Family Read Alouds, Raising Readers, Resources
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Reading Aloud to Teens, Part One

The last time I talked to my daughter on the phone, she said, “Guess what Adriel is doing now.” That’s (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation my nine-year-old granddaughter, and of course I always want to know what she’s doing now. Since they live 800 miles away, I don’t get to see them very much, but it so happened that the last time I saw Adriel she had brought along a library Playaway* of one of the Redwall books. It was a great way to pass the time on a long flight, but she enjoyed it so much she was listening again, and after they returned home to Pennsylvania she found another book in the series to listen to. So, my daughter explained to me, “I told her that if she really wants to get into Redwall she should read the first book,” which wasn’t available in an audio version. And that’s what Adriel was doing when I called: reading Redwall, a 350-page epic. She broke off to talk to me for a few minutes. How was she liking the book? I asked. “I loooove it!” (When I told her about the Redwall Cookbook she made all kinds of happy noises and jumped up and down for joy—she’s a very demonstrative little girl.)

Adriel didn’t start reading voluntarily on her own until the age of eight—like a lot of kids, she preferred movies to books–but was catching up fast. What helped was the spoken word: my daughter read to her from birth, and also limited the DVDs they could check out in favor of unlimited audio books. I’m probably preaching to the choir if I extoll the virtues of reading aloud to pre-readers. Research shows convincingly that kids who are read to as toddlers gain a huge advantage in school. But most parents cut back on reading aloud after their lap-sitters start picking out books for themselves. Even homeschooling parents don’t always see the point in continuing the practice for their teenagers.

I read novels to my children from the age of three all the way to high school. That was largely because I love to read aloud—it’s my inner drama queen–but also because it encouraged family togetherness during times of upheaval and change. I didn’t realize at the time that there other reasons for continuing the practice through teenhood, such as

  • It’s countercultural. Our culture is obsessed with the visual: sharing photos and vines, chattering endlessly about movies. Reading aloud offers young people a chance to slow down and form their own pictures called up by words alone.
  • Words shape reality. From their earliest days, our children learn who they are and where they belong by what we say to them. We speak their names and bring them into focus. We say, “No,” and give them a sense of morality and lawful limits. We encourage confidence with “Good job!” Now that they’re older, spoken words can open doors to a wider world before they’re ready to step over that threshold.
  • Solitary reading is important, but shared reading is shared life. Teens need both—they need to develop their sense of self, including personal likes and dislikes, but they also need to reinforce their sense of relationship. The self typically takes center stage during these years—to a fault. The natural adolescent tendency of ignoring everything that doesn’t directly concern them needs to be counteracted. Reading aloud is experiencing a story together as it slowly unfolds over time and opens opportunities for interruption and discussion.
  • It helps us all learn to listen: to pay attention and remember. When following a book-length story, or even a multivolume epic like Lord of the Rings, each listener has to keep the story thread in mind between sessions, then add details and developments as they go along. Not everyone will remember the same way, but while discussing where they left off, everyone should be able to fill in something that the others missed. Sometimes it’s surprising how much one listener missed, but it’s also an encouragement to listen a little better.
  • Reading aloud also makes priceless memories. Gladys Hunt, in Honey for a Teen Heart, tells of her family’s epic experience of going through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They read on long car drives, during a ski vacation and a camping trip–including one memorable day of rain and wind, spent wrapped up in sleeping bags and passing the book from reader to reader. At home, a neighbor boy often dropped in to participate. The reading of a saga was itself a saga of shared thrills and frequent emotional pauses.

Psalm 19 begins with the heavens wordlessly declaring the glory of God—the very heavens that were called into being with words. The psalm goes on to extol God’s spoken words in the law—as light, as truth, as treasure, as sweetness—concluding with, “by them is your servant warned” (vs. 11) Sometimes I like to compare familiar passages to the New Jerusalem Bible, for its literary quality. The NJB reads, “Thus is your servant formed by them” (i.e., the commandments, or word, of God). I’m assuming there’s an alternate translation in the Hebrew that carries the sense of formed; as any rate, I’m struck by it. In a very real sense, we are formed by the words of God, and the Bible places a special emphasis on spoken words.

To a much lesser extent, we are formed by words in stories and books. Hearing them, as opposed to processing them by ourselves, draws us out of our little hothouse and into a web of interconnected experience. A worthy book (which we’ll talk about next week) can make that experience worthwhile: “rejoicing the heart” but even, a little, “reviving the soul” and “enlightening the eyes.”

Okay, but how? I have a few thoughts on that. Ask me next week.

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*Playaways are audio books on their own individual mp3 players.  You supply one triple-A battery and headphones or earbuds.

