7 Tips for Reading Aloud to Your Children (Well)

We all know that reading aloud to our children is important but, like any habit or ritual, it's hard to do well (or consistently). Here's some advice to help you cultivate your reading skills and develop a longterm habit.
Aug 3, 2015

Several years ago, this wonderful video inspired me to begin reading aloud to my children at bedtime every night. My kids are currently four, three, two, and two months old and I started reading nightly when my oldest was about 6 months. It has been a wonderful ritual, for both my children and myself. I've compiled a few "things you should know before setting out" for any current or future parents that might consider instituting a similar tradition. It is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it will be an encouragement and a help because reading aloud to your children can be an exhausting and difficult discipline. At the end I have included a list of some of our favorite poetry. Feel free to add any other titles that you and your family love in the comments section!

1. No one is born good at reading aloud. It takes practice to read aloud well. Read with expression, with emotion, so that even if your children don't completely understand the details of the content you are reading, the form that you read it in makes its meaning show forth. I think it should be more like a theatrical production than a 'reading,' if you get my meaning. Do voices for different characters (they don't have to be amazing, and luckily children are the least judgmental humans you will meet;  have fun with it and they will too), and use onomatopoeia whenever possible. Understand that it will take you years to become an excellent reader, and make the commitment to strive for that goal. Time is on your side: there will be lots of bedtimes to practice.

2. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Not only will your kids memorize whatever it is that you put before them repeatedly, but you yourself will begin to internalize what you are reading as well. Repeatedly reading a piece aloud also gives the reader the chance to practice finding out how best to say the piece. Not all readings are equal, and someone who is familiar with a piece and understands the message that it is trying to convey will be better equipped to speak that piece appropriately. Play with saying a poem differently each night, with different emphases, until you have explored every corner of expression in the words. This will also take you a lifetime, so most of all:

3. Be patient. Due to the limitations of time and space, it is intrinsically impossible for anyone to fully understand any piece of literature after reading it only once. As you move from the beginning to the end of a piece, you cannot fully understand the parts that you encounter until you have seen how they relate to the whole and that cannot be done until you have already taken the work as a whole and complete thing. That is why (assuming the author has done it well) a reader cannot notice foreshadowing on his first read through a book; it is only after you know the ending that the foreshadowing of that ending becomes apparent and meaningful upon re-reading. And the better the book or poem is, the more rewarding your subsequent readings of it will become. There are meanings and subtleties buried deep in poems and books that we moderns are often far too impatient to take the time to mine for. But these are the gems that are most precious and beautiful. Love for a poem and love for a person both require time and patience. You cannot build a firm love with a person that you do not spend time with or for whom you have no patience. Reading is no different. Model to your children a willingness to be patient with the things you read, a willingness to give it the same amount of love and attention that we give to each other.

4. Talk about it (eventually). Read a piece over and over, until both you and your children are familiar with it, before you begin asking them questions about what you have read. This will help you ask better questions, and will likely bring forth more ready answers. We should resist our society's impulse to feel the need to have an opinion about a thing after only a cursory meeting with it. Allow your children (and yourself) to experience the piece, to internalize it, to simply become familiar with the pictures that it presents to them.

5. Pick some books and poems to get to know that are worth spending time with. How to judge which books and poems are "good" is a sticky subject that I am not going to even try to address right now, but I would simply say that some books and poems are worth spending years reading and re-reading and some are not. Find some that are and learn to love them. If you don't know which are worth spending time with, consult someone knowledgeable on the matter. Don't feel the need to consume new (and more) books just for the sake of completion or quantity. 

6. Read over your children's head. It shouldn't be WAY over their heads (I'm not going to read my kids "The Abolition of Man" by Lewis, for example), but children learn much from stopping and asking questions about words, ideas, or actions they are encountering for the first time. Children enjoy paying attention to words that are ripe with unknown meaning. Also, if you plan to really spend time on a work it will become less and less "over their heads" the more repetitions you give it and the more time you spend getting to know it. Also, you just might train your children in the very valuable capacity of being able to enjoy a poem for the beauty it brings, without needing to "understand" it. Well-read poetry should be pleasant to listen to even if it is spoken in a foreign tongue. My children do not "understand" the poem "God's Grandeur," but that does not hinder their pleasure and appreciation of it one bit.

7. Be patient with yourself and with your children. If your kids are anything like mine, and you are anything like me, any nightly ritual is going to be a challenge to keep perfectly. See number three and apply it to antsy kids who don't want to sit still or to exhausted readers who feel like they can't possibly form the words of a whole page at the end of a long day. To paraphrase another idea, usually applied to prayer, 'read as you can, not as you think you are supposed to.' Don't let reading become a joyless, forced death-march.

Here is a sampling of the poetry we have spent time with:

  • "The Shield of Achilles" and "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W. H. Auden
  • "We Were Very Tired, We Were Very Merry" and "Time Does Not Bring Relief" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • "God's Grandeur" and "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" by Gerard Manly Hopkins
  • "A Footnote to All Prayers" by C.S. Lewis
  • "Song of Parting" by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • "After Apple Picking" by Robert Frost
  • "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Preludes" by T.S. Eliot
  • "Winter Remembered" by John Crow Ransom
  • "The World Is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth
     

Here are some books that we will be coming back to for years:

  • The Hobbit by Tolkien (they also very much liked it when I would improvise simplified narratives of the adventures detailed in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, since they already were connected to some of the characters through The Hobbit)
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • I am waiting until my kids are a bit older, but all of the Chronicles of Narnia stories belong on this list as well.

Joshua Leland

Josh Leland is a humanities teacher at Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC. He earned his BA and MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He and his wife, Rebekah, also a teacher, and their four little children, Ransom, Calvin, Alethea, and Mary, live in Charlotte, NC. [Editor's note: He's also quite a good poet]. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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