A week or so ago my wife reminded me how much our older two kids had loved some of the challenging books I’d read aloud to them when they were little: Island of the Blue Dolphins and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. It was the really complex and engaging stories that they loved most.
She thought our six-year-old would love that as well so I started Mrs. Frisby with her a few nights ago. “Scoop” took to it instantly. We’d read it at bedtime and she’d plead with me not to stop. I’d say “five more minutes” and when they were done she’s insist it couldn’t possibly have been five.
As a treat I went in to work a little late this morning and spent half an hour reading Mrs. Frisby to her on the living room floor. I do most of the reading but I give her little parts to do like reading the chapter titles or getting to read pieces of the dialogue.
I’ve always been a huge advocate for reading aloud to kids as both a dying art and a crucial aspect of literacy. I wish teachers did more of it in school. I once asked a room of teachers why people didn’t do it much. “I’d like to but I don’t feel like I’m teaching when I read to kids,” one teacher said- which I think is an astute answer that reflects how a lot of people feel about their lives in the classroom. I don’t judge it. I’d love to change that sentiment, though.
My reading with little Scoop this morning reminded me of why. As many people have pointed out, being read to is an outstanding way to grow vocabulary and indeed we read words like ‘sympathetically’ and ‘oddities.’ More than that, even, there was a breeze “carrying the moist essence of spring.” No doubt that develops both her word knowledge and her ear for language and just maybe its beauty. That’s true especially when she can hear someone read it—I remind myself to read slowly so she can think about the words and process them with a bit more time. She loves to linger over a scene so I leave pauses of five seconds or so at critical moments.
However, the thing that reading aloud does most powerfully, I think, is to introduce young ears to complex and nuanced syntax. I have a minor obsession with developing syntactic control, the capacity of students to use the forms the grammar of building sentences affords them to construct ideas with flexibility and fluidity, and a related obsession with developing their ability to track ideas written by others when those ideas take complex and sometimes convoluted forms.
Here’s one sentence we read this morning: “In her worry about moving day, in watching the tractor, the cat, and finally the rats, Mrs. Frisby had forgotten that she had set out originally to get some corn for supper.” Reading a sentence like that is pretty challenging and relies on the ability to not only track the connection of the ideas within it but to hear the way that the syntax of the sentence connects ideas: pushes some together, subordinating some. You have to intuit that “in watching the tractor, the cat, and finally the rats,” is a series (it describes the things Mrs Frisby had done earlier that morning) but also that it is a digression in the sentence, almost an appositive to describe her worry about moving day. The sentence, you’ll note, functions without it. It’s a digression. All of these things require an ear. They require constant exposure to complex text that models just how rich and varied a sentence can be. That, to me, is most powerful benefit of being read to: all the while she is drinking up the story of Mrs. Frisby, little Scoop is drinking up the larger story of the sentence, of all the forms it can take and the things it can do. So not only is it important to read to kids but to read complex text to them. The power is in the hearing of syntax that would be slightly beyond them to construct easy meaning out of on their own.
And I don’t think this is just powerful for six year olds. My son is 13. He’s a sophisticated reader and is comfortable reading All Quiet on the Western Front and Oliver Twist on his own. But a couple of nights ago we tucked in on the couch and I read a long article about the doctors and researchers who are studying and managing the Ebola epidemic in Africa to him. Scientific writing and long-form non-fiction have their own distinct rhythms. The sentences are different from what you’d hear in All Quiet on the Western Front. Reading aloud to him was my way to develop that ear.
Similarly my 11 year old is a voracious reader. Every time I look up she’s into a new book. I almost can’t keep up with her anymore. But what I can do is tuck in next to her on the couch and read a chapter of whatever she’s into aloud to her. In large part it’s for the pleasure of reading aloud together. But I also try to be conscious of how I am modeling the inflections that make the parts and pieces of complex sentences fit together and perhaps the specific rhythms of the author she’s reading, which, it’s my hope, will make the books a little more legible to her when she reads on her own. In that way reading aloud is synergistic with reading silently, especially when it’s the same text (and it is a complex and challenging text).
And of course you can replicate all these aspects of reading aloud in your classroom…pretty much no matter what you teach- reading aloud a few pages of the author’s syntax or choosing something complex and bringing its language to life. I hope you will. Especially with challenging text. As a tool for building literacy I think it’s under-rated.