Do you know one of the very best things you can do for children?
Read to them. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give children. The sound of a parent’s voice, the experience of sitting in your lap and turning the page, the joy of reading a book together, is one of the most magical, greatest gifts you can give your child. So here are my ten tips for reading aloud.
Tip 1: It all begins with the right story. We need to think about what books we’re reading. Think seriously about choosing the most excellent books. I think the best books are living books—books that tell the truth (whether the story is factual or not), books that have heart, books that set your imagination on fire. (For some suggestions check out my Top Ten Read Aloud Book Picks.)
Tip 2: We don’t need to use silly voices or funny faces to engage children—anymore than we do for adults. Children don’t need that from us. What children need from us is to be taken seriously. What does taking children seriously look like? It means choosing living books (see Tip 1). So unless there is a character in the story that calls for a silly voice, just use your normal voice and let the story shine.
Tip 3: Preview the book. Read a book by yourself first so you know how to read it to a child. We need to be prepared. Even David Suchet, who brilliantly narrated The Jesus Storybook Bible Audio Book, prepares before he reads a text. If even he needs to, we all do.
Tip 4: Be animated and lively. While we don’t need to go crazy with silly voices and funny faces, we also can’t read the book with our noses in the covers in a droning monotone. My writer friend Richard Peck always said, “A book needs to be seen to be heard.” Meaning you need to do the work of reading it well to help the story come alive for a child. You need to read it as you would if you were reading it to all your peers — as you’d read it if you stood up at Carnegie Hall and read it aloud.
Tip 5: Leave room for the reader. Don’t answer all the questions that may come up as the story unfolds. Let the reader do the work. Let them discover for themselves. “That’s a great question! Let’s see what happens!” may be a good way to encourage your curious reader. Ask open-ended questions. “I wonder” questions are a good way to ask so the child can wonder along with you. Every once in a while, before you turn a page or move on to the next chapter, engage your child with open-ended questions (ones without one right answer). Ask them to predict what will come next. Wonder aloud together about the story.
Tip 6: Sometimes you might run your finger underneath the words to help kids follow along. Research shows that “reading books aloud is the single most valuable support parents can provide in helping children learn to read” (Dr. Priscilla Lynch, NYU). Running your fingers below the words as you read helps younger readers follow along and make connections with the text.
Tip 7: Come to the story like a child. I find the best way to read a book with a child is not as the teacher with a pupil, but as two readers discovering a wonderful story together. Wonder together at the story. Laugh together.. Take off your parent hat or teacher hat and just be two friends enjoying a story together. (For an example, watch my reading of SKIP TO THE LOO where I pretend to be shocked at the words we’re reading together.)
Tip 8: Trust the story. This takes us back to the first and most important tip. It all begins with the right story. So once you’re chosen your story, remember: you don’t need to add to the story. Whether that’s by turning the story into a lesson or feeling you have to summarize and explain. Trust the story. Let the story do the heavy lifting. Let the story be the story. Let the story do its work. A story is like a seed. It grows beautifully if we give it time, if we give it room, if we leave it alone and don’t explain it to death. I learned a long time ago that rules and lessons can’t change you, but a story can.
Tip 9: Look closely at the pictures. A picture book is a story told in two languages: words and pictures. The pictures are essential to the story. Without them, you’d only have half the story. Ask questions about the pictures. Talk about them. Take time to examine them closely. Go through the book telling the story only by looking at the pictures. What minor characters are there in the illustrations? Follow them through the book. So often you’ll find so much more than you ever realized hiding right there in plain sight. (For an example, see my reading of KING BABY. There’s also a gerbil you can follow all through the story.)
Tip 10: Have fun. Reading together, even for a few minutes a day, is such a gift to your child. Cherish these moments and know they will become lifelong memories, not only for your child, but also for you.
Only the best will do for children. And the side bonus of reading aloud together? You’ll enjoy it, too. C. S. Lewis said it best:
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
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