“Children should be encouraged to read for the pure delight of it.” ∼ Annie Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller
Most parents have heard that reading aloud to a child at home is one of the most helpful practices in a child’s education. It sounds simple; yet it can be intimidating for parents who want to read aloud with their children but are uncertain of how to go about it.
These parents might be overwhelmed by the wide spectrum of technical methods the educational world uses to promote literacy. Perhaps their own parents never read to them, so they have no model of experience upon which to draw. Perhaps they fear their humble skills are inadequate for the job. After all, how can they be sure they are reading aloud the right way? Reading a book out loud is one thing, but when parents worry that they must also notate reading level, perform comprehension assessments, meet target goals, and reward achievements on a sticker chart, the complicated process might become paralyzing.
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Reading aloud can be intimidating, indeed, when you think your child’s whole future is on the line at every session. These understandably-stressed parents might be relieved to hear that reading aloud does not need to be intimidating at all. As it turns out, the best method for families to read aloud is also the least stressful way for everyone involved: to relax and simply bask in the goodness of books together, with no other checklist or agenda.
Consider, for example, the following two scenarios.
A boy sits in his living room, watching television. His father comes home with a book and puts in front of him.
“I got this from the library,” he says. “It’s exactly the right reading level for you based on the statistical diagnostic tools, so it should improve your reading scores at school. Come into my office, and I’ll read the first chapter out loud to you. If you listen very well, you can play a video game when we’re finished.”
He leads the boy into his office, sits down at his desk, surveys a stack of paperwork, and sighs.
“Sit quickly. I have a lot of work to do,” he says, and the child pulls up a chair across from him. The father reads aloud the first page, and then pauses. “Now, tell me,” he asks his son, “Who is the main character? Why does he get on his bicycle?” Each subsequent page brings similar questions, and the child understands that his attention and comprehension are being assessed.
When the boy looks away or fiddles with a string on his shirt sleeve, his father stops reading, frowns at him, and demands sternly, “Are you listening?”
After that, the child tries extra hard to keep his eyes on the book and his hands still. When he’s trying so hard to prove that he’s listening, it takes a lot of effort and concentration to actually listen, but he wants to please his father, so he does his best. He knows his father wants him to improve his reading scores so that he can get better grades and have a better chance at getting a good job one day and being successful in life. It’s a lot of pressure, but, that’s what reading is—pressure—and he just has to deal with it until he can go relax with his video game later.
When the chapter is over, the father asks, “Did you like that?” The child doesn’t want to offend him, so even though he found the book boring, he smiles and nods anyway, pretending he liked it. His father (who actually didn’t care for the book, either, but feels it is his duty to make his son like reading) says, “Good. It’s highly recommended by the experts in education, so you should like it.”
With that, he stands up and says, “Good listening. I’ll put a sticker on your chart for the day. You can go now.” With a sigh of relief, the boy runs to his video game console—his consolation and reward for the tedious work of reading.
After the child leaves the room, his father sits for a moment, staring at the empty chair across from him, wishing there were an easier way than this to help the son he loves.
Another child sits in a different house, playing Solitaire on the living room floor. His father comes home carrying a bag.
“I stopped by the library and picked up some books for you,” he says. “Since we liked the original Winnie-the-Pooh so much, I looked for more from A.A. Milne, and I found The House at Pooh Corner,” he explains, showing the book to his son. “Mrs. Wise said Danny really liked Snow Treasure, and we often like the books they do, so I checked it out. Then, I remembered that you were asking about aircraft carriers, so I got these books about them. Oh, and this one, The Hobbit, was one of my favorite books when I was your age. We can read whichever one you’d like.”
After looking through the books, the boy brings two to him. “I’m having a hard time deciding between these two. I really want to learn more about aircraft carriers, but I also want to hear the book you liked when you were growing up. Which one would you choose, Dad?”
The father smiles and pats the couch beside him, and his son sits down. “Well,” he says, “why don’t we start with The Hobbit for old times’ sake, and we’ll read the other one next?”
The boy leans into his father and relaxes against his arm while his dad reads aloud the book he remembers so fondly from his own childhood. The child’s eyes naturally go from the book, to his father’s face, to the window and the street outside, while he listens and lets the words fill his mind.
