I shared how my fifteen-year-old terrier-poodle mix, Moxie, lay beside me on the couch, the weight of his head on my thigh. He lived his last few years with mounting medical issues, including kidney failure and intestinal tumors. Nothing more could be done.
The book, recommended as part of a writing project, arrived two days early, two hours before his passing. I retrieved the package from the mailbox, returned to Moxie’s side, and started to silently read I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor.
The narrator, a nameless young woman, could be you or me. In a barren desert, she finds beauty that makes her “heart pound.” She puts herself in charge of her own celebrations and says:
It has to be something
I plan to remember
the rest of my life.
Even though reading to my dying dog didn’t feel like a typical celebration, I chose to do it in order to celebrate Moxie, to remember our last moments together for the rest of my life. As my hands turned to the first page, I heard my voice read words aloud. I paused at commas, line breaks, and periods. My voice inflection changed as I read questions. Reading to him felt natural.
I answered my friend’s question, “Yes, I showed him the pictures.”
Although all of us have read aloud to someone (or some pet), we may not have considered how reading aloud adds value to life. Reading to Moxie made me consider five ways my life and the lives of my listeners have been impacted by this simple practice.
1. Creates memories
In his book The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease writes, “We read to children for all the same reasons we talk with children: to reassure, to entertain, to bond, to inform or explain, to arouse curiosity, and to inspire.”
Over the years I’ve read to others for those reasons and more. My listeners have included babies, the healthy and the ill (I’m a nurse), children, and my husband, Andy. From as young as age nine, I read to my baby brother. Many years later, my infant sons sat on my lap and reached for Daddy’s scratchy face in Pat the Bunny. They perched on the potty chair and listened to me read while we waited for something to happen. (Sometimes giggles over stories and a red potty ring were all that happened.) They may not have understood all the words, but they were hearing language and forming experiences. And I still hold and treasure those memories.
I’m in Charge of Celebrations helped me reflect on the privilege of being with Moxie during his final moments. As I read aloud, I thought about the same question the young woman in the story asked: “What if I’d missed it?”
2. Improves verbal skills
Books use more sophisticated language than everyday conversations, and for children, exposure to new words and syntax is especially important. According to Trelease, “A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade.” Since young children learn vocabulary through listening, reading aloud helps them gain a stronger command of language and improves their ability to express themselves.
Looking up unfamiliar words then becomes a model for others and enhances everyday conversations. I started looking up new words in high school. My ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Richard, noticed what I was doing and bought me a copy of The American Heritage Dictionary. Years later as a young mother, I set the example and opened that same red dictionary innumerable times. Then I found ways to use new words like benevolent, recalcitrant, and quandary in conversations with my boys.
These days, instead of pulling my dictionary off the shelf, I keep my iPhone nearby when reading a book so I can Google new words. When reading an e-book, I tap the word on my screen to retrieve the “Look Up” option. The first time Andy observed this was right after he’d purchased his first iPad. “How’d you do that?” he asked. Now he doesn’t let new words slip by either.
3. Encourages thinking aloud
When we read aloud, we think aloud. Our observations about characters, plot, and illustrations stimulate conversation as we share personal connections between the story and our experiences.
My husband Andy and I take turns reading books aloud to each other. As we do, we ask open-ended questions like, “Why do you think the character handled the issue that way?” or “How does the story relate to your current circumstance?” Reading What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada prompted me to reconsider a problem in my workplace and discover the possibilities it held.
4. Strengthens our approach to challenges
Reading aloud fosters a sense of comfort and control and also invites the reader and listener to develop empathy for characters and their situations, leading to greater empathy in our own lives. Washington Post editor and writer Amy Joyce shares similar reasons why it’s important for parents to read to children during tough times. In her August 10, 2016 On Parenting column, she says books help us talk about bigger issues and find ways to solve problems. She concludes:
Taking the time to read with children will not only help their reading skills, comprehension and vocabulary, but it will strengthen their emotional IQ as well. There’s an abundance of stories that provide comfort, show kids how they can be strong and allow them to realize that all’s not perfect in the world but that they can make it better.”
Publisher L.L. Barkat once asked me if I found that children’s books can help me approach topics I might otherwise find difficult. The answer is yes. Now I can filter life’s chaos or disruptions through stories. Reading I’m in Charge of Celebrations changed my approach to a challenging situation by turning the moment into a celebration of Moxie’s life. I like to think it comforted him, too.
5. Displays love
When we give of our time, we give of ourselves. Making ourselves accessible not only communicates love, but also instills a love of reading in others. What more loving message could we communicate than by reading aloud? It says, “I value you. I am here for you.”
My choice to read aloud to my children, my husband, and even my dog has created bonds and lasting memories and added value to my life that reaches far beyond the reading moment itself.
More reading aloud resources
Reading Aloud to Build Comprehension, by Judith Gold and Akimi Gibson
How to Use Open-Ended Questions with Children, by Susan Syddall
World Read Aloud Day: 6 Benefits of Reading Aloud to Your Children, by Kimberlee Conway Ireton