Saturday, November 19, 2011

Reading Aloud to Older Children

Parents often ask me how they can help encourage their kids to read more.  Their worries run the spectrum -- some have children who just never pick up a book on their own without being required to do so and others have children who throw crying, screaming melt downs over reading.  I have no cure-all that will fix all of these issues, but I do have a few observations and suggestions that may help. There are many ways to effectively deal with this issue, so this will be just the first of probably several posts on this important issue.

First let's clarify the goals.  Most parents would like their children to enjoy reading and be able to complete any necessary academic reading with strong comprehension and (hopefully) retention.  If you're a homeschooling parent, the entire burden is placed at your feet.  You take them through all the stages of teaching them to read and then expanding their literary choices.  However, there are so many subjects to teach, park days and field trips to attend, enrichment classes, etc., that it's easy to lose focus once the initial steps have been taken.  Plus, kids start to fight against being asked to read books they find boring.

And yet, the HABIT of reading is the most important.  In my own family, I have found that reading together at night has helped keep us in the habit.  I'm a strong proponent of Jim Trelease's philosophy in The Read-Aloud Handbook.  I've always loved reading -- enough to major in English, get my Masters in English and American Literature and spend an additional 5 years in graduate school working on a doctorate in Renaissance English Literature.  From the get go, I wanted my kids to LOVE reading.  Happily, I read Trelease's book when my first daughter was a baby and it inspired me to establish a nightly reading routine, which we've maintained ever since.

Reading aloud to kids before bed is hardly revolutionary.  Most parents do this to some extent.  What is a little different is that we have never stopped and have no plans to stop anytime soon.  My oldest daughter will shortly be 13 and shows no signs of wanting to stop our before bed read-alouds.  Too often, once parents have taught their kids to read, they stop reading TO them.  Left to their own devices, many children just don't continue the habit. We have a fairly established bed-time (usually between 9-10pm -- we go until 10pm in the summer as it stays light so very late).  We always head up to bed though by 7:30.  It helps that my two daughters share a room. I read to them for at least an hour and they read on their own for at least another 30 minutes.

As integral as read-aloud time is in our family, I have important reasons for making sure that each child is also reading independently for at least 30 minutes every day -- though usually it ends up closer to 1-2 hours a day (either by their choice or because I require it).  More on that in a later post.

We all know it's important to model reading if we expect our kids to become life-long readers.  Family read-alouds and shared reading hours certainly do this, but they accomplish far more than this as well.  We inevitably find ourselves discussing what we read.  At first, when my children were younger, these discussions were primarily about the fantasy characters of imaginative literature.  These talks were fun, but didn't usually raise subjects we wouldn't otherwise discuss anyway.  As my children have grown though, we frequently find ourselves discussing far stickier issues and I'm so grateful to have this opportunity with them.  When we read Bridge to Terabithia, we were confronted by the pain, guilt and despair surrounding a child's death.  The story-line had a huge impact on my daughters and they had lots of questions and worries they wanted to talk about.  Some were prompted by the events in the novel, but others I discovered had been on their minds for quite awhile.

Lately, it seems that almost every book we pick up leads to these kinds of discussions.  Often these are topics that really wouldn't come up for any other reason and it has led us to engage in really important conversations.  My kids are fast becoming teens and I don't know how much longer they will look to me as their most important and trusted source for information and understanding.  Of course, I hope they always will, but I expect it will wane and wax through various stage of their lives.  For now though, I'm grateful for the chance our "read-alouds" together offer me to help them sift through some of the more difficult issues.

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