Friday, March 12, 2010

After the Love Has Gone: Read-Aloud for the Young and Restless

At the invitation of the fabulous Jen Robinson, I am so proud to be a participant in the Share A Story, Shape a Future initiative, an "annual blog tour for literacy." For five days, "we harness the power of the Worldwide web to share ideas about ways to engage kids as readers." If you haven't been following all along, look forward to treating yourself to a weekend of delving into inspirational posts about the power of print, discovering amazing real world book lists, and connecting with your children's book-loving brethren!

The initiative was great out of the gate thanks to an invitation to share what works and what excites us to share via writing prompts by Terry Doherty, with provocative points for discussion every day that followed. Day two was all about "Literacy My Way" in which creative articles collected by Susan Stephenson of The Book Chook conspired to demonstrate that there's more than one way to skin the proverbial reading "cat." Day Three was hosted by Sarah Mulhern of The Reading Zone, featuring "The Nonfiction Book Hook," showing how books about real things lead to real reading. Day four was hosted by Donalyn Miller, author of one of my favorite recent teacher resources, THE BOOK WHISPERER, celebrating the theme of "Old Favorites and New Classics." And today at Jen Robinson's Book Page, we have "Reading for the Next Generation," and I am glad to be a part of that list today, riffing about that unthinkable time when your child doesn't want you to read aloud any more. Maybe they are busy "tweenagers." Maybe they think read-aloud is for babies. Maybe they want to do it themselves. Maybe there is a divergence of interests. Sniff-sniff! What to do? Here are some strategies to bring even the biggest or busiest kid back to the book.

Communicate honestly. Tell your child in plain English (or Spanish or Japanese or French or Pig-Latin) that you know he is a great reader; this is simply very important to you. Explain that reading out loud is who you are (or want to be) as a parent, that you look forward to it and would miss it if you didn't. Explain that reading out loud is a present you are trying to give and it will change his life in amazing ways, if he could just trust you on that now. Explain that read-aloud is something you do in this family no matter what age anybody is, and you hope he will grow up and do it for his children as well. Your child may allow you to begin reading just to get you to stop talking like this.

Wheedle a little. "Did I not do for you all day? Do now you do this one thing for me." Effectiveness of guilt trips may vary according to cultural tendencies ingrained for generations. Some children have developed an immunity.

Go to bed a little earlier. Sometimes children are just plain tired at the end of the day and konk out as you begin reading, or are simply too cranky to listen. Go to bed about twenty minutes earlier to improve read-aloud mood and attention span.

Go to bed a little later. This is a good bargaining chip for older children. Offer that they might stay up a half hour later if you can spend it reading together. If they are old enough to give you an attitude about it, reasonably suggest you try it for just a week and serialize a novel. They'll be hooked.

Change the schedule. Bedtime seems to be the reading time of choice, but be versatile when your family's needs demand it. If your schedule doesn't allow you to read aloud before bed, try reading aloud during breakfast instead, or before homework (believe me, there's nothing going on in the homework that read-aloud won't help). Just try to be consistent in whatever time you decide on; regular read aloud impacts academic achievement more dramatically, and makes reading part of your lifestyle.

Pick with passion...and the mind. I had a woman complain that I overstated the cause of read-aloud because she tried to share John Knowles A Separate Peace, which she had never read herself, with a seventh grader. It didn't go over too well. Hey, guess what? William F. Buckley isn't watching you read, or double-checking your curriculum. If you have a child who would prefer some quality time with Lyle, Lyle Crocodile to what looks good on a college application essay, how about cutting you both some slack? On the other hand, if the likes of A Separate Peace is your all-time favorite book, that passion will permeate your reading. The bottom line for elementary school children, which is easy to forget in the current climate: don't read for a resume. Read because it's a pleasure.

Turn the TV or computer games off. Match time spent staring at screens with time spent reading aloud. Rule of thumb: use your library card at least as often as you use your Blockbuster card or Netflix membership. If you are contending with real video game addiction issues, use "successive approximations toward the goal," a.k.a. baby steps by letting them earn time; for every half hour of read-aloud, give them a checker from an old board game that they can "spend" on ten minutes of screen time.

Make read-aloud a reward. Extra help with the housework or good grades can mean an extra story or chapter at the end of the day. This demonstrates the value of read-aloud.

Let someone else read-aloud. Have a guest reader, such as a grandparent, the spouse or partner who doesn't usually read aloud, a family friend, an older sibling. Or get a book on tape, but get the book in print as well, and follow along so your child still gets the exposure to print.

Make a list. Sometimes just keeping track of what you're reading inspires children to read more. It's fun to watch the list get longer and longer! You can even jot down titles and dates on the door, by the growth chart.

