I used to read aloud to my kids often, and they all have cherished memories of the books we have shared. But as they became more independent readers and I busier, read aloud times gradually fell by the wayside. Yet reading to my kids is one of my favorite activities, for the atmosphere it creates as the kids listen, work with their hands (on drawing, crafts, or quiet toys), and experience great literature and interesting nonfiction.The curriculum plan I use features a fairly large dose of read alouds, but I was slacking off and assigning these as individual reading, along with the other literature they were expected to read. But often, despite the high quality of the reading selections, my kids slide back into easy stuff and don’t get hooked by the more challenging material on the read-aloud list. So I’ve worked a read aloud time back into our day, and I am so glad.
Having my son and daughter settle down with some quiet hand work is crucial. Lately I’ve been having them draw portraits of historical figures from prints, color and label maps, and work on simple embroidery. Lego is okay too if they put it on a blanket and don’t paw through the parts too much. Meanwhile I read about American history (A History of US series by Joy Hakim) and The Landmark History of the American People by Daniel Boorstin, along with other shorter books that focus on important events and people). I am learning as much as my children, because I grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, never having studied US history, and homeschooled my first two without bothering to cover it (we focused on ancient times). Thus I have no trouble conveying my real interest. Now and then I have them narrate back key parts, repeat and define important terms, and find places on the wall map. I don’t let them write, look at other books, talk or even whisper with each other, but they can get up and move about quietly to get a drink or something if they remain in earshot. Usually after a daily read aloud portion, they’ll ask me to keep going. When my voice is just about gone, we all take an active recess before getting back to other work. We are all used to the routine now, and it really suits us all in these cooler, darker months. Sometimes we pick it up willingly on weekends, which I can’t say of math or grammar.
I also remember times when my kids balked at having to sit down and listen. It usually was during play-outdoors weather, before we’d established hand work as a means of helping them calm down and focus, and when I had neglected to give any warnings (“Reading in ten minutes–everyone finish what you’re doing and bring something to do.”) or choices (“Do you want to hear a long adventure poem, or a bunch of short ones about nature?”). I might just say something like, “Bring your drawing stuff in the living room and I’ll just read the first chapter, and you decide whether you want to hear more.” I read in my most captivating manner, and rarely fail to hook them. Even on books they tried, and say they “hate.” If we don’t like a book, we talk about why, or learn to put up with weak aspects to benefit from the strengths of the piece. I sometimes have them draw scenes from stories.
We especially enjoy poetry read-alouds. My children were brought up on Sandra Boynton and the like, bouncing along to the rhythm on my knee. Later I had them choose poems to memorize, including Frost, Rosetti, and Kipling. We’ve enjoyed just about everything from Favorite Poems Old and New, the Poetry for Young People series, poems recited by Tolkien characters, and ballads such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Occasionally I’ll emerge from the bathroom with my old copy of Immortal Poems of the English Language and read what I’ve found to whomever will listen.
I must confess, I never liked “Language Arts” or English classes. I loved reading, but hated graded school readers with comprehension questions at the end, writing book reports, and reading from the approved list of Canadian literature. The only valuable English class assignment I remember was to memorize and recite passages from Shakespeare (some of which my youngest also picked up from Calvin and Hobbes a few years ago!). Everything I learned about reading, writing, poetry and related topics, I learned from my book-loving parents. They read every chance they could, and brought home piles of bought and library books for us. They are both writers, too. As for poetry, I’ll never forget the time my father and his brother got to reciting poems they’d memorized in school (in a small Newfoundland town in the 1950s). My uncle, a tall, imposing man who ran a hunting and fishing camp and guiding service, actually had tears in his eyes. I’d never seen anything like it.
So read the best stuff you can find, don’t over-analyze, let your listeners receive and respond in their own way to what they hear. Entice them with treats, give them choices, help them focus, and off you go.