When my oldest child started to walk, he would bring me as many books as his little arms could hold and ask me to read to him. I thought I might have birthed a child who loved books out of the womb. A few younger siblings later, I realized that while he liked the stories, what he really loved was time with his mama.
Young children acquire an appetite for reading while in the lap of their parents, listening to a book. Too often, however, parents believe that reading aloud is just one of the steps we take along the path of reading instruction. Parents abandon reading aloud when children reach beginning fluency, believing that independent reading skills are more important to develop.
In doing so, children miss out of the linguistic benefits of being read to: vocabulary growth, an increased understanding of syntax and grammar, and reading comprehension gains. But in the new book The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids, author Sarah Mackenzie argues that the academic benefits from read-aloud time are secondary to the relational benefits shared books can provide.
Mackenzie has become popular for her Read Aloud Revival podcast, a show about connecting with your children through books. Known for her endearing personality, Mackenzie has made a name for herself as a trusted source of book recommendations and reading tips. Following in the footsteps of Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook and Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart, Mackenzie’s latest book is part read-aloud manifesto and part annotated book list.
Our Family Culture
Mackenzie begins by sharing why reading aloud is for so much more than just academic success. Mackenzie argues that the purpose of reading aloud is not to create independent readers. Stories help fortify our children by giving them the opportunity to “experience what it feels like to be overwhelmed, struggle, fight, overcome, and emerge a hero.”
Shared stories “act as a bridge when we can’t find another way to connect. They are our currency, our family culture. The words and stories we share become a part of our family identity.” Even though we can’t measure these benefits of reading aloud to our children, Mackenzie believes these are the most important outcomes of reading aloud.
I can’t peer into my children’s hearts to see how stories are transforming them, but I do know books have bonded my family together. My children have been playing out the stories we’ve read together since they were little. With my oldest children on the cusp of adolescence, books still bring us together when their activities take them different directions much of the week. We laugh and cry (okay, I cry) through various literary adventures and talk about stories for weeks after we finish them. We share inside jokes from books and understand silly expressions we’ve picked up along the way. Books have been crucial to tying my family together as my children grow.
Mackenzie believes families will have a better chance to bond over books if parents work to create a book-club culture in their homes. The reading atmosphere communicates what we believe about books – whether they are something to be delighted in or just another aspect of school our children have to trudge through. Too often, we “literally school the love of reading right out of kids, and then we worry because they aren’t taken up with a voracious love of literature and a burning desire to enjoy reading for pleasure.” She encourages parents to give up the comprehension quizzes and instead ask open-ended questions that stimulate discussion.
One way Mackenzie thinks parents can make reading time special is by offering treats. My husband has done this with his weekly date with our children. They pack up the current read-aloud book and set off for a donut shop. Our children come home excited to tell me about the type of donut they ate and what happened in their book. When my children find a book they want their daddy to read, they set it aside for future daddy-dates.
Watermelon Versus Candy
Here’s where parents might start to feel discouraged. They don’t have the time or energy to start reading aloud to their children for hours every day, and their kids don’t want to sit still. And now they also need to have special snacks!
But Mackenzie never packs any guilt onto parents. Reading aloud for 10 minutes every other day equals 30 hours in a year. In that amount of time, a family can share several average-length children’s novels. Listening to audiobooks can allow families to enjoy books together while mom is driving. For children who need something to do with their hands while their parents are reading, building Legos, coloring, or playing with cars can actually help children listen better. If Mackenzie doesn’t convince readers that they can start affecting their children through reading aloud, I don’t think anyone will.
A book on reading aloud would not be complete without addressing screens. Mackenzie cites Dr. Daniel Willingham, who “compares a book to a watermelon: juicy, sweet, delicious.” My children, probably like yours, will eat their weight in watermelon if we let them. “But if they are offered a piece of candy, they will choose the candy over the watermelon every time.” Mackenzie goes on:
Only you can decide when and how much time is appropriate for your kids to have a screen option. Just realize that whenever screen time is allowed, you are essentially asking them if they’d prefer a slice of watermelon or a candy bar. Don’t expect your child to choose the watermelon when candy is there for the taking. Our kids won’t read much if they have endless opportunities to jump on screens. It’s human nature to choose the one that requires less of us–and that is just about always a screen.
There is no magic book list that tells parents what they have to read. Not all readers are alike, and not all books are created equally. Because of those differences, my family’s favorite read-aloud books may not be yours. The Hobbit is a book that didn’t work for Mackenzie’s family as a read-aloud, while it is one of my family’s favorites.
I’ve learned that if I’m not enjoying the book we’re reading, there’s a good chance my children aren’t enjoying it, either. In those situations, Mackenzie stresses that it’s okay to abandon a book and choose a new one. She shares a few examples of how she did just that with her family while encouraging her children to continue reading the book if they wished.
Love of Literature
Many parents may wonder what to do with a book after they’ve read it with their children. Mackenzie shares ten questions as a starting point for good discussion. Rather than quizzing your child about what he’s read, these open-ended questions allow parents to hear what’s going on inside their child. She also stresses that you don’t have to discuss every book and that your children don’t have to come up with profound answers for the discussion to be worth everyone’s time. Mackenzie’s tips on discussion are helpful, but I think the more books a family reads together, the more natural discussions about books will be.
In the final section, Mackenzie provides a recommended book list for the different stages of childhood. Again she stresses that parents prioritize a love of literature over reading instruction or even completing any book list. She includes my family’s read-aloud favorite, The Wingfeather Saga, which we’re still talking about two years after finishing the four-volume series. If I wasn’t already a believer in the power of stories, the way The Wingfeather Saga affected me would have convinced me. Sharing it with the people I love most made the books all the sweeter.
If you are already a reader and are effectively using books to connect with your children, there’s a chance you don’t need “The Read-Aloud Family.” But I think it is safe to say that you know someone else who does. Do them, and their children, a favor. Buy a copy, read it, and pass it on with your whole-hearted recommendation. This book could transform a whole family into readers. If reading has the power to change lives – and I believe it does – who knows what the stories they share may do for their hearts.