Go to the library or bookstore more often. New titles can jumpstart interest. So does choice.

Take turns reading aloud. You read a page, your child reads a page. Or, take parts in dialogue. Praise ability generously! This kind of encouragement, especially as children get older, can be hard to come by at school and makes read-aloud extra pleasurable.

Read aloud what you never thought you would. Give in to your child's desires. Let them pick anything, anything they want. So, it's the five-hundred-page Technical Manual of All-Your-Never-Wanted-to-Know About Race Cars/Arachnids/Dragonslaying. So, it's a magazine article from Teen-Beat-Me-Over-the-Head-with-Makeup-Tips or an interminable day in the life of the boy who looks like a vampire. Remember, lots of non-readers find connection to print through non-fiction. Your willingness to share in your children's interests not only improves their self-esteem, it makes you look cool and (almost?) worth talking to. Besides, if your children are interested in it, how bad can it be? (Don't answer that.) If it's more than you can bear, negotiate: One thing you pick, one thing I pick.

Be pragmatic. If your child won't sit for a novel after many attempts or has attention deficit problems, or your work schedule leaves you panting, try a short story instead. Or a poem a day. Or assigned reading from school that would have to get done anyway. Or a play, where you can take parts.

Give in, but read alongside. If you've tried these strategies but read aloud is still a battle, ease up. Fighting is counterproductive. If your child won't come around to join you, you can still model read-aloud with your spouse or partner. You can also compromise by getting book lights and reading silently alongside your child. Remark on notable passages you come across, and ask sporadic questions the the reading inspires (even the reflective ones that have no ready answers) that encourage your child to do the same with you.

I hope you'll share your own strategies in the comments section. It's not always easy to read-aloud every day, but there are good reasons to give it your best try. Not only because over ten thousand pieces of research, compiled and distilled through the Department of Education in its report "Becoming A Nation of Readers" suggest it's the most important thing you can do to ensure academic success, and that it should continue through the grade levels. It has to do with creating an intrinsic value in reading, it has to do with deciding what's worthwhile to do with our time even when forces may pull us all in so many other directions. Most of all, it has to do with saying to a child, "you're worth spending time with, you're worth sharing with," saying I love you with every page turned until the child's heart is filled with the confidence that comes with both knowledge and support. And whether you're a teacher or a parent, isn't that what shaping a future is all about!

Throughout this post you'll find covers from a few more favorite read-alouds , mostly taken from my Reading Resuscitation List: THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS by William Pene du Bois; THE WRETCHED STONE by Chris Van Allsburg; THE GRIFFIN AND THE MINOR CANON by Frank Stockton; THE BIG ORANGE SPLOT by Daniel Pinkwater; THE QUILTMAKER'S GIFT by Jeff Bumbeau, illustrated by Gail de Marcken; ZLATEH THE GOAT AND OTHER STORIES by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Maurice Sendak; POOP by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Neal Layton; THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by Louise Erdrich, and the trusty D'AULAIRES BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS. I like books that I can read aloud in a room whether there is an eight year old tucked in, a twelve year old, or both. What books have worked for you? Which have reignited the fire? Which books did your children teach you to love?

And one more thing: the fifteen points in this post are all dedicated to my almost-fifteen-year-old son, in appreciation for letting mom read aloud A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith, and listening while dad shares YOU CAN'T WIN by Jack Black. Thanks, R.

"Share a Story, Shape a Future" button art by Elizabeth Dulmeba.
These strategies were excerpted from "What to Do When Your Child Doesn't Want You To Read-Aloud,"
from HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING, Esme Raji Codell, copyright 2003, Algonquin Books.
Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to
support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at


Chandra said...

Fantastic tips - every one of them! Luckily we seem to be worlds away from this phase, but I'll keep this all in mind for when/if that wretched day does arrive!

Also, odd question - can you tell me what book you are reading in your header picture? It looks familiar, but I can't put my finger on it. Thanks!

Terry Doherty said...

You made me laugh out loud (guilt trips), you gave me courage (to read what I never thought I would), and you made me feel special (matching your 14 points to your 14-year-old son). Thanks Esme!

Esme Raji Codell said...

Thanks, Chandra! The wonderful book I am reading in the header is OTTO: THE STORY OF A MIRROR by Ali Bahrampour (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).

Esme Raji Codell said...

Ha-ha, Terry, I had to change it to match...he's almost fifteen.

MotherReader said...

Great ideas! We've kept read aloud time alive by being flexible and watching their interests. Tween loved The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, so it was time to read the book together. I've also used the reasoning that I want their opinions on books for the blog or book club or storytime or whatever it takes. ;^)

Jen Robinson said...

