history in a story-format or to become familiar with great literature. It is those.

But it’s also this: When you read aloud, your children discover your values and your humanity. They see tears form in the corners of your eyes. They notice the catch in your throat as you describe a tender scene of connection between two estranged characters. They hear you roar with laughter over an inside joke or a cultural touchstone and they want “in” and expect you to help them “get it.”

Big Juicy Conversations

And then you talk. About the book! About that awesome story and your surprise at the ending or how glad you are that it did end well. Forget that odious word “narration” for a moment (it has been used to drub tedious recounting out of children when a Big Juicy Conversation will do so much more).

You talk about who you liked and who you believed and who you rooted for to get what he or she wanted. You talk about the evil stoat or the wicked prince or the confusion that goes with a troubled character who has both admirable qualities and also real flaws. You compare today to then, and here to there. But you do it, filled with emotion and connection, and the sense of your own place in history and on the planet, all in front of your children—showing them a way to interact with each other, with their neighbors, with their fellow country-persons, and even with how they perceive other times and places.

Reading aloud is the chief way in the homeschool you show who you are to your children—and they show themselves to you. It’s the core of education.

I can’t think of any more important practice in the homeschool than the sacred read aloud time.

Read to your children every day that you can. You won’t regret it.

Image: The Wind in the Willows


Stuff Every Parent Needs to Know About Reading

7 Responses to “Reading Aloud Matters”

  1. Sue says:

    I can relate to both sides – reading aloud everyday, and not finding time to read. When my kids were younger (and fewer) I read every day and it was a joy. Now with one in high school and two older kids with lots of activities, sometimes I don’t get to it.

    But I agree with you that reading together is precious. We are reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy now, and I love the emotionally connected feeling it gives us. We laugh and cry at Sam’s words, our hearts flutter for Faramir and Aragorn, we cringe at Shelob, and we compete to see who does the best Gollum impression. Even my highschooler hangs out a little longer than necessary in the kitchen when I’m reading.

    I’ve learned about my kids by their reactions to stories. My oldest would run out of the room if a character knowingly did wrong, and was going to get caught (Little Britches). My quiet, middle child became obsessive about The Phantom Tollbooth, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes stories. So far, my youngest loves everything I read aloud. Their responses to literature have given me accurate insights into their personalities.

    So, I second your claim that reading aloud to your kids is essential. Looking back over 12 years of homeschooling, I know that the cuddling, laughing and sharing while reading together has been my fondest memory.

  2. Lori says:

    I have homeschooled for many years (my oldest is a junior in college), and reading aloud is still my favorite part of the day.

    Currently, I am reading The Hobbit at the sixth grader’s request and Nanny McPhee at the first grader’s request. Some that stand out from years past include The Flames of Rome, Otto of the Silver Hand, Frankenstein (an all time favorite of my older two), The Chronicles of Narnia (I have read this set of books out loud more than once), Tales From Shakespeare, and The War of the Worlds (no one enjoyed this as much as the movie).

    There have been days when reading and math was about all that was accomplished – thanks for the reminder that it was probably enough.

  3. Kika says:

    With my older two we read aloud constantly – loved it. But admittedly, with my youngest (now 7ys) I find it hard to settle my mind and body long enough to read aloud much. Not good. I recognize that this read-aloud time really was, as you say, one of the most important and special aspects of our homeschooling years in the past and I need to not short change my youngest daughter. Thanks, as usual, for the enouragement and wisdom you offer!

  4. Tina says:

    Hooray for reading aloud! We have nine children and most of my married life so far, I’ve been pregnant or nursing. Reading aloud, math worksheets, and nature hikes were our go-to in those years. I still read aloud so that my fourth grader, who’s a reluctant reader, gets his history, science, and religion doses for the day. Everyone gathers when I’m reading to one person. Kids line up behind the couch or sprawl out on the floor in front of me. My oldest used to have to do something to stay still. For him, Lego bricks were the answer. I would quiz him in the middle of reading to see whether he was catching any of what I was sayiing and he caught it all.

  5. Tony Panama says:

    Excellent advice. I’m guilty of not practicing this too much, even though I know it’s a great tool

  6. Anne Huitt says:

    I love reading aloud with my children and so think it’s the best thing about homeschooling! I loved “Pinnochio” and “Peter Pan” with mine. We are reading very slowly through “Little Britches” now – I don’t presently make time for the whole family to read aloud together – I do one-on-one and use it as my excuse to have that personal contact with each child alone. But, I want to make it happen all together every day – maybe I’ll start this evening!! They LOVE IT so I just need to make it happen. I’m listening to “God’s Smuggler” on my walks and can’t wait for them to be old enough to listen to it. I get overwhelmed, in a good way, when I think about all of the amazing books that I want to read with them!!! I wish we had more hours in our day!! Thanks for this precious post.

  7. Kika says:

    Something I’d like to add – with my older kids (aged 13 and 17) I am not reading aloud anymore- although my 13 year old likes to come and lay on my bed and listen while I read aloud to my 7 year old. But my bigger kids love it when I care about what they are reading. So I am reading “H.I.V.E.” series because my 13 year old really wants me to and I will soon read “World War Z” because my 17 year old asked me to and b/c he says it’s the best book he has read in years – and wants to discuss it with me. At times I find this onerous b/c I am so darn busy and have piles of my own reading awaiting my time. But then I realize what a privelege this is – to enter into that which engages my children – and how wonderful that they love reading and discussing with their mamma!!!