Why as parents and teachers we must all read aloud to older children
‘If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.’
We all know about the benefits of reading to young children, even from birth. It’s been drilled into us as parents and teachers and carers to such an extent you’d be hard pressed to find a young child in the developing world who is never read to. But how about reading to older children?
I started to think about this a while back when my eldest child decided at the age of seven that she didn’t want to be read to anymore because she enjoyed reading on her own so much. I accepted this fairly unquestioningly; it felt a little strange to be breaking that tie (and evening tradition) between us but was, I surmised, one of those natural things that come about as our children grow up and become more independent.
I let this continue and she devoured book after book on her own, and I was happy with that and glad that she seemed to love books and reading so much. But then recently, a friend came to stay and was surprised to see that I wasn’t reading to my eldest (now aged 9) anymore. I told her it had actually been some time since I’d read to her, to which she replied that I should reconsider that. She commented that my daughter may well be reading at a high level, but what level was she listening at? This friend was read to by her parents until she was fifteen. They read through a great number of the classics as well as a huge number of other books they took it in turns to choose. Now I’m not advocating that we have to read to our kids till they’re in their mid-teens. This is pretty unusual. But her comments got me thinking, and I decided to look into the benefits of reading aloud to older children more deeply.
Apart from the fairly obvious advantages of maintaining that special, tactile bond between parents and children and being able to talk about the books and the issues they throw up during and after reading, it turns out that a number of studies have been carried out on why we should keep reading to children even as they become more independent readers. It may sound like an obvious statement, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked: Children listen on an entirely different level to how they read. And actually, let’s face it, truly active listening shouldn’t be scoffed at: it is hard. Which is why, it turns out, it’s a really good idea to help children with this. And one good way we can do this is by reading aloud to them.
We can read the kind of books that our children wouldn’t necessarily read themselves, and often these books can be ‘targeted’ at a higher age group (though I’m not a fan of age-banding for kids) and so can motivate them to keep reading more challenging material. It really doesn’t matter at all if they don’t understand certain words; they can either ask us or will listen to the cadence and flow of the story and take what they need to take from it.
What else? Is it just me or is anyone else guilty of sometimes ‘zoning out’ whilst reading those same books we’ve read over and over again to children? (What’s for dinner? What do I need to do tomorrow?). If we are actively involved in choosing the story, often re-living some of our own childhood books, we can get engaged and excited again in the storytelling. I’ve found that recently I’ve thrown myself much more into the different voices of characters and actively enjoyed telling the stories. It’s helped me to focus more on the words and engage on a different level. Needless to say, if kids experience adults deriving enjoyment from reading books, they are far more likely to be lifelong readers.
I don’t want to start bemoaning the impact of digital media on our children, as I’m not against young people engaging in technology (if used in the right way.) But attention spans, we can’t deny it, are shorter these days and digital media hasn’t helped this. But read an older child a story and you have just two things: the reader’s voice and the listener’s ears. And what does this do? It results in the listener building empathy and images and sparking all kinds of unpredictable questions and interests.
My nine year old wasn’t impressed when I suggested re-instating reading together. But I gently persevered and now it’s become habitual again and she looks forward to it. Not just my eldest, but all three of my kids I am absolutely certain are benefitting in so many ways from reading aloud: they are listening at a level above their personal reading ages so being exposed to richer stories, their vocabulary is growing and so is their ability to question and process some challenging themes.
So come on, dig out and dust off some of those old favourite’s that inspired us as children. Let’s get reading to kids, no matter their age, and be open to how it could just transform us as well.
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