Reading to Children
Just as a child learns from real experiences, he can also learn from vicarious ones-and far more safely. Through books he can experience revelations that might not come to him until much later in the normal course of events: revelations of fear, of failure, of love, of understanding. What's more, reading provides a sort of mental rehearsal for the time when he encounters these experiences firsthand.
Here are some practical suggestions for sharing books with children:
- Try to set aside some time each day for storytelling.
- Recommended reading levels are only a rough guide. Parents need to develop a feel for what will work with their own children. Since there are so many good books available there's no reason to try to force a particular book on a child. This is doubly true for classics. They can be introduced too early or in the wrong way, spoiling a child's taste for them later on. Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona series, relates, "When I was a child, a relative gave me Ivanhoe to grow into. I was so disappointed that I still have not grown into it."
- Keep in mind that children can understand and enjoy listening to stories that are above their actual reading level.
- For very small children the main thing is to hear stories that are rhythmic and repetitive. It's the sound of the language that counts most at this stage.
- Be aware that myths, fairy tales, and folktales come in many versions-versions that range from the sublime to the abysmal. For example, you wouldn't think that "Rumpelstiltskin" could be rolled out flat as a pancake, but it has been done. Another factor in choosing a version of a book is the quality of the illustrations. While illustrations are not all important, they do make a difference; look fo editions with illustrations that do justice to the text rather than trivialize it.
- When reading aloud choose stories that you, yourself, like. Reading should be enjoyable for everyone involved.
- Practice when possible. Good stories deserve a good reading. Read the story yourself before reading it to your children. That way you'll have a better idea of it's plot and rhythm and bumpy spots.
- Be expressive. Learn when to slow down, when to speed up, when to pause. Create suspense by lowering your voice, create a dramatic effect by raising it. You might try changing your voice to fit each character. Don't be concerned that you lack the vocalization skills of a professional actor; children constitute a forgiving and enthusiastic audience.
- It is important to set the right mood when reading aloud. Allow time for your children to settle down. If you're reading from a picture book you might spend some time talking about the book's cover. Ask your children what they think the story will be about. If it's a chapter in a novel, you might want to follow Jim Trelease's advice and ask, "Let's see-where did we leave off yesterday?" or 'What's happened so far?"
- Don't be tempted to explain the "moral" of the story. Let the book speak for itself. Family reading time should not be confused with a class in interpretation. On the other hand, it's fine if a story leads to conversation. Occasionally it might be appropriate to ask a question or two about a character's actions or motivations. But don't overdo it. It's better if questions come spontaneously from your child.
- Read-aloud time shoud be balanced with silent reading time. Even prereaders should have time alone with picture books. Try instituting a practice of silent reading time for the whole family. Instead of gathering around the television at night make the bookcase the focus of attention.
Copyright © 1994 by William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe.