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The hidden benefits of reading aloud - even for older kids

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By Connie Matthiessen

Reading aloud to your kids is also are good way to grapple with difficult issues. For example, you can tell your child, "I don't want you to hang out with so and so," but that's a lecture that will probably go in one ear and out the other. But if you read a book about a kid who gets in trouble by hanging out with the wrong crowd, your child is going to experience that directly, and she's going to experience it with you at her side, and you can talk about it together. You can ask questions like: "Do you think the boy made the right choice?" "Do you think that girl was really her friend?" When you talk about a book together, it's not a lecture, it's more like a coach looking at a film with his players, going over the plays to find out what went right and what went wrong.

Books to blow your mind

Someone once said that books allow you to examine explosive situations without having them blowing up in your face. Books allow you to develop awareness of people outside your experience and develop a sense of empathy. When I was growing up, I wasn't rich, but by reading books I learned that there are kids out there who are a lot worse off than me, kids growing up with real disadvantages. The wider your world, the more you understand and the more you can empathize.

Another advantage of reading aloud: if you weren't a reader yourself growing up, reading to your kids gives you the chance to meet the child you used to be and read the books you never read. I hear from people all the time, especially fathers, who say, "Wow! I never read The Secret Garden as a child, and I had no idea what I was missing!"

I've had that experience myself, and I was an avid reader as a child, but I mostly read boys' books, like The Call of the Wild. I didn't read the classics like The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, so it was great to have the chance to read them with my kids.

Do you think teachers should be reading aloud to kids even in high school?

Yes, because if you stop advertising, you stop selling. Kids have to read for school but that's not an advertisement for reading. Most of the material kids read in school, no one would read for pleasure. And if all your reading is tied to work, you develop a sweat mentality to reading, so by time you graduate you can't wait to stop reading. You become a school-time reader, not a life-time reader. Of course, kids have to do a certain amount of reading that's tied to work, but you don't want kids to forget that there are books out there to make you laugh, make you cry, and move the soul.

The writer Phyllis Theroux once said that high school is the last stop for gas before the Beltway of adulthood, so the lessons kids get in high school are really important. But in the present climate of testing, there is so much pressure on teachers that few take the time to read aloud. And that's a real loss. Standardized tests have nothing to do with real life, which means that schools are becoming divorced from reality. The challenges I encounter every day as an adult have nothing to do with anything I learned on a test in school. When you reach a crisis in your life, or you encounter someone who needs help, how you react has a lot to do with your sense of empathy and compassion – experience with multiple-choice test questions is not going to help at all.

So teachers are torn between what they know is right and what they're forced to do by regulations. If kids' only experience reading as drudgery, then they're going to avoid it as much as possible. Of course, teachers are busy and have a lot of material to cover, but even if they only devote five minutes a day to the pleasure of reading, at the end of the year when you add those five minutes up, that will be what most kids remember.

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

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Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook