I should have known, but did not, that being read aloud to was a learned skill. It never occurred to me to think about it from my privileged place in the world of literacy. I was, for a time, though a teacher of writing, a fish who swam in words without thinking of the water.
Like a lot of book-valuing, over-educated parents, I read to my sons from the moment they were born. Tiny babies snuggled on my lap as I read _Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop_, _Jamberry_ and Eli’s favorite cliff-hanger _Who Says Quack?_. We graduated on to picture books, and then Winnie the Pooh, Little House and other early chapter books. Now, with my biological sons at 14, 12, 10 and 8, we have worked our way through _To Kill a Mockingbird_, _Kim_ _Oliver Twist_ and _Through the Looking Glass_. The process of learning to follow a story, to listen, to sustain narrative night after night was simply a part of an organic process.
I am not as committed, or as compulsive as the father in the book _The Reading Promise_ – we average a night a week where we miss and do little but sing the bedtime songs we have sung each night since the children were babies. But 6 nights out of 7, my sons are read to, and no one has ever asked to stop.
I swam in words and then I saw the water when I began to take kids who had never been read to. In most of the families my foster children have come from there are few, if any, spare resources for things like reading aloud. Survival takes everything – and often even survival hangs in the balance. Many of my parents are cognitively limited or simply had poor educations and don’t read out all that well (or at all) themselves. The idea of a bedtime routine or family traditions are simply alien. Picked up and dropped traumatically into a new home, a new family with new expectations and ways of doing things is a little like being dropped onto an alien planet.
For the younger children, learning to be read to begins with how we treat books. Even many of my three, four and five year olds seen books before, even had a book or two, but no one ever taught them what to do with them. They threw them, ripped the pages out and chewed on them like much younger children – because there was no meaningful association of books with quiet time, pleasure or comfort. Their language was also very limited – my three and half year old twins did not know the words “bird” “tree” “boy” “girl” “airplane” “train.” They had no idea what a cow said, or a cat. This did not mean my kids without book knowledge were unintelligent, merely that they had been busy learning other things, like how to make their own sandwiches when a parent couldn’t get out of bed due to depression, how to change the baby’s diaper when they were left alone with him and which garbage cans in their neighborhood might contain food.
So with younger kids, we back WAY up to the beginning – board books with bright colors and very clear pictures. We worked on which direction the book goes in, how not to chew on it, and how ripping pages will get you banned from story time. We lost some books – but in a good cause. We chose books with strong rhythms, the ones my kids liked when they were babies. My kids, remembering themselves at 3 and 4 asked “shouldn’t we be teaching them the alphabet?” Nope, not yet – first they needed to learn the words for things in their world and hear enough words to begin to develop a vocabulary.
Children in poor households hear many, many fewer words each day than children in more affluent and educated ones. Most of early vocabulary development comes from your parents. My kids hear even fewer in most cases, because their parents do worse than an average low income family. Many come from generational poverty where the language gap has been at work for years.
Pre-reading skills are essential to learning to read – kids in middle class homes get 3000 hours of pre-reading skills more or less without effort – evening bedtime stories, pointing out that that sign says “STOP,” magnetic letters on the fridge, etc… My kids got zero hours of pre-reading skills, because again, there was no energy or resources for anything else. That means when they get to kindergarten, my kids are thousands and thousands of hours behind. In a poor urban school district near me, only a few of the incoming kindergarten kids recognize letters, and only one of the hundreds of incoming kids knew all the letters and letter sounds. Simon read by age three. Asher and Isaiah were later, but they certainly knew all their letters and letter sounds – again, through that organic osmosis.
My kids come to me with a dearth of vocabulary and language, no pre-reading skills, no familiarity with books. If they are lucky they were in a loving head start program or preschool at some point, but most of them were not – even that was too much to provide. Early intervention may have come..or more likely not until they came into foster care, because EI won’t come into homes that are dangerous or violent. So we back up, and start from the beginning. Instead of trying, as schools getting kids late have to do, to teach them from the point that other children their age start at, despite their disadvantages, we go back to babyhood, and go from there. Simple pictures. My kids love anything with pictures of babies, because my foursome, part of a sibling group of six, did know babies.
