Today is World Read Aloud Day. Who knew? Even I, avid reader-aloud of books, didn’t know until last week.
But now that I do, I want to shout it from the rooftops: Listen up, everybody! Put down that remote control! Put down your iPad! Turn off the iPod! Silence your smart phone and chuck it in a drawer!
Now, go get a child or two. Plop them onto the nearest sofa. Find a book. You know, those old-fashioned rectangles of bound paper. Pick it up. Open it. Sit on the sofa next to the children you’ve plopped there. Read them the book.
According to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook: Seventh Edition, “every time we read to a child, we’re sending a pleasure message to the child’s brain.” Neuroscientist John Medina calls this a “dopamine lollipop.” The brain likes dopamine lollipops; when it gets one, it wants more of whatever stimulus caused it. So reading aloud to your children creates in their little brains a desire to be read to…and eventually, to read on their own.
I see this in my own kids. When they’re bored, more often than not, they’ll bring me a book and ask me to read to them. This holds true for my nine-year-old as well as my younger kids. Through countless hours of reading aloud, I have conditioned their brains to associate reading with pleasure.
I expect readers of Tweetspeak will have no trouble discerning why reading-is-pleasurable is an important idea to inculcate in our children. But just in case you’re wondering why this matters, here is my completely unscientific rationale, based entirely on a test group of four: my children.
1. Reading aloud builds vocabulary.
My six-year-old daughter learned to read this year. Once I taught her some basic phonics (and I mean basic, like all the consonant and short vowel sounds), she picked up an Annie and Snowball book (considered a Level 2 reader), and read it straight through with almost no help. She could read it because her vocabulary was large enough to figure out what that next word ought to be, given what little she knew about letter sounds.
2. Reading aloud increases attention spans.
My two-year-old twins can easily sit in my lap for 45 minutes while I read to them. My older son and daughter sat through the entire Little House on the Prairie series the year they were six and three, respectively—and they loved it, asked me day after day to “read one more chapter, please.” I was particularly stunned by my daughter’s attentiveness to the story—whole pages went by without illustrations, and still she listened and understood far more than I expected.
3. Reading aloud allows children the opportunity to experience the rhythm and melody of language.
My oldest son, Jack, composed his first poem at the age of four. It had an even meter, and it rhymed. I didn’t teach him to write poetry. He absorbed it through being read aloud to.
At age seven, Jack wrote a novel. Well, for a seven-year-old it was a novel—John and the Leaf of Life was some 2500 words long, packed with adventure and danger, and every chapter ended with a cliff-hanger. Again, I didn’t teach him this. He absorbed it through all the stories we’d read together.
4. Reading aloud gives you and your children a common language through which to filter their experiences.
Jack recently complained that he disliked being the oldest child. “I don’t like having to be a role model, ” he whined. I understand; I’m an oldest child, too. But he doesn’t have much choice in the matter; whether he likes it or not, he is a role model for his sister and brothers.
Jack loves The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He’s read it three or four times, and he wants to be King Peter. So when Jack kept fussing about being the oldest, I pulled him into my arms and mentioned Peter, and we wondered together how Peter must have felt when he found himself responsible for his brother and sisters in Narnia—and he wasn’t just responsible for his siblings; as king, he was responsible for all of Narnia. Talk about being a role model! Jack’s respect for Peter has grown since this conversation, as has his willingness to wear the mantle of role model—and all because we have a shared book through which to filter his experience.
5. Reading aloud gives you the opportunity to learn together.
My older son and daughter listen to me read aloud to them for hours most days: science, history, biography, art, geography, literature, poetry; you name it, we read it—and they listen and learn. But here’s the thing: I also learn. I’ve learned so much about history and nature and astronomy and art, simply by reading aloud to my kids.
6. Reading aloud is great bonding time with your kids.
To my mind, little in life is as precious as sitting with a child or four curled up around a book that I’m reading to them. This shared experience of language and physical closeness is the best part of my day. The fact that it’s also good for them is just gravy.
On this World Read Aloud Day, won’t you make (or renew) your commitment to read to the children in your life? Every day that you see them, take the opportunity to read together. There’s little else that’s as important to their emotional and intellectual development as good words poured into their lives with love.
Photo by Passion of Bilwa, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.