The Joy of Reading Aloud

First published on 13th April, 2008 in StarMag

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I ABSOLUTELY love being read aloud to. My sisters and my mum read to me at bedtime when I was growing up. And when I was in my 20s, my mum would read to me whenever I was ill.

If you haven’t experienced the snuggly warmth and cosy comfort of lying curled up in bed while someone reads you a story, you should correct this sad state of affairs at once.

If you can’t find anyone to read to you, an audio book will do almost as well, but nothing beats a ‘live’ reading of your favourite story or all the best bits from your favourite novel.Literacy experts know all about the benefits of reading out loud to children. It increases a child’s vocabulary, strengthens grammar and promotes writing, reading and comprehension skills. It’s also a great way to bond with a child. Best of all, it’s fun … for both the one being read to and the reader.

I know many parents view reading to their children as a chore. It requires concentration and commitment and it takes time.

Also, as kids tend to like to read the same story over and over again, it can and does get a bit tedious – there are ways to tackle this problem, though.

Yes, reading to your kids does mean that you have to spend some time with them. Still, I’m going to assume that most parents won’t view this with all that much consternation.

The good news is that you are not required to plough through a 340-page novel with your two-year-old. Some board/picture books have a grand word count of as few as 40 and shouldn’t take very long to read. (There are even wordless picture books – more about these later.)

Your child might insist on the same book night after night (or seven times a night), but, really, who wears the pants in this relationship?

All the same, I don’t advocate forcing your child to quit his favourite read cold turkey. Try bargaining: ‘I’ll read Where the Wild Things Are, but after that, let’s try this other really fun book about monsters!’

Some children will be more interested (at first or even permanently) in pictures than text. My three-year-old daughter keeps interrupting me to point out details in the illustrations, look under flaps, and ask and comment about characters, scenes and activities.

Sometimes she can’t wait to turn the pages and, often, I will abandon reading all together and just tell her the story in my own words, with her chipping in.

With wordless picture books, the absence of text means that the story is up to your and, more importantly, the child’s, interpretation of the pictures.

The more detailed the pictures, the more you’ll have to talk and share about. Be prepared for some really creative ideas from your child!

When it comes to choosing books to read aloud, test read them before you buy or borrow them. Some books are easier to read than others. If your tongue gets tangled up trying to read a book, you should move on.

Good rhyming text is a joy to read (think Julia Donaldson and Sandra Boynton). And cumulative stories, in which words and sentences are repeated throughout the book, help little ones make sense of the plot and gain confidence as they start to recognise words and join in the reading.

Anything funny, exciting, fast-paced and a little scary is a treat. Scary stories for little ones should end reassuringly, though. For example, although Max quarrels with his mum and runs away to be king of a rather frightening-looking band of monsters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the book ends with him sailing home again and finding his supper waiting for him.

Kids who can already read shouldn’t be deprived of the joys of being read aloud to. Choose books slightly above the difficulty level of what they can easily handle on their own. This allows them to grow their vocabulary and be introduced to more challenging ideas, concepts and styles.

With you there to pronounce and explain tricky words, they’re spared possible frustration, which can only increase their enjoyment and confidence.

The E.B. White Read Aloud Award was established in 2004 by the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC) to honour books that, as stated on the association’s website, ‘reflect the universal read aloud standards that were created by the work of the author E.B White in his classic books for children’.

The website goes on to state that ‘possible criteria for a great ‘read aloud’ include dynamic writing, engaging themes, and universal appeal. In the case of picture books, the relationship between writing and illustration should be strong, and the structure of the book should build an enjoyable sense of anticipation.’

The latest winners of the award are When Dinosaurs Came with Everything (Simon & Schuster, 40 pages, ISBN: 978-1847381934) by Elise Broach and David Small and, for older readers, The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little, Brown, 512 pages, ISBN: 978-0316003957) by Trenton Lee Stewart.

Both are as good a place as any to start your reading aloud adventure with your children.

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