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Reading out loud: the most important contribution parents can make to academic success

cozy reading time
Reading out loud: shared time, love, and memories    AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

 Reading is a lot like driving – once your kids can do it on their own, you are free. Reading is also a badge of honor: the younger a child is when he does it, the more “advanced” he is, and the greater his future success. These ideas could not be further from the truth. The truth is this:

Reading out loud to children -- throughout their lives – is the single most important contribution parents can make to future academic success.

My daughter, who is now a college sophomore, went to high school with a cohort of friends who all had siblings six or seven years older. One day, we parents, whose older (first) children had also all graduated in the same class, had a major revelation: although we had all read to our first children daily, had given them unobstructed time and attention, had spent that first six or seven years as parents of only children doing what we knew was best for their intellectual growth, it was their younger siblings who had a natural facility with poetic language, who loved intellectual debates, who peppered their conversations with large vocabulary words (usually used correctly, although with liberal poetic license), who relished academic pursuits regardless of external rewards (like grades).

What we realized that day was that, although our older children had been read to constantly from the time they were babies, their siblings had heard the cadences of literary language from the time they could hear the sounds of our voices in the womb. Not only that – while the older children listened to age-appropriate books: nursery rhymes and Frog and Toad, and A Baby Sister for Francis, and Owl Moon, their baby brothers and sisters nursed and played to the oral literature of young childhood – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Wind in the Willows, and Treasure Island, and Little Women.

Hearing these books from their baby years developed a sense of the poetic cadences of literary language – which is much different from spoken language. Our younger children were immersed in a world of carefully-crafted imagination and poetry and language, not in toddler books about the alphabet and the Berenstain Bears and Sesame Street, although they liked those, too. Somehow hearing more advanced literary language at a younger age forged an ability in these children to appreciate literature and writing and academics in a way that made school a fun adventure and a continuous extension of their childhood worlds.

Once children learn to read on their own, parents often give a sigh of relief and proudly report that their children now “read to themselves” at night before bedtime. While this is essential in practicing their reading skill, continuing to read aloud to them is more important than ever during their elementary years. At this age, children can listen to literature that is beyond their natural reading level – although, perhaps, they could read the words, the meanings and language of books like Frankenstein and Jane Eyre and Great Expectations would be beyond their interest level and not keep their attention. But sharing the time and ideas with their parents, listening to language that is beyond their daily realm, putting together in their minds’ eye long, rambling sentences that would lose them if they were to read those books alone in their beds at night, develops their academic abilities in a way that no other experience can.

Reading to children into the high school years not only develops their academic intellectual capacities, but also forges a bond of shared knowledge and friendship that transcends the tumult of teenage lives.

My oldest child, who now reads out loud with his wife as they cook or relax together – in part to catch her up on the literature of his childhood, in part just because sharing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is fun and free – randomly leaves freeform quotes remembered from books long set aside on my answering machine: “Hello, lunch!” appears in my messages and I laugh, knowing who it is, where the reference is from, and feeling the terrified thrill that shoots down my children’s spines every time they hear the snake’s friendly threat to Frog and Toad. My babies have long grown up; but the adventure of literature and life continues. “Poop-poop!”

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  • Coleenc 5 years ago

    Marie - I love this article! I have been reading to my six-year-old until I practically lose my voice...and noticing that my 10-year-old is creeping in the room to listen also! She is a fantastic reader, but still loves to hear me read aloud. Over Christmas break, we all read "The Complete Spiderwick Chronicles," and the first book of Harry Potter. Also, my mother-in-law recently sent me a book entitled: "Classics to Read Aloud to Your Child." The three of us have loved that book and read all the stories for all the ages! Sometimes when I am stressed out and feel like I haven't been spending enough time with my children, I sit down and share a book with them and suddenly feel like it's exactly what I am supposed to be doing. Reading aloud gives us such a nice sense of being connected to each other!

  • Peter 5 years ago

    I just finished reading The Lord of the Rings to my eight-year-old son tonight. I couldn't agree more with you! Thanks for reminding me that I don't ever have to stop reading to him.

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