This is the “how to do it” part of Maureen Wittmann’s three-part series on reading aloud. The other two parts can be read here: The Joy of Reading Aloud and The Why of Reading Aloud. Note: Some hyperlinks in this article contain affiliate links.
THE ART OF READING ALOUD
by Maureen Wittmann
It sounds so easy: Spend ten to fifteen minutes a day reading to your children and change their lives drastically for the better. But, how do we go about it exactly? What if I’m a terrible reader? Or I’m busy with my nursing baby and toddlers underfoot? How do I pick the right books? Do audiobooks count? The answers to these questions and more …
The first step in reading aloud to your children is to make sure you have good lighting. There’s nothing like strained eyes to ruin reading time. Good lighting may make the difference in whether or not reading is a success in your home. The experts say that you should at least have a 100-watt light (or equivalent) bulb in your reading lamp.
What Age Do I Start … Or Quit?
Start as early as you can and don’t stop when they get to be teens.
Babies are easy. Toddlers may want to grab the book. In that case, read while they eat in the high chair. Two of the greatest pleasures in life are eating and reading, right? So, why not combine the two? Give them chunky and plastic books that they can hold on to, that they can manhandle and taste with no worries about the books being destroyed.
You’ll be asked to read picture books over and over again, so make sure you choose books you like. Reading the same Barney book 5 times a day may make you little crazy.
Start with rhymes, comic books, and simple series (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children). Move up from there.
Gather the Kids
Recognize that all children learn differently. I have a son who, when he was a little guy, would play LEGOs while I read. At first, I tried to put a stop to it and make him focus on me. However, I soon realized he retained the story better when his hands were busy. This is called kinesthetic learning. I have a friend with a daughter who knits during read-aloud time. If works, don't hesitate to encourage it.
Make sure you and the children are comfortable. This may mean the baby is in the high chair and the toddler is playing LEGOs. But it may also mean that children are cuddled up next to you in a big comfy chair or on the sofa.
It may also mean reading at the kitchen table during lunch. I have a girlfriend who shared the sweetest picture. It was her kitchen table after she asked her children to set the table for lunch. They all had plates and utensils at their places and at her place there was a book. It was clear what they expected from her!
If it’s naptime or bedtime, it may mean the bedroom. And, once littles are asleep you can tend to the older children’s reading needs. Or, perhaps your own reading. Find what works for your family.
Most importantly, remember that reading time is not goof-off time. It is quality, education time.
Setting the Stage
Turn off the phone, TV, and other distractions. Put away the tablet, the computer, and all electronics. And anything else that might provide a distraction.
Take good care of your voice. Have a glass of water close by. I have acid reflux, which so damaged my voice at one point that I couldn’t read aloud to my children for several months. Take good care of yourself.
When you sit down to read, make sure to start with the author’s name and the illustrator’s name if applicable. This little exercise will help you and your children discern good and bad authors over time.
Stop as you read and ask open-ended questions.
Was that character’s action good or evil?In the same vein, allow questions from your children. Stop and answer.
What do you think will happen next?
Why did he do that?
Has anything like that happened to you before?
How to Read Aloud
Now, what about the HOW? Let's talk about technique and how to go from mundane to animated. Again, your child will likely enjoy Read Aloud Time, no matter your skill level. However, why not step up your game. Homeschool Bonus Points if you teach these skills to your children and get them reading aloud to you!
Start by using expressive language. When my older children were little children, we used to visit our local bookstore for “story hour” each week. The young man who read to the children was full of life. He didn’t just read, he brought the stories to life. He used voices, he waved his hands, he danced, he sang, he made faces. It was so FUN!
The bookstore storyteller inspired me to step outside of my comfort zone. I know it feels silly to act out stories like that, but your children will love it! They’ll love silly.
Have fun with voices. Imagine how a character sounds and give it a try. For example, I imagine Cinderella with a high-pitched, sweet, loving voice and the evil witch would have a scratchy, low, evil voice. Don't be afraid to try different voices. If you blow it, you and the kids will have a great laugh. Either way, it's all about the fun of trying.
Don’t worry about mistakes. Your children don’t care if you’re the most mundane reader in the world. They love being with you and cuddling with you. But why not make it fun?! Plus you’ll get better as time goes on. In due time, you’ll get into a natural rhythm.