Thanks so much for this post, Esme. These are all fabulous tips (and all the better for being delivered with humor). I laughed out loud at "Your child may allow you to begin reading just to get you to stop talking like this." I think there's at least one tip here that could work for any family. I hope that I'm a long way from having a child reluctant to have me read aloud - but I'm saving this post for the future. Thanks again!!

LiteracyDocent said...

Thanks so much for this fabulous, laugh out loud funny, but right on the money post! I read aloud everyday in my 4th grade classroom AND every week in my evening graduate class...and neither group of learners will let me skip it! :)

Katrina said...

My middle school students love it when I read out loud to them! As a parent, at home we read everyday, but not usually at bedtime. Usually after dinner, but before the bedtime routine is when our boys will actually sit through an entire book, but also read a lot on weekend mornings or in the car. Audio books are awesome alternatives to video games or DVDs in the car.

Cathy Puett Miller said...


As always I feel your enthusiasm through the keyboard and it makes me want to sit down and read a book with you and a whole group of children. I'll take the red-haired one (I'm always partial to red-headed children!)

Have you seen Hester Bass's new award winning picture book The Secret World of Walter Anderson?

Esme Raji Codell said...

I have not seen it, Cathy, but it looks really good! Thanks for sharing. I'd be happy to read with you anytime. :-)

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

I love all of these ideas! You made me laugh (Poop!) and smile (bargaining with bedtimes). I treasure the time reading together, or watching my husband reading with our children. Our biggest challenge is having 3 kids of different ages, with different attention spans and interests.

One thing I love sharing with our kids is listening to audiobooks in the car. We all enjoy being swept away in a story, distracted from sibling bickering, and entertained in the morning as we're driving to school. Especially on very grumpy mornings, it's a real treat.

Many thanks for great inspiration and fun ideas!

BookChook said...

Loved (and laughed at!) your ideas. What resonated with me most was "don't read for a resume; read because it's a pleasure."

I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn too!

Tif Sweeney said...

GREAT post!! Thank you for all the ideas and inspirational words!!

Anonymous said...

Going to bed early only happens in our house on a Thursday night, when we've been to the library earlier that day!

Anonymous said...

I loved (and laughed at) your post! What resonnated with me was not to read for a resume' and to pick books that interest the child you are reading to. I have had a heck of a time finding books for my middle son. My oldest son was no problem-he connected to any and all books I selected. But I have found that when I let go of the control and allow my middle son to do the selections (and honor books they are not) that we meet with success.
I've not read your blog before, and will most definitely earmark it to return to regularly!
Reading Countess

Anonymous said...

Hi Esme,

My name is Laura Anderson, I am a Public Relations Assistant at Sylvan Dell Publishing. I wanted to let you know that I added your blog to our blogroll. If you want to check it out and just make sure I put it in the right categorie (For Parents) or if you have any other suggestions that'd be great! We welcome you to post as a guest on our blog as a participant in our blogroll as well. I look forward to hearing from you!

Here is a link to our blogroll:

Thanks again,
Laura Anderson

Anonymous said...

Your enthusiasm makes my head spin. My class just read your first book- what are your inspirations?

Lynda Shoup said...

Great list of ideas! "Don't read for the resume" resonated with so many of us. Reading things because they will look good sure takes the fun out of it.

I think it is easier to keep reading aloud to children when they are used to seeing/hearing adults read aloud to each other. I was very fortunate growing up. One of my parents would walk into a room and start talking with the other one about a book they were reading. Sometimes with said book in hand and opened ready to read. Everything would stop while the beautiful words or big ideas would come tumbling out. This has not changed. When adults read aloud to each other children don't continue to think of 'read aloud' being babyish. They still might not admit it in school, but that is fine. So my advice to those who have little ones: start now. Read aloud to other adults. It's fun. Addictive, really.

Thanks for the list. I really enjoyed the way you put it together. I will be sure to return to it to share with others.

Chandra said...

Lynda - I love your comment! So true. Here's a great quote by Anne Fadiman that I think further illustrates this:

"My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don't read for pleasure. When I visit their homes, the children's rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parent's rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says 'PRIVATE--GROWNUPS KEEP OUT': a child sprawled on the bed, reading."

And one more just for fun:

"If you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs."


JT said...

A good strategy for your 15 y.o... "we're doing read aloud or I'm telling all of your facebook friends that we do read aloud" ;)

Seriously... well done... great to see parents who care about reading and literature.

If you have younger kids (like 2-10) we have an ever growing collection of stories and poems for kids (mostly poems) that are good candidates for read aloud over at Wally Woggle.


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