The Family Read-Aloud

When our children were 9 and 12, we embarked on a very ambitious read-aloud project.  My husband and I had been fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings since we each read the epic in our teens.  In anticipation of the release of Peter Jackson's film, The Fellowship of the Ring, we wanted to reread the entire work, and also give our kids the chance to experience the novel as Tolkien created it, before their imaginations were influenced by the film interpretation.  Thus we committed to spend approximately one hour each evening, all through the summer and fall of 2001, reading aloud that massive and beautiful saga.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I did the bulk of the performance, since I am the more dramatic reader and can do "voices."  And it was a performance - a demanding test of my fluency, expressiveness, and stamina.  My husband kept me supplied with soothing Earl Grey tea, and our family quickly became immersed in the tale of Frodo and his companions.  The kids clamored for more every night, and this became the high point of our family life at that time.  Our kids even taught themselves the runes that Tolkien had created, and would write notes to each other in that script.  When the movie premiered in December, they were legitimate Tolkien fans.

If we had not read to them from birth onward, we could never have attempted or finished this journey together.

Even though they were both independent readers, and our older child could have probably read the books for herself, many of the themes and the vocabulary would have been difficult for them to appreciate on their own.  But because they were such experienced listeners, they had the skills to grasp the context and the depth of the characters and situations in this amazing work when it was read aloud to them.

If I had not read to them from birth onward, I might not have had the skill to do justice to this long and complex literary work.  Obviously I started reading the most simple books, and worked up to more challenging ones.  Never doubt your ability to learn and improve any skill you practice regularly!

Don't stop reading aloud just because your child has learned to read.  

By reading books that your child will enjoy, but that he might find daunting on his own, you give him something to look forward to and work toward.  Your first grader may be reading Dr. Seuss books by himself, with their severely controlled vocabulary and limited story lines.  He is a beginning reader, but if you've been reading to him since he was a baby, he is a veteran listener.  The last thing you want him to think is that the books he can read by himself are as good as books get!  Give him something meaty to listen to, like The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.  Give him beautiful, creative language, such as Natalie Babbitt's writing in The Search for Delicious.

In creating a nightly read-aloud ritual, you are also creating a family culture of shared memories and closeness.

  • You're encouraging attention and imagination.
  • Your child's vocabulary improves because you're reading a "hard" book, and your fluency allows her to hear new words in context (you can always briefly explain something if she asks).
  • Her comprehension improves because she has to remember the story from night to night, and because she'll start to make predictions.
  • You can talk about characters, conflicts, and ethical issues, and your favorite scenes.
  • Not only is reading aloud a good substitute for TV every night, it provides a calmer transition to bedtime. 

Choose a book that is just beyond the independent ability of your oldest child.  Unless your youngest child is more than four or so years younger (or is only a toddler), he can probably enjoy the same story.  Let him draw or color quietly if it's hard to just sit.  He'll wind up listening just as his older sibling does. 

Dads need to take their turn reading aloud, or at the very least be a part of the listening group.  The greatest value is gained when the whole family shares the experience, and children need to see that Dad enjoys reading just as Mom does.

Some books may inspire a family project.  For example, you might volunteer at a soup kitchen or send a donation to a charity that feeds the hungry after reading about Charlie Bucket's poverty in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Reading Little House in the Big Woods might inspire you to bake your own bread or plant a vegetable garden.  You might schedule a visit to an art museum while reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, encourages parents to continue to read aloud into middle school and high school.  Since many adults never read a book once they leave school, it seems obvious that the school formula of dissecting and analyzing books to death is ineffective in creating readers.  A family tradition of reading aloud can help change that. 

If you have a read-aloud ritual already in place, simply continue it.  If not, start reading while your teens eat dessert after dinner.  Begin with something unexpected, like a poem from Hailstones and Halibut Bones or one of the humorously macabre Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc.  Then start a plot-driven novel with a teen protagonist, such as Kenneth Oppel's Airborn.

Every time we read aloud to a child
we're giving a commercial for the pleasure of reading.

Jim Trelease

Whether laughing at the babysitting scene from In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, or talking about what you might choose to bring if you were traveling to a new world like Pattie in The Green Book, you will be creating family memories that you'll treasure for a lifetime.


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