Our youngest child is ready for her next series of childhood milestones. She wants to ride a bike without training wheels and learn to swim without her float. And then, she’ll “finally be a big kid,” as she puts it. She’ll also begin reading instruction when she starts kindergarten, and we’ll have another independent reader in the family soon enough.
She was born into a family of readers, so books have been a part of her life since the day she entered this world. My husband and I have read her hundreds of books, some of them hundreds of times. When she’s flipping through the pages on her own, she’s growing less and less satisfied just looking at the pictures of a book. She’s trying to understand how letters work and how words are made.
In my education classes in college, we were taught that reading aloud to students had many benefits, including a better vocabulary, a better understanding of grammar and syntax, and increased reading comprehension. But once the child starts reaching fluency, we tend to ask them to exclusively read to themselves. Teachers and parents often view the change from listening to picture books to silently reading novels as a sort of graduation that means our kids don’t need us to read aloud anymore.
Independent reading is important. Words are everywhere, and we must be able to decode and comprehend their meaning. Our quality of life is often dependent on being able to read words for ourselves—medicine bottles, warning signs, leases, and job descriptions. If reading filled only these utilitarian purposes, then we’re right to stop reading aloud. But reading aloud to our children is not a crutch like training wheels or a swim float. It is not something we do to bide time until they can do it alone. We cheat our children—and ourselves—when we stop reading aloud to them just because they can do it independently.
Stories allow us to experience so much more than we could in any one life. We get to travel to faraway lands and long ago times and participate in different professions and see the consequences of our decisions. As C.S Lewis wrote, reading allows us “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” Stories aren’t just about going on an adventure or solving a thrilling mystery; they are about learning what it means to be flawed, sinful humans with a good and holy God. Stories help us feel the weight of sin and see the beauty of obedience. They work on our hearts as we ponder their meaning and see ourselves reflected in the characters. Good stories will echo the message of the Bible by pointing us to justice and redemption.
Reading can be better together
And how much better is it to read stories of hope and restoration together with the ones we love? We should read stories with our children as long as possible that we might walk many roads with them, cry with them over pain and heartbreak and death, laugh with them over quirky characters and funny scenes, and celebrate the joys of marriage, childbirth, and victory. Our children can learn about us as we interact with the story and they hear a tremble or laugh in our voice. Through reading with our children, we can share more of life and grow together.
As my daughter and I read the Anne of Green Gables series recently, we got to experience the grief of a breakup and, later, the joy of an engagement. She asked me about how her daddy proposed to me, and we looked at pictures from 15 years ago. I was able to share with her God’s faithfulness to our marriage. Through Little Women, my children and I walked alongside each other through many of life’s hardships, including the death of a sibling. We’ve encountered all sorts of evils in the works of Lloyd Alexander, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Walter Wangerin and have been reminded that good always conquers evil. We’ve suffered through the treacherous climb of a mountain in an attempt to summit in Banner in the Sky. We’ve grieved our country’s wicked history of slavery and racism in the works of Mildred Taylor and Christopher Paul Curtis and made connections with the history of our city. Where else can we experience so many of life’s events together without the high stakes of actually being in them?
As my oldest children have fewer years left at home than what’s behind them, I feel the pressure of wanting to teach them everything I possibly can. I want to walk them through the full spectrum of life. And yet, I can’t. But I can read to them stories that have many more experiences than we’d ever find ourselves in their 18 or so years at home and allow the truth of the story, the changes in the characters, and the experience of a range of emotions to help them grow. And as they have gotten older, reading aloud has helped bring us together as a family when their interests and activities take us different directions.
Making the most of reading aloud
For some families, reading aloud isn’t the most natural activity to share. Regardless of where you are starting, the benefits are the same, and families can grow as they go. How should parents approach read-aloud time?
1. Start with reasonable goals.
You don’t have to read the hardest classics for an incredibly long time with your children frozen in one spot to be successful. Read-aloud time isn’t going to go very well if you start with War and Peace. Good books to start with vary with age and personality. For younger children ready for texts longer than picture books, my family enjoys Homer Price by Robert McCloskey and the Little Britches series by Ralph Moody. If your kids are in late elementary school, try books by Edward Eager or Eleanor Estes to start. For older children, Andrew Peterson’s The Wingfeather Saga, Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society, or Laura Hillenbrand’s biographies Seabiscuit and Unbroken may be good options.
Children can color, play with blocks, or even eat a meal while listening to a story. Sometimes I read aloud to make chore time a little more enjoyable. They don’t have to be sitting perfectly still to follow along.
When my kids were younger, read-aloud time was 15 minutes. Now they enjoy me reading for longer periods as our day and my voice allow. But, I try not to read for so long that I’ve lost their attention or that they’ve stopped enjoying it.
2. Read books that you like too.
You’re not going to prioritize reading if you hate the book. Choose books that interest you as well as the kids. The master storyteller C.S. Lewis wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” If you’re not currently a reader, it may take longer to get interested in a story, but start by picking something that interests you.
3. Allow the story to work in your children’s hearts.
Good books that communicate truth don’t need us to moralize them. There’s a reason that Jesus frequently taught in parables: He knew that people were not only capable of understanding them but also that as they considered the meaning and significance of the parable, their hearts were being penetrated by truth. And truth that we understand through a story stays with us longer than when it is reduced to a one sentence moral or, worse, a lecture by mom or dad.
The importance of stories transcend time and place; every culture shares stories because they matter. They pass on tradition and values and history. They help us understand ourselves and others better. And I want them to be a part of my family’s culture as long as there are people in the home to share them with.