8 Comments

  1. First, my nine-year-old son and your nine-year-old granddaughter are kindred spirits. As I type this my DS is walking around the house listening to a play-a-way of The 39 Clues series. He was also not a natural-born reader, but loves stories and we never limit his audio book choices. He has a CD player (do you know how hard it is to find a good one of those with all things going to digital streaming?) that he also uses when he’s in his room. Luckily our library has an extensive collection of books on CD for children.

    Second, I absolutely love and agree with the statement that reading aloud is counter-cultural! Thank you for stating this. As a parent and teacher, I see so many times where it’s easy to be hands-off parents. Reading aloud to my child is one thing I do every day (or his dad does) that demands investing time, attention, patience (at least at my house), and flies in the face of iPad-amusement. (I was going to write a caveate here about how the iPad isn’t a bad thing, but I took it out because I feel I need to stand firm in my counter-cultureness and say, “READING is better!”) or whatever.

    Our rule is that unless it’s a trip of over 6 hours, there are no electronics in the car. Books are fine, art supplies are okay, staring out the window or conversation is expected. As a result, we listen to a lot of audiobooks in the car, especially during the summer. From these we have so many shared memories, one-liners, and jokes. Last summer we listened to The True Meaning of Smekday (so funny in audio!), and we have many jokes that we repeat from that one book alone. We listened to Wonder early this fall and knowing that I commute everyday, when the car was turned off my son begged, “Please don’t listen to this when I’m not here!” How can you argue with that kind of request? My son has asked me if I plan on reading to him at bedtime until he goes away to college. When I tell him that’s the plan, he says, “Good.” That’s my boy!

    As a teacher, I pass out a handout at every back-to-school night giving tips about reading to your middle school student. Some parents toss it in the trash, but others have emailed me later in the year saying how they had never thought to read to their child and it’s given them time to connect daily. I love hearing that. It could change the world, this read-aloud stuff. At the very least it would give parents and children more time together everyday.

    I’m proud to say that I’ve been a part of the revolution since long before my son was born.

    Read-alouders unite!

    Can’t wait for the next post.

  2. Emily says

    I have been eagerly listening to a podcast called “The Read Aloud Revival,” by a mom, Sarah Mackenzie, who interviews guests on the benefits of reading aloud to children of all ages. Every episode is so inspiring and full of book suggestions! My children are all 3 1/2 and under, and while we really do enjoy reading aloud board books and picture books, I look forward to being able to read wonderful children’s novels in a few years. My mother continued to read aloud until my youngest siblings were almost finished with high school.

    Redeemed Reader is another of my sources for book suggestions, both for myself and for my children. Thank you for reviewing books for children of all ages!

    • Emily,
      Thanks so much for mentioning The Read Aloud Revival! It’s one of those resources I’ve heard of but never got around to looking up. I’ll remedy that right now . . .

  3. I’d never noticed the emphasis on reading aloud, though of course looking back it’s obvious. All those times when the people are gathered to hear the law…

    As a teen, I’ll confess that all this solitary reading is a bit isolating. At my old school our Literature teacher would have us read aloud to each other — that helped us all “get” it better than just reading it on our own would have, I think.

  4. Crystal says

    When I saw the title of this post, I, too, immediately thought of Read-Aloud Revival, which I only discovered a few weeks ago. In the first episode, “Reading Aloud to Older Kids,” guest Andrew Pudewa gives another great reason for reading aloud to those who can already read: listening to well-written books will make them better writers, because they need to learn the language patterns that come from hearing the words spoken. This really struck a chord with me. When I read to myself, I tend to skip over the long descriptive paragraphs, which often have the most beautiful language in them; I’m guessing my children do, too. These sentences are SO much richer when read aloud! I have decided to redouble my efforts to read aloud to my 13yo son and 9yo daughter; they love read-alouds anyway.

    (And on another note, I wish y’all would provide Amazon links to the books you review. I appreciate the information you provide and would love to support your site through any book purchases you may inspire.)

  5. Kelley says

    Thank you for this post! What an encouragement to just keep reading! Now that my kids are bigger (9 and 11), we’re busier than we used to be. We don’t get to read together every night anymore. But we can still do it a few nights a week during the school year and almost every night during the summer. We just need to keep at it even when we’re tired and just don’t feel like it!

    We also love listening to audio books and audio dramas when we travel.

  6. Alene says

    How funny . . . right before checking your website for books for my 11yo, I asked my freshman (homeschool to 8th grade, then 9th grade at voc-tech school) if she would like to do Fellowship of the Ring as a read-aloud with me (I knew she was having a hard time getting through it). She enthusiastically said yes.

    Currently, a few families from church get together twice a month to read through Chronicles of Narnia. Someone reads the narrator, part and others take the different characters. It’s great.

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