Reading Aloud to Your Family

By , November 6, 2009

The Zeiger family has a favorite activity that entertains, enriches, educates, improves self-confidence, and brings us closer as a family: we read aloud.

We started reading aloud before we could properly be called a family. It played a role in Michelle’s and my courtship. One afternoon on our college campus, I laughed once too often at the book I was reading. Michelle had asked each time what was funny, and I’d read her the passage, until finally I returned to the beginning and read the whole book aloud. This very pleasant shared activity soon became a habit, particularly during long car trips. It’s very convenient to read a book in which we’re both interested together instead of individually.

Both of us are avid readers. When Aly arrived, we raised her as one of us. Besides reading to her regularly from children’s books, we included her in our oral reading. We didn’t worry about the complexity of plots or prose, trusting her to comprehend as much as she could. In this way, she first heard Richard Adams’s classic, Watership Down ( available through your local bookstore, as are all the books mentioned here) when she was 4 years old. She adored all of the story’s richly layered facets. If tension mounted, she cuddled close and helped pull the rabbits through to safety. Once we realized that she could follow the story through pages of adult prose and over many evenings of reading, we never worried again, other than perhaps to edit on the fly occasionally if the action took a particularly age-inappropriate turn. We tried not to “pull punches,” and made sure to stop and discuss when necessary. This led to some very meaningful family exploration of issues that everyone must face eventually. I’m sure it led to Aly’s ability to think critically about hard issues, to assess and express her feelings, and to weigh consequences.

We still read aloud, even though Aly is now a teenager, and a fast reader. Some titles are ones she’s read, and has asked that we share. If it’s new to her, she inevitably rereads it (sometimes repeatedly) after we finish.

Our reading list includes, among many others, “children’s classics” like C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, George Orwell’s 1984, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. We have perennial favorites, such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. One benefit has been exposure to (or remembering) some of the really excellent writing that has been directed at child audiences. Good “children’s literature” treats readers as capable people, trusting them to think, learn, and understand.

Behaviorists cite reading aloud as key to child development. It stimulates an interest in learning to read, facilitates the process, and teaches by example. From our experience, we feel everyone involved benefits, not only from the books we choose, but from the family activity itself.

Most of our reading falls to me. As a former broadcaster with a fair amount of acting experience, I enjoy performing. Also, since reading aloud requires us to be together, and the listeners like having something to do, I manage to get out of a lot of cooking and dish washing this way!

If you don’t read aloud in your family, you ought to give it a try. It’s not hard, and doesn’t require any particular skills. You don’t have to be perfect, just consistent—the minimum requirements are that you can read and speak loudly enough to be heard by your family. So what if you stumble? Who cares if you can’t “do” voices (which I generally avoid)? All that matters is that a family voice shares a good book with the assembled listeners. The more you do it, the better you’ll become. If you can’t learn, grow and improve in the bosom of your family, where can you do so?

Some members of your family may resist group reading initially. Don’t insist on participation. Far better that it be voluntary! Gather everyone who is interested, and give it a go. Before long the reluctant ones will likely be drawn into listening in spite of their best efforts. Human beings thrive on storytelling.

Here are a few things to keep in mind while reading aloud:

  • Choose a time when you’re not likely to be interrupted, or rushed by upcoming events.
  • Make sure everyone’s comfortable.
  • It helps if everyone has a quiet activity to do while listening (hint: handheld video games and other electronic devices don’t count!).
  • Be aware that some of these activities may require occasional discussion. Don’t insist on total quiet while you read. Allow interruptions when necessary.
  • Keep an eye on your audience. Quit if someone starts to nod off.
  • Don’t overdo it! It’s easy to get carried away with the story and wear yourself out.
  • Never insist that anyone reads to the group. This is an activity people should look forward to, not dread.
  • Make sure the reader has sufficient light for the task.

Keep in mind that reading aloud is not the same as reading to yourself. It takes longer, and should be allowed to do so. Don’t rush—spend the time the book and your family deserves! Savor each phrase, reading for meaning rather than to “get through it.” Reading aloud is a leisure time activity, not a job! Relax, enjoy yourself, don’t worry about making mistakes. You’ll do just fine, and your family will love it.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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