“I started reading Yeats to my children when they were one week old,” a professor of English literature informed his amused class. “I would have started earlier but they wouldn’t let me into the nursery at the hospital.”
Not everyone feels this strongly about reading to children at an early age, but reading to children is important to their development. In 1972, the British National Children’s Bureau conducted a survey of the development of seven-year-old children in Great Britain. It was found that the reading ability of Scottish children was an average of 11 months ahead of other British children. The Bureau also found that Scottish parents read more often to their children than parents in England and Wales.
Reading stories to children prepares them to read for themselves. One of the problems I found in teaching first grade is the wide difference in preparedness for reading that children exhibited from the first week of school. I could usually guess which children had parents who spent some time reading to them. They knew how to handle books, they liked stories, they knew how to listen actively, they had well-developed vocabularies, and they were eager to begin reading by themselves.
Interest or motivation is one of the most important factors in a child’s learning to read. What greater motivation can a child have than to see his parents, the people he loves and admires most, read and share books with him? He will want to learn to read because he wants to be like them.
But reading to a child younger than three is much different from reading to an older child. “I just don’t enjoy reading to my two-year-old,” a young mother told me. “She won’t sit still and listen.”
This mother would not have been frustrated had she realized that her daughter’s actions were normal and desirable for her age. The constant interruptions and questions develop the child’s ability to think critically about what is read to him. A young child needs time to test and play with the new words and ideas he is learning from his books. When he understands a particular passage of a book, he will stop interrupting there, but will, perhaps, catch something in a different place that puzzles him.
Then there are families with children of varying ages. How can the same books possibly interest Children whose ages range from preschool to high school? Probably the older children wouldn’t care for Peter Rabbit, so the reading level of the older children should be sought. It is surprising how much a younger child can “stretch” to understand something his older brothers and sisters find interesting.
Young children learn language patterns, rhythm, and rhyme by memorizing parts of stories or poems. Rhyming lines are especially easy for a child to memorize. They love to participate by saying the part they know. Even a two-year-old feels a sense of involvement if he can answer “Not I” to the Little Red Hen, or recite the Gingerbread Boy’s chant. Ask your child, for instance, “How did the troll sound when he roared at the billy goats?” Letting your child experiment with different voices is creative fun. It helps him learn to listen to differences in tone and inflection and to infer meanings from them.
And it doesn’t take any longer to read to five children under the age of seven than it does to read to one. Most mothers would welcome the chance to sit down with their children and know where they all are for a few minutes each day.
Should parents stop reading to their children once their children begin to read in school? Absolutely not! A bright six-year-old’s listening vocabulary and background of experience and interest are far above the carefully controlled vocabulary in a beginning reading text. To relegate his entire literary experience in first grade to “Oh look. See Spot run” is a needless waste. Most elementary school teachers feel that reading to children is so important that they devote 15 or 20 minutes to this activity each day.
Reading to children introduces new books to them and broadens their interests. Children are often able to read a book above their usual reading level if it is one they have heard often and like very much. This gives them a feeling of achievement while the assigned material they read at school may not.
Parents shouldn’t worry about taking the edge off a book by reading it to the child before he reads it on his own. Breathes there a child who does not relish hearing or reading a favorite story over and over again? Any book a teacher or librarian has read aloud to a class is in constant demand by the children to check out for their own reading.
Stories don’t always have to be read. Telling a familiar folk tale such as The Three Bears or reciting Mother Goose rhymes while dressing or feeding a toddler is fun. I have always told my children nursery tales in this manner. Several months ago it occurred to me that I could acquaint them with more important literature in the same way. I began reading a story from the Old Testament each day and retelling it at mealtime. The whole family has been fascinated with these colorful accounts. If I miss my scripture reading and am unprepared at dinner time I face being called to account by the entire group. This has motivated consistent scripture reading on my part. As the characters and events of the Old Testament have become familiar to him, my five-year-old has enjoyed hearing me read directly from the Bible.
Really good literature spans every age group. When asked how to go about writing stories for children, the instructor in a creative writing class said, “Most of the best stories for children were written for adults, and children just happened to like them.” Aesop’s Fables, Robin Hood, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are examples of these. Many humorous books and stories are enjoyed by all ages. Cheaper by the Dozen, James Thurber’s My Life & Hard Times, and Sam Levenson’s Everything But Money are enjoyable. A word of caution—don’t try to read aloud a book that you dislike or find boring. Just as enthusiasm is contagious, so is indifference. It’s hard to fool children.
Parents need never be at a loss when it comes to choosing material for family reading. Librarians are willing sources of help. They often have lists of suggested books for all age levels or they can refer you to some of the books about children’s books. One of the best collections of stories is Children’s Books Too Good Miss,edited by Mary Hill Arbuthnot (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 6th ed., 1971).
Reading and discussing favorite stories can draw a family closer together. Good stories present realistic situations where decisions must be made and consequences follow. Parents can learn something of their children’s attitudes and can teach their own values while discussing how the story characters solve their problems.
When do you read to your family and how often? There is no one answer to that question. I know of one family who felt that a daily family reading time was so important that they arose at six o’clock to read together for 30 minutes before breakfast. The important thing is to enjoy family reading. It needn’t be every day and it doesn’t need to be done on a continual basis. You might want to take a break after reading a lengthy book and wait until you find a book so good that you simply must share it.
Reading together is one of the few activities a family can participate in that involves no expense. Instead of working and worrying to provide your children with material possessions that are soon broken and forgotten, try giving them time and love. Memories are made of these magic ingredients. Your children may well remember you with the sentiment expressed in these lines:
“You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be—
I had a mother who read to me.”
(Strickland W. Gillilan, The Reading Mother.)