Out came _Freight Train_, _The Snowy Day_, and _When Mama Comes Home Tonight_ along with infinite nursery rhymes. And then you start hearing to pay off with a little girl singing “Poly TikaTekalon” (Polly Put the Kettle On, although my older kids have been speculating for some time on what kind of polygon a “Polytikatekalon” could be.) or a little boy echoing “…Red caboose at the back.” Victory is when you pause with “Charlie Parker played…” only to hear a child sing out “Alto Saxophone!”
Victory is when they don’t eat the books anymore, or rip the pages. Victory is when they ask to read. Victory is you sliding your finger under the words and one of the children say “That “R” for my name!” Yes, yes it is little one. Victory is someone handing you a letter block W and saying “That means Mommy.” You could go a long way on that one. Victory is being able to handle more abstract things, like a child predicting what the monkeys in _Caps For Sale_ will do, or telling you what Frances should do when she can’t sleep. Because you are getting closer to the alphabet, to words, to the world of language and a future.
The bigger kids are harder in some ways. A surprising number of my older kids read fairly well, and were enthusiastic readers. Not all of them, but more than you’d think, given the unbelievable deprivation of their previous years. Still, even when the kids could read to themselves, they had never had the experience of snuggling up and being read to – story hour a couple of times a week in kindergarten does not cut it, particularly if they had a hard time processing the words being thrown at them due to lack of experience. Being asked to do this with strangers felt weird, and rightly so.
Moreover, most of the older kids (7+) that I’ve had also felt that being read to was babyish and not something appropriate to their years. Since public schools rapidly discard reading to children in favor of having children read to themselves, being read to takes on a stigma.
This, I think is a mistake. Were I empress of the universe, I would mandate reading aloud as part of the curriculum into middle school – the reason being that I think that limiting children to the books they can read themselves often reinforces non-reading. I see this with my youngest biological son, Asher. Despite all the reading and pre-reading and work with him, Asher was a late reader – he didn’t learn to read really fluently until the end of second grade. He just wasn’t interested. And he would have been a lot LESS interested had the only texts he was exposed to in second grade been the ones he could read by himself – intellectually he was long past _Frog and Toad are Friends_ or at best, _The Magic Treehouse_. Fortunately, every night he got to go on a trip into _Danny, Champion of the World_, _My Side of the Mountain_ and _Bud, Not Buddy_. That is, the magic of books was right there in front o him, whether he was reading them himself or not.
For most kids without cognitive limitations, but who have to catch up from environmental deprivation and lack of language and pre-reading skills, being limited to the books that they can read stunts the attraction to words. Thus, the idea that reading is boring. Without someone to read to them, the vocabulary they don’t know remains opaque, without someone to help them through the story with tone of voice and maybe a little explanation, they stop.
My foster kids have no imagination. That is not, again, because they are not smart – some of the brightest kids I’ve ever met came to me in care. But imagination is not a large part of a life spent desperately trying to stay alive, to get enough food. Some people can intuit themselves into imagination, but most of the kids I’ve had can’t. They don’t play fairy or pretend cook. They don’t imagine themselves as grown up bus drivers or teachers or parents. They don’t dress their dolls for a picnic or pretend to go to the beach. They’ve never seen a beach, they don’t have dolls, they can’t imagine a future for themselves, and the present is often so terrifying that the future looks like hell. And yet they need imagination more than anyone else – to escape, to begin to find a future for themselves outside their past. They need stories to help them pretend and learn to be people who can do more than survive. They need the experience of books and characters who have narrated inner lives to help them develop a story about themselves and their journey they can live with. Books are a key to imagination, particularly for the older kids – but the bare-bones early reader books that are most accessible to them won’t take them the places they need to go – these kids NEED to be read to.
It is, however, also the case that listening to books being read out loud is a learned skill. I’ve seen it time and time again with my kids. K. and C. were with us for three months a few years ago, and both were bright kids who did extremely well in school and were fluent readers for their ages. My kids were dying to share Harry Potter with them, so we started out with _The Sorcerer’s Stone_ and after a few chapters had to stop – they just couldn’t process that much language auditorially. We backed up. The first of the BoxCar children series, about siblings who live without parents, working and scavenging to survive was just the right speed. Then _Farmer Boy_ both of which have clear, plain, simple language and basic story lines got us going, along with assurances by then 10 year old Simon that being read to is NOT babyish got them going. By the time we were working our way through the sixth or so chapter of Farmer Boy I was greeted by chants of “Al-Man-Zo! Al-Man-Zo!” They had learned to listen. They left for family before we finished. I sent them the rest of the Little House books, and all the Harry Potter books for their 8th and 9th birthdays that winter.
