The Case for Reading Aloud and Audiobooks

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We Love Reading Aloud

When I was teaching high school in Prague, I knew that many students did drugs, drank alcohol and got into all sorts of trouble. I know it was a part of their experience of growing up and I often thought about what I would do and how I would react when I become a parent and have my own children. I always came to the same conclusion: It’s too late to do anything when they are 14. I need to bond with them as much as possible for as long as I can and teach them to make good choices when they are on their own.

Reading aloud has become a hugely important component of this parenting “strategy”. It is like killing two birds with one stone. Snuggling over stories that expand imagination, inspire, teach about the world, and touch hearts creates a beautiful connection and provides a means to convey meaningful messages.

I have surrounded my children with books since very early on. First we read only in Czech but as I realized they were not exposed to English at home and needed to catch up with their peers on vocabulary, I started looking for great children’s books in English. I wish someone had given me some tips how to steer my kids toward good books so that I wouldn’t have to spend hours and days researching.

If I had only been aware of The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease three years ago! It is full of research, advice, and anecdotes, and also contains a long list of suggested titles for parents to read to their children. I must say that I was almost proud of myself when I went through the book and realized that we have already read a lot of Jim Trelease’s recommendations or they are on our lists to read.

I cannot resist to share a few excerpts:

As the demands for higher scores are pressed on superintendent, principal, and teacher, the curriculum narrows to only what will be on the standardized test. Since the tests include only IQ subjects, there remains little or no time for HQ subjects—the “heart quotient.” Who has time for teachable moment when the class hamster dies but you’ve got test-prep to cover? Who bothers to discuss the ethical thing to do if there are no ethics questions on the state standards exam?

… “There is no shortage of smart people. We’ve got lots of those. The real shortage is in better people.” And you make better people by educating children’s brains and hearts.

… So how do we educate the heart? There are really only two ways: life experience and stories about life experience, which is called literature.

Trealease provides specific information on the effects of reading aloud and includes lots of supporting research. Some of you might have already heard about the following study but I think it’s worth mentioning here as well:

The researchers began by identifying forty-two normal families representing three socioeconomic groups: welfare, working class, and professional. The project held some surprises: regardless of socioeconomic level, all forty-two families said and did the same thing with their children. In other words, the basic instincts of good parenting are there for most people, rich or poor.

Then the researchers received the data printout and saw the ‘meaningful differences’ among the forty-two families. When the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old child from the professional family will have heard 45 million words, the working-class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. All three children will show up for kindergarten on the same day, but one will have heard 32 million fewer words. If No Child Left Behind expects the teacher to get this child caught up, she’ll have to speak 10 words a second for nine hundred hours to reach the 32-million mark by year’s end. I hope they have life support ready for her.

The word gap among those children has nothing to do with how much their parents love them. They all love their children and want the best for them, but some parents have a better idea of what needs to be said and done to reach that “best.” They know the child needs to hear words repeatedly in meaningful sentences and questions, and they know that plunking a two-year-old down in front of television set for three hours at a time as more harmful than meaningful.

 

We Love Audiobooks 

There were two reasons why we replaced our portable DVD player in the car with audio books as soon as our kids were able to enjoy them. First, we felt that books do such a better job than TV at boosting children’s imagination and arousing their curiosity; second, while regular conversation (which is what you hear on TV) takes care of the basic vocabulary, kids encounter many more words while they read; words that help most in school. We like to travel and go on trips so our kids often spend anywhere from one to six hours in the car. Since they get car-sick when they read, audiobooks work great for us. Not to mention that I can’t remember when we last heard “Are we there yet?” Sometimes we listen to a book as a family but most of the time they each have an iPod with earphones and listen to a story of their choice while my husband and I can have a conversation or listen to our audiobook (as we did on our 18-hour car trip to Disney World).

As Jim Trelease points out, kids’ reading ability is lower than their intellectual capacity:

… According to experts, it is a reasonable assertion that reading and listening skills begin to converge at about eighth grade. Until then, kids usually listen on a higher level than that on which they read. Therefore, children can hear and understand stories that are more complicated and more interesting than anything they could read on their own—which has to be one of God’s greatest blessings for first-graders. …

 … Now that I’ve established the idea on your mind that there is a significant difference between listening level and reading level, you can better understand why one should continue to read aloud to children as they grow older. Beyond the emotional bond that is established between parent and child (or teacher and class), you’re feeding those higher vocabulary words through the ear; eventually they’ll reach the brain and register in the child-reader’s eyes.

When you are too busy to sit down with your child to read, you can borrow books together with a CD from the library and let your kids listen to them while you are doing something else. The page-turn signals on the CDs make it really easy for them even when they have no idea how to read. Our kids were able to move on to longer audiobooks without the book around age 5. Our son is 6 ½ and happily listened to an eight-hour long novel during our summer vacation. In fact, he didn’t want to stop listening even when I told him he could go play outside with his cousin (his favorite activity).

You may be already doing it but if you are not, give it some thought and try some audiobooks. It will benefit your children and give you some peace and quiet in the car, which I am sure you will appreciate.

To get some ideas for books our kids listened to at the age 5 and 6, check out my section Listening (5 – 6 and up).

Here is a website with tons of free audiobooks.

To read more interesting excerpts from The Read-Aloud Handbook, visit Jim Trelease’s website. Find his brochures with the most important information here (also see Jim Trelease’s book lists  and brochure booklists) or listen to two excerpts from his film and CD (at the bottom of the page).

Here is another post about the importance of reading aloud to older kids:
Why You Should Read Aloud to Older Kids

 

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