One of my fondest childhood memories involved sprawling on the rust-colored carpet in our family’s living room near my father’s armchair, as my mother sat on the floor by the wood stove and read classic novels to us. My parents would stop periodically to answer my questions, or even more memorable, to ask me questions and provide commentary on characters’ choices and actions. In this way I learned to connect choices with their consequences, to discern good and evil, and to enjoy great books.
The books I remember with fondness are Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, and many others well above my reading level. (During my first year of teaching high school English, my juniors and seniors couldn’t even comprehend the dialogue between characters in Huckleberry Finn.) I was 7 or 8 when my mother introduced these classics to me, and I have loved them—and reading—ever since.
Thus my absolute favorite part of homeschooling my daughter this past year for first grade has been the time built into our school day for reading aloud. The rest of homeschooling has been stressful for us, but reading aloud together has proved so valuable, it’s one reason I consider continuing with home education in spite of its difficulties.
Whether you homeschool or not, reading aloud to your children, not just picture books at their own level but great books beyond their ability to read, can have far-reaching benefits.
Children of all ages can enjoy and benefit from family read-alouds, but I especially encourage reading classic novels and chapter books to children on the cusp of reading—first, second, and third graders—because of the lifelong impact this can have on their own reading experience and personal growth.
From my training and experience as a Reading Specialist, as well as from personal experience, these are the benefits I see:
Reading Aloud for Building Comprehension
Foster love of books
I have loved reading for as long as I can remember. All my siblings, at some point, grew to love reading as well. All my exposures to reading were positive, from the cozy living room listening to my mother read stories, to my summer days spent absorbed in a sack full of Nancy Drew novels from my grandparents’ attic, to—as a teenager—hovering over the arm of the sofa to listen to my mother read favorite picture books to my younger siblings.
Now a parent myself, reading to our children is . But this past year, reading chapter books to my first grader has catapulted her into the world of caring what happens to characters she has grown to love throughout the pages of novel after novel.
Loving and connecting to the characters draws children into loving books. Loving books leads to loving reading.
Motivation to learn to read
I don’t remember the exact sequence of my mother reading to me and me learning to read. I only know that when I entered first grade (my parents didn’t send me to kindergarten), I was already a proficient reader…and was utterly annoyed at the slow, monotonous reading of my classmates.
Good books (and quality read-aloud experiences) motivate children to read on their own.
I have seen this quite clearly this year. Several books into the Little House on the Prairie series, my daughter constantly begged me to read more chapters outside our normal reading time. One day I was delayed by some other task, and she could wait no longer. Picking up the book, she started into the next chapter. Word by word she read, gaining momentum and confidence as she found she knew most of the words (and could figure others out by context). Once in a while she spelled a word for me to help her with, and then she continued. Bit by bit, she worked through half a page, almost completely by herself.
The joy bubbling out of her was contagious. “I can read! I can read!” she exclaimed, jumping up and down and shrieking with laughter at her unbelievable accomplishment. (This was the same child who still struggled with some kindergarten-level sight words; yet in the context of a story she loved, she could muster the patience to figure it out.)
Literacy is so much more than knowing how to sound out words. And it begins long before children enter formal schooling.
One such foundational skill is listening.
Babies listen to language months before beginning to speak. (The same is true of learning another language.)
Listening is attending to sounds to understand their meaning. We all want our children to listen to our directions, listen to our advice. And we may know people with selective listening.
But stories capture our attention and make it easy to listen. And by listening to stories, our children’s brains learn to make sense of all sorts of information (vocabulary, sentence structure, story grammar, descriptions of people and places, dialogue, intonation, and so much more).
Focus and stillness
Many children have trouble sitting still. My daughter is constantly on the move, and usually fidgeting and squirming in her seat. But captivated by a story, even she will sit through as many chapters as I have time to read. (Sometimes she holds a toy to keep her hands busy, but her attention is fully on the story.) Attention to math or writing or chores is another matter, so I will take any attention I can get!
Read-aloud train children’s brains to be engaged while their bodies (and their mouths) are still.
Building a pool of background knowledge
Reading builds upon what we already know. Reading requires us to draw on prior experience or existing knowledge to make sense of the new information we encounter. Thus children who have more life experiences and more knowledge about a variety of topics will naturally have an easier time relating to (and therefore comprehending) what they are reading.
Reading aloud to our children can help build their background knowledge. For example, my daughter now has an understanding of pioneer life in the 1800s from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the Seneca’s way of life from Indian Captive, and village life in the Swiss Alps from Heidi and Treasures of the Snow. Not to mention, these stories have given her a love of history!
This exposure can also help children to see the value in people and cultures different from us.
Exposure to broad vocabulary
Children’s ability to read starts long before elementary school. It starts with the depth and breadth of language they are exposed to from birth onward. The greater number of words children are exposed to, the greater the chance of them becoming successful readers.
The more words you know, the more you can understand what you read. And the more you understand what you read, the more you can learn, and the more you can begin reading more challenging books, being exposed to even greater volumes of knowledge.
Quality novels, even ones written for children, contain broad vocabulary, and in the context of a great story is one of the best ways to learn new words.
Knowledge of Story Grammar
Story grammar is the structure of a story. By listening to stories, children learn what to expect from a story (setting, characters, conflict, beginning, middle, and end, etc.). Thus they can listen to (or read) new stories, and know what to pay attention to for making sense of the story.