D, almost 11 when she arrived, was a harder case. She was a reasonably good reader, and quickly became a more devoted reader when she learned how infrequently the tv came on in our house, and that we curiously lack access to the Disney channel (or any channels – our tv is video only). But she’d also spent more than a decade in an environmentally deprived environment, and was going through puberty, which is a tough time to get used to cuddling up with a grownup and book. She started out rejecting the whole thing, but we required she stay in the room while we read to the big kids.
She would ostentatiously ignore us, or read her own book. We just did our thing. After a while she would start getting involved despite herself – and it may not be entirely a coincidence that the books we read often focused on children managing difficult situations without their parents. It was Anne Shirley’s incredible volubility, and probably her ability to speak things D. couldn’t say about the fear of loss and rejection as a child without a home, that finally caught D’s interest. Then Kit of _The Witch of Blackbird Pond_ took her away to another time. The Austin family in _Meet the Austins_ struggled to adapt to adding a new child to their family. Most of all, Matilda Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s glorious _Matilda_ showed that more than one child has had feckless parents. She named her pet rabbit “Matilda.”
Before the chapter books for the big kids each night, we read poetry. Poetry is important – the stories and poems you have in your head can never be taken from you. No matter where you go, the poems you learn are with you, that turn of phrase coming to mind when you need it. Moreover facility with language is built with poetry in ways it cannot be with prose. But poetry can be a tough sell to older kids – and D. didn’t see the point. Poetry has the stigma of high culture, and a sense of alienness no matter how many english teachers try to make it exciting, reminding kids that song lyrics are poems. D remained hostile to the poetry for a long time, asking “Why do you even read it, it is boring and stupid.”
Slowly, slowly, over a year, our nightly reading aloud of familiar and unfamiliar poems has begun to open something up, however. I think the first crack appeared when she laughed, more or less against her will, at “…and the spelled all wrong” in Auden’s “The Night Mail” or maybe when she stopped me dead to ask “That was a poem?!?!?” at William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” (although she went right back to pretending she wasn’t listening).
Perhaps the change came when she agreed with Isaiah that the line should be “In a Cupboard/With your socks” (instead of the actual “frocks”) in Eleanor Farjeon’s “Cats.” But when she asked me if we could read more about the dead people (after reading about Cooney Potter and Fiddler Jones from Spoon River Anthology) and told me that she wanted to see when we visited the ocean if the waves really were like a horrible thing that “raced sideways while blowing bubbles” when we go to the ocean this week, I knew something changed. She told her English teacher in an assignment “Poetry is good because sometimes they say things better.” Yup, honey, you got it.
One day the boys were assigned to memorize poems. Asher was learning Frost’s “The Pasture” and you could hear them earnestly reciting to himself “…you come too.” Isaiah had Nikki Giovanni’s “Legacies” and told me why she said “I don’t want to know how to make no rolls.” Simon had already memorized “Musee des Beaux Arts” which I myself had memorized and not understood when I was 14 instead of Simon’s 12. Still, “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters” had a fine hefty ring, and I felt I knew something for knowing it.
D. came to me, bouncing on her toes. She goes to school (foster kids can’t be legally homeschooled here) so she doesn’t have to do their assignments, but she wanted to do a poem too. Would I give her one just for her? D. has trouble memorizing, so asking for a poem and asking to memorize were big things. I gave her Lucille Clifton’s “This Morning (For the Girls of Eastern High School) and she returned to me proudly, a little shaky, telling me that this morning she met herself coming in. And she said it like she was glad she had.
Reading aloud isn’t just learned for children – to do it well requires adult skills as well. Not every book you loved as a child makes a good read aloud. I compulsively re-read and sobbed my way through _Little Women_ as a child, but we’ve tried several times with it, and the Christian moralism of it just wears. We all got bored and moved on. Some books are such good read-alouds that they beg to be read several times. Each of my children’s first chapter book was _Winnie the Pooh_ – but the older the funnier they find the jokes. _Cheaper by the Dozen_ was a great read aloud when my kids were young, but much better when they were old enough to get some of the more sophisticated jokes (even if you are an adult without kids, read this one, it is very funny – and don’t let the movies distract you). Having kids of various ages who haven’t heard or didn’t remember, I’ve read the Little House series four times, Winnie the Pooh four times, Understood Betsy at least three, same with My Side of the Mountain and Danny, Champion of the World (by far the best of Roald Dahl’s books, but somewhat underrated).
