When I was on book tour with The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, an experience that may sound more impressive than it was, I thought my job was to give advice.
And advice I gave—on the myths and misconceptions about reading that can stand in the way of us leading our well-read lives. But I also received advice on this topic, and one piece of wisdom stood out for its simplicity and importance: Don’t stop reading to your kids once they begin reading for themselves.
The problem is, it feels so natural to stop.
Lap years to gap years
After the earliest years, when parents or other caregivers read to their young children, both the children and the adults delight in the baby steps of literacy—when sounding out letters magically creates whole words, and when children first string those words together.
Just as young children naturally delight in their increasing mobility, they take pride in first reading out loud and then reading silently to themselves. At this point, children may say they would prefer to read by themselves. Adults accept this with a certain justifiable if bittersweet pride.
Ironically, this is when the biggest opportunity may be lost. It’s a false finish line.
A long-time teacher of young children was the first to convey this concept to me. I’ve since asked more reading experts if they could verify this.
“Yes, parents should definitely continue to read to their kids,” says Patricia Hallion, an adjunct faculty member at the graduate program for reading teachers at Salem State College in Massachusetts. “Research has shown that until about eighth grade, kids are able to listen to books at a much higher level than they are able to read on their own.
“The gap is at least three reading levels, and sometimes more,” Patricia says. “A lot of children have such depth of comprehension when listening, but their skill for sounding out words impedes them and stops the flow of comprehension when they are left on their own.”
When children begin to read by themselves, normally between the ages of 6 and 8, they enter their comprehension gap years that continue typically until they become teenagers. They should certainly read on their own, but for these five or six gap years, adults have an opportunity to bend the branch down and allow children to grasp literary fruit still out of their reach.
“I think that parents who stop reading aloud to their children when the children learn to read themselves are making a big mistake,” cautions librarian and famed book recommender Nancy Pearl (Book Lust, Book Crush). “To read aloud to your child is to give him or her three things: the gift of your uninterrupted time, the unspoken—but obvious—message that reading is important, and a shared experience of entering together into the world of a book.”
Nancy and her husband both read plenty to their two daughters past the time the girls could read for themselves. “It’s a good way to begin a discussion of a difficult issue,” Nancy adds, “but beyond that, it's a pure pleasure to watch a child respond to a book in his or her own particular way.”
From pictures to chapters
Lynda S. Hunter, the head of youth services at the Delray Beach Public Library, says a sense of place can help fill the gap. “I encourage parents to choose a comfortable area and designate it as the ‘Story Place.’ It can be the parents’ bed, or a large comfortable chair. Try to read together at the same time of day or evening. Encourage your child to share the reading but do not make it a condition.”
“Begin to share short chapter books with some illustrations such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. Read only one chapter each time,” Lynda says. “If your child wants to continue reading, place the chapter book aside and choose a picture book. This will acclimate the child to chapter books as well as create anticipation of what comes next. “
Staying with your kids in this phase helps many budding young readers of children’s books get comfortably rooted in reading grown-up books. “This works,” Lynda says.
The best picks are the kids’ picks
Emily D’Amour Pardo, marketing coordinator at the Books & Books bookstore in Miami, says it’s a good idea to let your children choose their own books.
“Parents often think their children are very advanced, and so will ask for books with content that might appeal to an adult reader, but might not hook a child,” Emily cautions. “They also don’t always appreciate that the things they read when they were children might not be as inviting to today’s ‘tween reader. The best thing is to involve the child in the selection on his or her own book.”
‘My first book club’
Diane Barone, Foundation Professor of Literacy at the University of Nevada, Reno, recognizes that parents may feel uncomfortable reading to older children and suggests an alternative.
“They could each read the same book silently; then they might write something that was interesting, wonderful, weird, or so on about the book each time they read. Then the parent and child can find a time when they can chat about the book beginning with their written comments.” Through this process, says Diane, parents and children enjoy reading together in a process similar to a book club.
I know many of you have personal experiences with reading to children; what stories can you share? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).