You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Reading aloud is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Not only do daily read-aloud sessions stimulate brain development and help foster a lifelong love of reading and learning, but they’re a great way for a parent and child to spend time together, especially at the end of a hectic day.
That’s why reading aloud is part of so many families’ bedtime rituals. How can you turn reading sessions into events your child not only enjoys but anticipates? Try these tips:
Before you read
- Choose appropriate books. Once your child is about 7, he might be ready for stories with ambiguous endings (the Harry Potter books, for example, leave some issues unresolved from volume to volume). It’s okay to read books a little above your child’s level – kids understand more than they are able to express or read on their own. And if you pick a dud, don’t feel you have to finish it – admit you made a bad choice and start something else.
- Choose books you enjoy. Nine out of ten librarians agree: It’s essential to pick books you like to read, whether they’re new titles or favorites from your own childhood. If you don’t care for a particular story, it won’t take long for your child to notice – and if you don’t like it, why should he?
- Go to the library. Taking regular trips to the library teaches your child he can choose what he wants to read, plus it’s an inexpensive way to add new books to your rotation. The library’s special displays are a great place to find books that complement the season or a particular theme. And watching the librarians conduct their own story hour will give you ideas for your at-home reading sessions.
- Preview your reading. If possible, read through your child’s book before the two of you settle down, suggests Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. If you’re familiar with the story and the language, you’ll be able to read more expressively (see below) and anticipate some of your child’s questions.
- Create a reading-friendly environment. Choose a quiet, comfortable place to read to your child, whether it’s your bed, the living room couch, or a big beanbag chair. Eliminate distractions such as the TV, phone, and radio. If you can, read at the same time every day. This helps turn reading into a ritual your child will look forward to.
As you read
- Read slowly. Your child needs time to process what he’s hearing.
- Read with expression. Tracy Heffernan, former coordinator of the San Francisco chapter of BookPALS, an organization that enlists trained actors for volunteer read-aloud events, says this is probably the best way to engage a child’s attention. Pause at commas and periods and get excited when you come to an exclamation point. Long pauses add suspense, keeping listeners glued to the story.
- Try different voices, accents, characters, and sounds. Reading a book about a witch? Make her sound like Dorothy’s nemesis in The Wizard of Oz. Is your story about farm animals? Imitate the sounds they make. This isn’t for everyone, so if you don’t feel comfortable making barnyard noises, that’s okay. But hearing Mom or Dad neigh like a horse is guaranteed to make your child smile and engage him more in the story.
- Use props. Wear berets and eat French bread while reading Ludwig Bemelmans’s classic, Madeline. Cut out paper snowflakes before reading Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Props help make the story seem real.
- Incorporate songs and puppet play. If you and your child know a song that’s related to the theme of a book, sing it before you start reading, or make up a new rhyme together. If you have hand or finger puppets, act out a scene from the book during or after your reading session. This is a great way to reinforce a book’s message or simply to extend the enjoyment.
- Take breaks. It’s okay to pause in the middle of a story to answer your child’s questions or to let him get up and move around a little. If your child gets excited and starts talking about something else or wants to try an activity mentioned in the book, go with the flow. It’s also okay to let your child scribble or draw while you read – active kids often need something to keep their hands busy. Remember: Reading sessions should never be a chore for either of you.
- Offer your opinions. When you finish a book, give your child an honest opinion of it and give him a chance to share his own impressions. He’ll learn that it’s okay not to enjoy everything he reads.
- Let your child participate. Kids love to be involved in reading aloud, whether it’s by supplying sound effects, predicting what comes next, or filling in omitted words and sentences in familiar tales.
- Pick the right stopping point. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaving off for the night at a suspenseful spot in the story – ending with a cliff-hanger will have your child eagerly anticipating the next reading session.
- Try an audio recording. If you can’t fit a read-aloud session into your day, listen to an audio recording of a book while you and your child are in the car, suggests Walter Mayes, a professional storyteller based in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s not quite the same as snuggling up with a good book, but you can listen together, and it will expose your child to new stories.
After you read
- Keep the story going. Try a story extender – a term Mayes uses for activities that encourage expression and bring your child’s favorite books to life. Mayes and his son once ate dinner by candlelight after reading one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Story-inspired arts and crafts – making paper lanterns after reading a book about the Chinese New Year, for example – are another great way to keep your child thinking about what he’s heard and learned.
- Go somewhere inspired by your reading. To really bring your child’s stories to life, plan an outing or trip based on something you’ve read together. Mayes knows families who have used their vacations to visit the settings of Wilder’s books or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. But your adventures can be simpler, too. If you’ve just read a book about playing outside, for example, head to the park. If the tale was about a trip to the grocery store, go to a local market. While you’re on your outing, point out familiar words and phrases on signs and billboards.
- Set a good example. There’s no better way to convey a love of books than to have your child see you reading as often as possible. And keep reading with your child as he gets older. The time you spend reading is an opportunity for the two of you to connect, and it continues to expose your child to stories and concepts he might not discover on his own.