Exposure to challenging language patterns
Most everyone has some example of texts that they considered too difficult to read: Shakespeare for many, the King James Version of the Bible for others. Or may it’s anything written in long, rambling, complex sentences, or any technical or legal documents.
I believe the more types of language we are exposed to, and the more opportunity we have to interact with them, the easier it will be to read and understand those complex sentences, unfamiliar dialects, or archaic words, therefore reducing the challenge many students have with reading academic texts.
Fluency and intonation
Part of learning to read well is developing fluency and expression. When we read stories to our children, with different voices for different characters, or modulating our voices for different moods, we do more than captivate our children. We model for them what good reading sounds like, so they know how to pattern their voices when they begin reading stories on their own.
These are just the foundational benefits of reading aloud. Many more comprehension strategies can also be taught (or even caught) by reading aloud to our children:
Making inferences (drawing conclusions)
Retelling / paraphrasing
Comparing and contrasting
Reading Aloud for Growing Character
Strengthening family ties
While TV can keep children quiet and still while parents attend to other things, read-alouds can only happen together. In my childhood memories, my love of great books and reading is almost indistinguishable from my love of being together with my family. They area all wrapped up in an aura of warmth, safety, and happiness.
Similarly, my daughter loves me reading to her, whether as part of our homeschool day or at bedtime. It has become a warm, cozy experience for her—as it was for me—as we curl up together on the couch.
Lisa Appelo recommends reading aloud, not only for building character, but also for building shared family experiences.
Reading together is even good for smoothing over conflicts. Some mornings have been incredibly difficult with my daughter and me butting heads. But as soon as we curl on the couch to read another chapter before afternoon quiet time, the world is set right again.
Reading fiction (as opposed to informational books) is associated with greater empathy toward others. I sure want my children to learn love, compassion, and empathy for others in all circumstances and walks of life. Quality literature introduces readers to all sorts of complex characters and pulls us in to understand and feel their experiences.
My 7-year-old has shrieked for joy when Laura and Almonzo got married, panicked when Lucien held Dani’s kitten out over the ravine, and sobbed—real tears streaming down her face—all from getting wrapped up in the emotions of the characters from the books we read aloud together.
Evaluating character traits of others
Both fiction and biography provide ample opportunities to evaluate the positive and negative traits displayed by each character. While observing what characters say, think, and do, how others respond to them, and the outcomes of their choices, our children will start forming their own opinions about the characters. Pausing to talk about the characters often yields fruitful discussions about which characters we would like to be around, and whom to emulate (or not).
Learning from other’s mistakes
Quality literature portrays dynamic characters who change throughout the story, and who are neither perfect nor completely evil. As even “good” character make mistakes or occasional bad choices, read-alouds provide a perfect opportunity to identify cause and effect relationships and learn from others’ mistakes.
We can see the natural consequences of disobedience.
We can feel the rejection of peers because of selfishness or haughtiness.
We can appreciate, with the characters, the satisfaction of a job well-done.
We can see the rewards of diligence and hard work.
All this vicariously, through a life-like character whom we relate to.
Gaining wisdom from a character’s advice
We all know how children sometimes are more apt to pay attention to what a teacher, grandparent, or family friend says than to us their parents.
I’ve appreciated several books where a character (often a grandparent-figure) shares wise advice with the protagonist. We—my daughter and I—as silent observers reading the book, can see the loving motives of the grandparent figure and the goodness of his or her advice, and how it helps the main character in his or her problems.
Sometimes these nuggets of advice come in memorable little gems of advice that we can remember for a long time.
Discernment is the benefit of my childhood experience reading stories together I am most thankful for today.
As my parents read and discussed, I learned by their example how to “chew and spit,” (as Hillary Morgan Ferrer, the author of Mama Bear Apologetics recommends). By discussing the good AND bad qualities of characters, their wise AND poor choices, they showed me wisdom and how to think for myself, how to evaluate actions by the word of God. To not dismiss someone (or a book) just because of one questionable thing, but to accept and learn from the good, while recognizing the problems in the rest.
How our children need discernment as they grow up in the world of so many voices, so many philosophies and arguments and temptations!
Reading aloud with your children may be a good place to start in training your children to evaluate things for themselves.
Recommended Read-Aloud Books for Character Growth
The following books are ones my first-grader enjoyed me reading to aloud to her. (I would imagine older children could also enjoy these books—even my husband enjoyed listening in.) I included a few values that were portrayed in each book, as well as issues worth discussing as a family.
Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Cheerful attitude in hardship, value of hard work, obedience and respect for parents, contentment with little, endurance, resourcefulness
Attitudes towards Native Americans and people of color
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (a pioneer story from the perspective of an Asian American girl)
Courage in the face of prejudice, earning people’s trust and friendship, fairness and justice
Disregarding parents’ rules, hiding problems from parents, racial biases, hatred, ignorance, and superiority
Indian Captive by Lois Lenski
Adaptability, loyalty, hard work, tough love, happiness
Attitudes toward native Americans
Heidi by Johanna Spyri (unabridged version)
Innocence, love of beauty, cheerfulness in spite of loss, loyalty, care for others, prayer, trust in God
Abandonment of family responsibilities, character vs. economic class, judging by outward appearances, jealousy
Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John
Cheerfulness despite disability, repentance, forgiveness
Withholding love, holding on to hatred, retaliation
Reading classic literature to children on the cusp of reading is a great family activity for building both character and comprehension skills.
What literature have you and your children enjoyed that fosters quality discussions and character growth?