What single activity creates family unity, develops your child's discernment, builds reading and writing skills, doesn’t cost much money, and is just plain fun? Family read aloud times, of course!
As a brand new mother I knew that I needed to talk often to my sweet baby boy, but I quickly ran out of conversation topics. My solution was to send my visiting mother to the Columbia, SC library to pick up books of nursery rhymes and picture books so I could bathe my newborn with words. When I tired of those, I would read aloud whatever I was reading. From the youngest age, Andrew loved to look at and listen to books, and his attention span grew quickly until we could read for extended periods. My second child, however, was somewhat different. Kara didn't seem to care as much about looking at books, and often just played on the floor nearby while I read to her and her brother. Was she even listening, I wondered? Yet when I quizzed her about the storyline, she always knew exactly what was going on. It turned out that Kara processed information primarily by listening, and the illustrations were almost irrelevant to her, while Andrew was (and is) highly visual and spatial in orientation. (Our rule for a couple of decades now is that anyone is welcome to knit, do puzzles, make models, or do any other quiet handwork during reading times, as long as they are not distracted or a distraction. Most in our family, including me, listen better when our hands are busy.)
Through the years reading aloud has been a constant in our home. During some periods we’ve had to hold different sessions for the various ages: babies before nap times, preschoolers at their special school time, and all ages right after lunch. Our afternoon reading session remains a mainstay, the favorite time of day for many of us. At times Tim also reads something else in the evenings. He favors Lewis, Tolkien, and the Little Britches books. Most recently he read Screwtape Letters at family devotions. Children never outgrow listening to good books read aloud!
I started reading to my children because I had fond memories of my mom reading to me and I wanted my children to love books as I do. But it turns out that reading aloud has many other benefits, including a couple that I found somewhat unexpected.
Of the many reasons to read to your children, Andrew Pudewa, creator of the writing program Institute for Excellence in Writing, describes one intriguing premise. In One Myth, Two Truths, he maintains that reading great books aloud and memorizing scads of well crafted poetry are the two most effective (and easy to implement) ways to build writing ability. I think this theory has a lot of merit, as both memorizing poetry (and scripture) and listening to excellent literature store models of strong, sophisticated language patterns into your child’s brain. You are actually helping him develop his inner writing ear as you read aloud, and you should not be surprised when your child later unconsciously imitates styles he has heard!
Another serendipitous result of reading to children is that you will at the same time be educating yourself about children’s literature. As a girl I was a voracious, but totally undiscriminating, reader. I read everything I could get my hands on, which by 6th grade included some pretty nasty stuff. As an adult I’ll sometimes meet books that I vaguely remember as having enjoyed, but I can’t rely on my past feelings to decide whether or not they are worthy of my children reading, both in terms of content and literary value. Reading quantities of books to my children has helped me to develop standards and the ability to discern what types of books and what authors have the most merit. For example, after reading enough Rudyard Kipling, A. A. Milne, E.B. White, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and E. Nesbit, mediocre books show up as very pale fellows.
In addition, reading with your children allows you to discuss as you go, informally, the thoughts and actions of the characters and the worldview of the author. You can help your children compare what you are reading with what the bible teaches about everything from how to treat a sibling to the solution to greed. (We just read A Christmas Carol before break and found Dicken's treatment a bit lacking.) As you talk, you can help your children develop critical reading and thinking skills and work with them to evaluate literature and ideas in general. With all the benefits of reading and discussing good books together, it's hard to beat family read aloud sessions for packing a strong educational punch!