Some books are better read aloud. I avoided Anne of Green Gables for years because I thought Anne’s hyperverbalism would be a failure read outloud – in fact, it is wonderful, and I like Anne’s wordiness better that way. An obscure book by Rebecca Caudhill, called _Somebody Come and Bang a Drum_ has been a huge hit with both my biological kids and my foster kids, even though much of the adoption language and some of the cultural assumptions are very dated. Still, the 1970s era story of eight children, seven of them adopted both domestically and internationally in transracial adoptions was a great way of starting conversations with my kids about the difficulties kids might have adjusting to our home – and a great way of making families like ours seem normative. Like many of the best read alouds – Laura Ingalls Wilder, Heinlein’s Juvenalia, it has that crystal-clear prose and clarity of thought that makes a book truly comfortable and accessible, the warm bath of literature.
Adventure stories are wonderful – I never much liked Walter Scott until I read _Ivanhoe_ aloud to an 8 year old boy who stood breathless with excitement. Fun is reading _The Three Musketeers_ or _Have Spacesuit, Will Travel_ aloud and making swords clash and lasers blast with your voice. But don’t avoid quieter books. Nothing much happens in some of the best read alouds. Betsy simply moves to visit relatives in Understood Betsy. The Austins welcome a new relative. A stranger comes to town. Someone goes on a journey. Quiet books are often as good as the loud ones.
My one advice is that it is a wise choice to explain early on the policy that reading one book in a series does not imply you will read all of them. My own father made it all the way to the patchwork girl of Oz – I petered out at the battle with the Nomes. I enjoyed reading the first Redwall book to the kids, but by the third had to tell them I’d had all the rustic molespeak I could possibly tolerate for one lifetime.
If you can, don’t stop reading to them once they become fluent and devoted readers. Kipling suffered a lot in reputation over the last few decades, but has a prose style that lends itself perfectly to reading aloud for older kids. Twain and Charlotten Bronte (but lord, avoid Emily like the plague!) too holds up beautifully. Gulliver’s Travels didn’t quite do it for us, but Robinson Crusoe did. Reading _To Kill a Mockingbird_ aloud with Simon and Isaiah may have been the single most pleasurable reading experience I’ve ever had in my life – taking something I’d loved that much and opening it to them was a joy. Although The Odyssey was a close second (we had set the stage for this by reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s glorious books _Black Ships Before Troy_ and _The Wanderings of Odysseus_ some years before) and had other joys. Dante and Milton lie before us yet. Shakespeare begs to be read out loud, and most teenagers will understand it better that way. There is always something they haven’t read or aren’t ready for yet that you can read.
And don’t forget to encourage them to read out loud themselves – to you, of course, but to younger siblings, to the kindergarten class down the hall, with friends. Simon has a real gift for language and accents and he reads to his brothers at night every night. They have a noir thing going, and are working their way through _The Big Sleep_ right now. Ellery Queen is coming up next, and if I have anything to say about it _The Daughter of Time_. Simon also would bring whatever he was reading to our synagogue and read outloud on cold winter days to a group of friends – _The Westing Game_ and _The Graveyard Book_, _Cinder_ and _The Wolves of Willoughby Chase_.
My children look and see us reading out loud to one another too. I read to Eric in the car on long drives, and of course, weekly we go to the shul and read a section of ancient Jewish text. My kids see that hearing words aloud matters to us. That in saying, speaking, you learn to hear and see them in a way that is different and just as important as you get when you read silently, however well you read.
Everyone gets how important math and science skills are to our kids – but language, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself coherently is just as urgent, and all those things are built when we read to one another.
For my foster children, reading aloud may be the single most healing act I can engage in. I cannot erase their past, or make their new experiences ones they would have chosen. I cannot make what is alien feel wholly normal. But I can teach them through stories that you can narrate your own life and make it into a story, that language and imagination can give you power over your experience, that they are not the only ones who have ever needed to tell their story to live in it. And helping them see their own past as a journey in which they make things happen for themselves, they find their way to a new home and new life under their own power as Dorothy and Huck and Anne and Bud and Betsy do, that is worth doing.