When his dad reads a part that the boy doesn’t quite understand, he asks, “Wait, what happened?” and his father reads the last sentence again. The boy gets it now, so he nods to his dad to keep going, but he knows that if he still hadn’t understood, his dad would have explained it so that he wouldn’t miss out on the story. His father never interrupts the flow of the book to ask questions just to check whether he’s listening or whether he understands—his dad knows that his son is as interested in the book as he is and will stop him if he isn’t getting it, because the child really wants to understand.
The dad comes to one of the parts he remembers best from his childhood, and pauses to tell his son about the memories it’s bringing back for him. When the chapter is over, his son excitedly predicts what he thinks might happen next.
“Can we do more, Dad? Please?” he asks.
The father looks at his watch. “Well, I do have some work to do tonight, but we can read one more chapter. I want to keep going just as much as you do.”
He reads the next chapter and then reluctantly closes the book. “We’ll do more tomorrow,” he says, tousling his son’s hair as he stands up. The child knows that’s true, because his dad reads to him every night, and he always looks forward to it.
A few weeks later, when they’ve finished The Hobbit, they begin the book about aircraft carriers together. Unfortunately, the way it’s written is boring and dry. “Are you enjoying this?” the dad asks.
“Not really,” his son answers.
“Neither am I,” the father says. “Want to try a different one?”
The child picks one of the other books about aircraft carriers, and this one is much better. He’s glad his dad brought home a few different choices, because both of them know that not every book they pick up is going to be a good one, even if they like the subject, and even if it was recommended by the experts. There are too many wonderful books in the world to waste time reading ones they don’t like.
Freedom to Delight in Reading
In both scenarios, the father is trying to take an active role in his child’s life, and this is commendable. His intentions are honorable. The approach, however, makes all the difference in how the parent and child both experience reading together. The first creates stress; the second brings joy. Of course, the scenarios will look different in a home with more children, but the principles remain the same.
The father and child in the first approach are not free. They are trapped in a high-pressure culture in which books are a means to an end and not ends in themselves, where the immediate goal of reading is the ability to correctly answer questions about the text, and the long-term goal is to gain the key to success in school and in life.
They are confined by a system of rewards that pits reading as the obstacle and screen time as the prize. They are restrained by the idea that experts know more about what they should read than they themselves do. They are shackled by numbers that claim to calculate the appropriateness of a text for an individual whose interests and abilities are far more than statistics. They are held hostage to the belief that reading has everything to do with paying proper attention and exerting enough effort, and little to do with any discovery of human connection communicated from the author to the reader.
In the second scenario, the father and child are free. The father is free to exercise his own judgment and adhere to his own value system in choosing trustworthy books for the child he knows so well. His child is free to choose the books that interest him from the assortment his father carefully provides. They both are free to read the books they like, and to abandon the books they don’t care for. They are free to decide to read another chapter, or two, or three, if the book is too exciting to put down; or, if they’re extra busy or tired, to put the book down and await the next night’s reading.
They are free to enjoy the story without the distracting interrogation of comprehension questions and listening checks. They are free to share with one another, in natural, spontaneous conversation, their reactions to what is happening in the book. They are free from the distraction of rewards and sticker charts, free to experience reading as its own reward. They are free to sit in the most comfortable place in the house, there to make impressions that will link reading with feelings of love and security for a lifetime.
Will this child, in the course of his education, be required to read things he does not like, and answer questions he finds unpleasant? More than likely, yes; and the freedom to read “for the pure delight of it” in the home builds a solid bridge to understanding the written word in these situations when the child encounters less gratifying texts elsewhere in life.
Parents and other adults who are intimidated by the idea of reading aloud can find freedom and confidence in the simplest and most enjoyable approach. This freedom resonates in our hearts and in the hearts of our children, because it echoes the freedom for which we were made.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul says in Galatians 5:1. Although St. Paul is talking about spiritual freedom, and not about freedom in children’s literature, there is still a link. The freedom we can experience with children in reading aloud can provide a glimpse of the joy in the freedom that Christ brings. For the earthly freedom to build family relationships of love through words on a page is a hint, a foretaste, of the heavenly freedom to build relationships of love through the Eternal Word.
In this light, families can leave the stress behind, and be free to delight in those precious moments when we keep our children close and read aloud worthy books we love, when the worries of the world fade into the background, chaos becomes quiet, and words bring us life.