Sunday, January 8, 2012

How to Read Aloud: Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox, The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

When it's reading aloud time, let your child dictate the pace
Annie Ho 

What's great about reading aloud as a family activity is that minimal skill is required. Some parents are engaging storytellers; some are not. The joy that children derive is not from how well their parents read, but the fact that they are cuddling them and spending time with them. 

The best tip I got from an expert storyteller was to let my child set the pace of our read-aloud time. If I have chosen a book but my child insists on another, I put my choice down and start with her choice. If my child interrupts with a question, I answer and allow the discussion to flow freely until we're ready to go back to the storybook. If my child wants to skip the middle part and go straight to the end, or return to the same two pages at the beginning of the story, I take notice and accept that a good experience does not mean that I must read from beginning to end. And if my child decides to play with building blocks halfway through, I continue to read aloud even if I don't have her undivided attention.

Parents who want to read to their children in a language that is not their native tongue need not worry about accents or unfamiliarity with certain vocabulary. I recall a study that showed that babies recollect and respond better to stories read in their parents' voice than to those read by a pre-recorded voice (presumably with perfect inflection). When I read to my children in Chinese and come across a word I don't know, I guess the pronunciation until I learn the correct one (like the word for 'cocoon' in the Chinese-language version of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar). My daughter often mispronounces leopard as 'lee-oh-pahrd' following our helper's reading of Michael Roberts' Snowman in Africa. 

As with many activities, practice makes perfect: the more you read aloud, the more comfortable you are with adding your own spice to the storytelling. 

Nevertheless, parents can always benefit from tips on reading aloud, even those who do so extensively; knowing how to read aloud well can enhance the experience and help children with short attention spans. 

A useful guide is Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox, a gifted storyteller and prolific children's author. The book is easy to read and contains her list of the 20 best read-aloud stories for very young children.

For those wanting a more comprehensive reference book (complete with endnotes and bibliography), I recommend The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It is a treasury of great read-aloud books described across more than 100 pages, with stories for children up to age 13.

Even before delving into the how-to, it's good to start with the basics: books. Trelease discusses the connection between book ownership and achievement, but I grew up reading books from the library. Perhaps the key is access to books; so, unless you are at the library as often as I was, buying books will help your child revisit his or her favourite stories. 

Books should be placed around your home rather than on the shelf. While it's great to design a children's reading corner or arrange books tidily on shelves, not many children will go to a corner and stay put. It's easier to pick up a book and read aloud in bed, in the bathroom or at the dining table. Reading aloud need not be associated with a particular area, time of day or parent. It's easy for children to be as captivated by books as they would be by an iPad. 

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and giving easy access to the best books for underserved communities across Hong Kong.

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