Find poetry to read. Poetry is best read aloud, not read silently. It is like verbal music to children's ears. Start with nursery rhymes when they’re little and move to Robert Lewis Stevenson when they’re bigger. And when they’re really big, read Southwell and Chesterton.
Look for onomatopoeia words. These are words that sound like their meaning. A few obvious ones are: Roar, Meow, Chirp, Hiccup, Burp, Beep, Bang, Moo, Cuckoo. You see them a lot in comic books (think Batman): Wham! Pow! Bam!
Read words to accentuate their meaning:
That was a Loooong road.As you read, accentuate the verbs (action words). For example:
The firecrackers were LOUD.
She was quiet as a mouse
He RAN up the stairs.Make sure to check your pace as you read. This sets the tone for your story. It can create calm or excitement. Laura and Mary roaming in the wildflowers requires a slow pace. The Hardy Boys chasing criminals requires a fast pace.
She JUMPED the fence.
He HOPPED into the rail car.
Use pauses to bring home a point. Stop and take a breath when something significant has happened in the story, as to ponder the event. And, repeat important sentences. If it’s the heart of the story, if the line needs to be sold, say it again. Say it again.
Use a soft voice to grab their attention. If you start to lose their attention or just want to change things up, soften your voice. As the saying goes, “If you want someone’s attention, whisper.”
Articulate all the way to the period. Too often, we swallow our sentences. Don't mumble and don't hurry through a sentence. Take your time. Oftentimes, the meat of the sentence is at the end.
If time is running short, instead of hurrying through the story, stop and put the book aside. You can pick it up again the next day. Better to create some excitement and have something to look forward to the next day, than to rush through it.
Some books are made to be read aloud ... some are not. As I read Narnia the first time, I imagined C. S. Lewis reading aloud as he typed. It flowed easily off my tongue and was a joy to read. A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur’s Court was the opposite experience. The Olde English was difficult for me to read. It was difficult for the children to understand. We could only get through two or three pages at each sitting. It was so painful, I finally put A Connecticut Yankee down and told the children that this was one they could read on their own when they got older.
Think Car Schooling. If you are the typical homeschooler, it is likely you are continually driving and to and from events. Listen to audiobooks as you drive. Once, on vacation, my family ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere in Canada. We were so engrossed in Little House On the Prairie that we forgot to stop and get gas! So, make sure your tank is full before you set off on an adventure.
Audiobooks can also help out Mom. When I struggled with the pronunciation of the characters in the d’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, I found a great audio of it at the library. Maybe your voice just needs a break or you're under the weather. It's okay to take advantage of technology now and then.
I've had parents ask if audiobooks are "cheating." No, there is nothing wrong with giving audiobooks to your children. In fact, I have a couple of sons who are more listeners than readers. They will listen to books on tape all day long but are not nearly as thrilled to read the written page. One of those sons is now a grown man. He listens to books each day during his long drive to work. So, don't discount audiobooks.
I am a huge Audible fan. I save books to my phone and then plug my phone into the car radio. You can also find free audiobooks at your public library.
*Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com Inc. or its affiliates.Teen Readers
As I've said all through this three-part series, do not stop reading aloud once your children learn to read themselves. And, especially don't stop once they get to be teenagers. However, that doesn't mean you can't pass the baton to them.
You can have older children read to littles while you make lunch. They can take turns with you reading aloud when a story is particularly exciting and no one wants to stop.
You can flip things upside down now and then by letting your little children read picture books to you just for fun.
Finally, think about volunteer opportunities. Whether you visit a retirement home or a children's hospital, everyone loves a good story. Read aloud outside your family too.
Story is important. Sharing stories with your children is important. I hope that I’ve not only inspired you to read to your children, young and old, but also shared a tip or two to help enhance the experience.
Finally, I encourage you to turn off the TV, turn on life, and open a book!
A few reading lists to get you started on choosing books:
48 Picture Books for the Well-Rounded Catholic Child
Read Alouds for 6- to 12-Year-Old Boys
Read Alouds for 8- to 10-Year-Old Girls
100+ Books for the Well-Rounded Teen
Note: I am currently working on a new reading list (Read Alouds for the Whole Family) and will link here as soon as it is posted.