By Guest Blogger Joan Mitchell, Ed.D., Redeemer School parent & Wake Forest University professor
“When did you learn to read and write?”
Each time I ask this question on the first day of our methods class, a group of future English teachers almost always looks at me blankly like I have asked them who taught them to breathe. As a former English teacher, I rarely encountered a student who excelled at reading and writing who did not also love doing both. Conversely, trying to foster that love in students who had come to see it as drudgery always felt like a bridge too far. Research suggests that a large percentage of middle and high school students stop enjoying reading around age 10. This is not surprising given the preponderance of testing that occurs in most schools at that time, but students’ reading habits at home tend to drop off at that age as well.
So what shifts occur in a child’s reading life around age 10? Sarah Mackenzie’s “Read Aloud Revival” podcast was instrumental in revealing what I believe is the missing puzzle piece: We tend to stop reading to our children when they can read independently. We surround our children with books and read aloud to them from the time that they are born, but we tend to consider our work finished once they can read books on their own. Through her conversation with Andrew Pudewa, the director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, Sarah Mackenzie convinced me that reading aloud to my older children may be the single-most important factor in fostering a love of reading that will last a lifetime.
Pudewa claims that when we read aloud to our older children, we are giving them consistent interactions with beautiful, complex, nuanced language. Consider their daily exposure to language: conversations with peers at school, instructions from their teachers, television and other media sources, and conversations in their homes. As a contrast, Pudewa uses the example of Civil War era letters in which average soldiers composed beautiful, complex prose because the primary “entertainment” for families during that time would have been reading great literature aloud in the evenings. By reading books aloud that are slightly above a child’s current reading and decoding level, we are exposing them to “sophisticated language patterns” that they will absorb and eventually reproduce in their own thinking and writing.
Even when children are reading proficiently at or above grade level, we know that they have a tendency to skip unfamiliar vocabulary and longer descriptions and skim over difficult or complex syntax. They may be grasping the plot and characters but missing the beauty and depth of the language itself. Reading aloud with them models how to handle those challenges and encourages fast readers to slow down and savor well-written texts. Pudewa’s daughter (who was reading novels independently at the age of six) captured the distinction best when she said, “You know Dad, when I listen to you read, it’s kind of like I’m seeing everything in color. And when I read it myself, it’s more like black and white.” Add to this the benefits of deepening our relationships via the shared experience of books and creating a culture of conversations about books in our homes, and the call for reading aloud to our children for as long as possible is hard to resist.
On a practical level, Pudewa and Mackenzie recognize that some kids may be resistant to being read aloud to because they feel “too old for that.” They suggest using audiobooks in the car, encouraging older siblings to read to younger, and giving fidgety older kids something to do (e.g., Legos, sketching) while you read. Choosing books together also fosters a mutual enthusiasm that makes you both want to keep reading.
At Redeemer School, we are so blessed that our teachers embrace Charlotte Mason philosophy that advocates reading “living books” aloud in community. I remember walking into Mrs. Keener’s class one morning, and she had 12 third graders in bean bags at her feet so engrossed in a story that they did not notice my arrival. Our challenge as parents is to nurture this practice in our homes so that the seeds planted in our children’s hearts when they first love to hear stories will take root and flourish into their adolescent and adult lives.
Redeemer School is a private Christian school utilizing the hands-on, childhood-honoring educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. For more information about Redeemer School and our admissions process, click this link: redeemerschool.org/admissions/inquiryform.
1013 Melrose St., Winston-Salem, NC 27103
* Sponsored by Redeemer School
*Reprinted with permission from Redeemer School’s Doorpost newsletter Winter 2020 issue.*
*Photo Credits: Sarah Hahne with Ardmore Photography