“People would stand in line for days and pay hundreds of dollars if there were a pill that could do everything for a child that reading aloud does. It expands their interest in books, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, and attention span. Simply put, it’s a free ‘oral vaccine’ for literacy”
– Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook
Learning to read does not begin when your child crosses the threshold of ‘big school’ for the very first time. It begins with the very first story they hear, even though they are too young to understand the words and the pictures of the story you choose.
It is amazing how much learning about literacy happens when you snuggle up with a child and share a story with them, no matter how young they are. The deepest of bonds is formed when you sit together and your child realises this is a special time between you, and they are worthy of your undivided time and attention. They begin to associate stories and reading with a highly personal and enjoyable activity, and they not only learn the sounds of the language they speak but also the language of stories. They learn to moderate and modulate their own voices, use words they would not normally hear, begin to understand sentence structure and syntax and how we use our voices and body language to convey meaning
It has been suggested that a child needs to hear at least 1000 stories before they learn to read for themselves. But what seems a daunting task is easily accomplished in just one year if parents adhere to Mem Fox’s formula of three stories a day – a favourite, a familiar and a first-read – starting from the day the baby is born. If that formula is followed, your child could hear as many as 5000 stories before they even start school!
With so much riding on your child’s success with reading, it’s no wonder that the art of reading aloud is so crucial. If we don’t engage the child from the get-go, so much can be lost. But it’s an art that is easily mastered. Here are a few tips and tricks…
A special space
Create a special space that is associated with this special time. Make it comfortable for both of you in a spot where there is good lighting and the child is surrounded by other books, which beckon when your time together is over. Have a bookcase that has books just for them, and give each child their own shelf for their own special collection. Use their artwork done in response to the stories they’ve heard to decorate the space and look for soft toys of their favourite characters to make it even more special.
A special time
Stories can and should be shared whenever the opportunity arises but if it becomes part of the regular bedtime routine, it’s like drawing the curtains on the day and your child goes to sleep calm, safe and feeling loved.
Having a special time tells your child that not only do you value the time with them but also reading itself, demonstrating that this is an important activity and something they can master for themselves in time.
Choosing a story
While children will happily listen to almost anything, if you are to read aloud well, choose a story that appeals to you and which you can hear yourself reading. You can’t hide boredom and disinterest and your child will pick up on this immediately.
Preschool children prefer picture books with bright, bold pictures and the three r’s – rhythm, rhyme and repetition – which encourage them to join in and can be completed in one reading. By about six or seven, they’re ready for ‘chapter books’ such as The Magic Faraway Tree series, which feature the same characters in adventures that are completed in each chapter, and from there they are able to move onto a serialised novel as they have the capacity to carry the story in their head over time.
If you’re not sure of your choices or what to look for, ask the teacher librarian at your local school or the Children’s Services librarian at your local public library. Teacher librarians have the added bonus of professional knowledge and practice in how children learn to read, while membership of public libraries is free and there is a large and diverse collection of books. It’s never too early to start a lifelong library habit!
Lastly, never be afraid to abandon a book if you or your child is not enjoying it. Talk about why it’s not working for you, modelling what real readers do and helping them to become critical readers themselves.
By Barbara Braxton
M.Ed.(TL), M.App.Sci.(TL), M.I.S. (Children's Services)