“Once upon a time” – the most magical four words imaginable: when they are used by a parent or other loved one reading to a child, they become a gift of literacy that will benefit our children throughout their lives.
Memories of My Mother’s Voice
When my daughter was four, we were wandering around a bookstore one afternoon when I found a copy of Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood, a book my mother had read to my sibs and me when we were small. As I read through the book there in the store, the tears began to flow (to the dismay of my dear daughter). In my mind as I skimmed the pages, I heard my mother’s voice telling the tales of the “Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.” Only then did I begin to realize what a marvelous gift my mother had given me. It was a gift that I was passing on to my daughter without having consciously realized why. It was a gift of drama, of literacy, of a love for reading, and of a relationship, sharing the magic of words as a family.
As a university professor who has taught writing for the best part of 30 years, I have found that I can tell from the first paper I see from a student if s/he was read to as a child. It makes all the difference in the world in how a student has a feel for the flow of words one to the next, for the finer distinctions in choosing one word over another, for how sentences are structured, and how small thoughts join together into big ones. A child who has been read to has an advantage over other students that carries an impact into college and beyond.
But I Don’t Know How to Read Aloud!
There’s only one way to learn. Do it! Sit down with a child in your lap several times a day for years and it starts to come naturally. Don’t just turn it over to tapes and CDs of others reading. Use those in the car on long trips to learn how to get the most out of a book, but take the time to build a relationship of love between you and your child and books. It doesn’t matter if your voice is raspy or weak or that you stumble over some of the words. What better model is there for learning to use a dictionary than in doing so when reading to our children! Read. Out loud. With love. That’s all there is to it.
If you absolutely can’t do it or if you have a speech disability to work with, use tapes or CDs of books, but sit with your child or children in your lap or cuddled up on the sofa or bed together with a copy of the book, reading it together along with the recording.
Read All Kinds of Stories – Silly, Serious, Chapter Books, Poems, Picture Books
Children love poetry and silliness – and reading and re-reading silly poems creates family “quotations” to be shared everywhere. Read Lewis Carroll’s “How doth the little crocodile” or Ogden Nash’s “The Hippopotamus” enough times and I guarantee that some future visit to the zoo will have one or more of you reciting the lines.
Reading longer books that are just ahead of a child’s own speaking or reading level is a rich way to offer what she or he needs to develop good language skills. A 3-year-old and a 7-year-old will get something different from Caddie Woodlawn, but it will be equally rich for both. And making a longer book a special treat for an older child has drawn many a younger listener in to prove “I’m not too little!”
But Do I Have to Use Voices for Characters When I Read?
Of course not, if it’s not comfortable for you. It can be a lot of fun though. My mother was wonderful at character voices. It was like she was acting out with her voice what was in our imaginations! My daughter insisted on very distinct voices for each of the characters in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (and woe to me if I forgot who had which voice!). We don’t need to be actors to give slight changes in voice to help the story along. A softening or raising of the pitch for a girl, a slightly growly voice for a tiger, a deeper voice for the barnyard pig is all it takes to add a touch of magic to reading a story.
It is important to be careful not to overdo voices, especially for sensitive children or, if the stories are a touch scary, for younger or timid children. If we use just a touch of emphasis, say for a witch or a bear, a child will imagine the characters to be just scary enough to be thrilling, but not so scary as to be troubling. Children of different ages and different personalities then will take that hint of scariness in our voice and interpret at a level they are ready to handle.
But I Can’t Afford Lots of Books!
No problem! Libraries are a resource that we often take for granted, but they are right there ready to give us the use of as many books as we can manage to read — for free. Librarians are also wonderful helpers in finding the right books for our children based on their age and interests.
The internet also gives us free access to more of the classics than most libraries could ever dream of holding. Any book published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain — and thus able to be freely duplicated and shared. Bartleby’s was the first major project dedicated to making great books available online for free. It was followed by Project Gutenberg which provides almost 30,000 free books online. Worldwide partners of Gutenberg bring the total of e-books available to more than 100,000. Some of these e-books have pictures and some projects are producing human- and computer-read audio books to make these public domain works more accessible to a wider audience.
Reading Aloud Prepares Children for Reading and for Life
An ability to read and to read well is one of the most important predictors for success in school and beyond. Reading to our children from the time they are tiny babies lets us support them as they develop strong language skills. It gives them a chance to come to love books as portals to knowledge and experience. And, it gives us a chance to build strong relationships with them by giving them the gift of ourselves on a regular basis. So go. Pick up a book. Pull up a pillow to sit on and a child to sit with. And read.