As a mum, I started reading aloud to my kids almost immediately. We had a full library of children’s book as soon as he was born. I knew, without really knowing, that it was essential to read to them until they could read for themselves. But my 3-year-old could read! Needless to say, I was beyond shocked. Was I supposed to stop reading to him?
Turns out my firstborn is gifted; not only was I in the uncharted water of parenthood, but my waters had the extra challenges associated with having a child that doesn’t fit into the ‘norms’. I had imaged reading aloud to my son for many years, but what was I supposed to do now? Was there any benefit to me to continue to read to him, or was I supposed to get him to read to me? Or maybe read on his own.
I started to research, as I would with any parenting issues, scouring the internet for the best information I could find. Holy Moly, did I find the motherlode of all parenting hacks when I discovered the true magic and power of reading aloud. In my first podcast episode 1, I joke that it should be printed on pregnancy test instructions – If positive, start reading aloud now. It’s that powerful, even from the very beginning.
It it the greatest mum hack. Your parenting superpower. Any working mums ticket to reducing mum guilt. It’s the easiest and simplest quality time you can get with your children.
In my research, I found three books that started me on my journey of discovering the depth of power that reading aloud to children has. I draw lots of information and inspiration from these books:
- Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook, initially published in 1979 with the 8th edition published in 2019
- The Enchanted Hour, Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon, published in 2020
- Reading Magic, Why Reading Aloud to Our children will change their lives forever by Australia’s own Mem Fox. Newest edition being released 26 July 2022.
By the title of these books, you might get some idea of how insanely incredible reading aloud is. Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud and Why Reading Aloud to our children will change their lives forever.
Reading Aloud to our children will change their lives forever. That’s a bold claim, which has been proven over and over again over the last 50 years through thousands of scientific studies worldwide. But before we jump into the magic, let’s start at the beginning.
Our brains are composed of neurons that work together through pathways. The electrical signals moving back and forth between neurons are our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Some of these pathways are built into every human. This is how our bodies know how to breathe, eat, or even burp, which is one of my son’s new favourite things to do. They are our natural basic instincts and habits. Speaking is one of those natural instincts, but surprisingly, reading is not. They are very different.
Speech has been with us for over 100,000 years, which has been long enough for natural selection to hard-wire it into our brains. The speaking pathways are there when we are born. If a baby is around people who are talking, even if it’s just on the TV, sooner or later, they will start to do it too; it’s natural. They will adopt the same language and accent as those they spend the most time with. I am American, my hubby is Australian, and we live in Australia. However, my sons sound very American sometimes, especially with words that end in R. Like water. He doesn’t ask for wata; he asks for water. My littlest says socceRR ball. And my husband says he sounds like a pirate playing soccerrrrrr.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that when it comes to reading. You fill a baby’s room with books, surround them with books all the time, from the day it’s born, and it will never start spontaneously reading. We have to be taught how to do it. You don’t go from singing the ABCs to reading Where is the Green Sheep?. Letters on a page mean absolutely nothing and will continue to mean nothing without knowing what a letter is, its sound, the rules of long letter sounds, short letter sounds, and so on.
Kids say the funniest things because they know the words but don’t know the meaning or correct usage. My little one asks, “Will you help us?” and I understand what he means… “Will you help me” but he doesn’t understand the uses of the word me yet, so he uses what words he has in his vocabulary to get his point across.
Lions, and tigers, and dangerous thoughts, oh my!
Reading started around 5,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until 100 years ago that reading became an everyday activity. I found a fascinating article written in 2017 on Quartz: “The beginning of silent reading changed Westerners’ interior life“. From the beginning of time when people learned to read, reading aloud was the only acceptable way to read. The ability to read was far and few in between, so those who could read, read aloud and shared words and stories through speech.
Silent reading was rare and seen as rude. Imagine what someone back then would think of us now with our eyeballs stuck on our phones; even I found it rude sometimes. It wasn’t until the mid-18th century that reading alone in your bedroom became a thing. But only for the wealthy, educated people who could a) afford books and b) actually have time to lay around and read.
By the late 19th century, silent reading was so popular that people (aka men) worried that women, particularly reading alone in bed, were prone to saucy, dangerous thoughts.
Lions, and tigers, and dangerous thoughts, oh my! This reminds me of a book I found at my Great grandmother’s house when she passed away about 8 years ago called “A 1950s Housewife” it’s insane (and sad) the things that were expected to be considered a good housewife.
Read Learn Love Tip!
Reading aloud is the perfect time to put all phones away and just be in that moment, in the story, with your family.
You can’t have speech, reading, or writing without listening first.
Jim Trelease’s book, Read-Aloud Handbook, discusses children’s progression from ground zero to reading, starting with the Listening Vocabulary. The listening vocabulary comes before the speaking vocabulary, followed by the reading vocabulary, and finally the writing vocabulary.
Jim describes each of these as a bucket being filled with water. We fill the listening bucket with words until it reaches the top and starts overflowing into the speaking bucket first. The listening and speaking buckets overflow into the reading bucket and all three overflow into the writing bucket.
You can’t have speech, reading, or writing without listening first. A child can only speak and understand the words they hear, so it’s essential to fill the listening bucket with as many words as possible
Jim says, “As you read to a child, you’re pouring into the child’s ears (and brain) all the sounds, syllables, endings, and blendings that will make up the words she will someday be asked to read and understand. And through stories, you are filling in the background knowledge necessary to understand things that aren’t in her neighbourhood—like war or whales or locomotives.
The one prekindergarten skill that matters above all others because it is the prime predictor of school success or failure is the child’s vocabulary upon entering school. Yes, the child goes to school to learn new words, but the words he already knows determine how much they will understand their teacher. And since most instruction for the first four years of school is oral, the child with the most extensive vocabulary will understand the most, while the child with the smallest vocabulary will grasp the least.”
Read Learn Love Tip!
It’s important to use real actual words and names of things or objects when you speak to your child. Our children trust us and expect us to guide them in the right direction, which is no different with words. Don’t use “their” language or nicknames for things without your kid knowing the proper word or name first. I have the funniest example of this. Many moons ago at an old job, we were moving office. My co-worker asked me to hand her the “thwappy gun. I said, “the what?” She said, “the thwappy gun”.
With a completely confused look on my face, I said, “ok, say that again”, then she looked distraught and equally as confused and said “thwappy gun, you know for taping the box closed” in a bit more of a questioning tone. I nearly died laughing. She wanted the tape gun! Her entire life, her family, had called it a thwappy gun after the sound it makes when you wack it down on a box. It makes a thwap sound. She 100% without any doubt or question in her mind, at 19 years old, thought that everyone called it a thwappy gun.
She turned bright red and nearly died herself when I told her it was called a tape gun. Thank goodness it was me she had said that to, and not our CEO, because I dunno if she ever would have gotten over that level of embarrassment in front of our boss.
Read more from the blog
Like a house, our brains need a solid foundation that will effectively impact all future learning and behaviour.
I am so excited and honoured to share with you my passion for the importance of reading aloud. When someone asks me what I do, I talk about this, my new online kids’ bookstore, podcast, and blog