A few weeks ago a friend and I were trying to schedule a phone conversation. I mentioned casually that I couldn’t talk at 8:30 because that’s when I read to my daughter every night. She was surprised, slightly horrified even. “You still do that?! I gave that up as soon as they learned to do it on their own.” I instantly tried to justify, muttering something about working all day and enjoying the time together. But I’ve asked myself since then, should I still be reading to my nine-year-old every day?
When I became pregnant ten years ago I knew little about parenting. I knew plenty of parents, and I’d had many conversations with them about their children (my students, mostly), their philosophies, their challenges. But I had never considered how I would feel in that role, how I would approach that most important of relationships.
So I applied what I did know – teaching – to this huge unknown that was awaiting me. And the foundation of teaching is, of course, reading. I’ve said more than once that I owe the vast majority of my success as a teacher to the fact that I like to read aloud and I do it well.
Bonded Through Words
Luckily, my husband also knew how to read, because he was a writer. This could work, we thought. We really could navigate this whole parenting thing! It would be kind of like teaching and kind of like writing!
Trust that we weren’t naïve enough to believe our baby could survive on stories alone, but we did anchor our parenting in that approach. From the time she was an infant, we read to our daughter as if she understood every word we spoke. We spent hours reading Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino or Peace is in Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, believing that the cadence of our voices could carry the message until the language took on some meaning. We narrated our days as we did chores or walked around the neighborhood and told tales of our families and friends as she nursed or drifted off to sleep.
Learning to Read the World
As she got older, stories became a way to relate to the world, to develop empathy, and to learn about difference. Books translated intangible concepts into digestible situations that helped develop age appropriate understanding of tricky subjects. We looked to texts like Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester and A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. The former is explicit in its subject and provides language and a context for kids to discuss and ask questions, while the latter foregrounds economic inequality in a story of saving change to buy furniture. These are big issues for small children, but ones they can take on if given the tools.
When I taught kindergarten and first grade, parents would ask, at back-to-school nights and teacher conferences, “But if we continue to read to her, won’t she be less inclined to learn to read herself?” Meanwhile, their children were anxious that if they learned to read, their parents would stop reading to them, ending a bonding ritual they looked forward to every day. I warned that pushing your children can sometimes have the opposite effect, and that a love of literature would carry many kids through the arduous task of learning to read.
Early decoding (the ability to relate letters to their sounds and translate print to speech), I would tell them, is not an indicator of future intelligence or success in school. In my experience the children who could read particularly early often lagged in comprehension skills. For them, reading was about decoding all the words on each page until the last page. The story was lost along the way.
The Right Foundation
Studies show that there is a strong relationship between how much a child was read to in their youngest years and future intelligence and school success. The longer and more developed a child’s relationship with literature, the better a child is able to comprehend and engage in higher level thinking like making self-to-text and text-to-text connections and inferring implicit information from a book. These critical thinking skills, far beyond the ability to simply decode, are what we need to be fostering in our children. We need a generation of problem solvers.
Some of the greatest teachers I’ve known, my mentor teachers, planned their curriculum around the sharing of stories. They didn’t teach children to read so much as lit a fire within them that fueled their learning and discovery. They stoked that fire with picture books and read alouds, by guiding conversations and modeling how to discuss literature as a way of understanding humanity. In these classrooms, first graders learned to read. But they also learned to empathize – both emotionally and intellectually – how to respectfully communicate, and how to take charge of their own journey.
Reading was never a sedative in our house either; it always led to questions and conversation, always gave us the time and space to unpack complex issues together. And it solidified our bond; Pema often named our daily reading tradition as the thing she loved most about her mama. It never occurred to me that there would be a time when I stopped reading to my daughter. Seriously, how would I continue to parent without this ace in the hole?
Even when I taught fifth grade, I continued the practice of reading aloud to my students. It was a touchstone in the day that they all appreciated, not because they could put their heads down and zone out, but because they were going to be challenged to think critically and to engage in insightful dialogue. This practice also opens the conversation to children who aren’t strong decoders or who have language-based learning disabilities. These kids frequently have incredibly nuanced understanding of texts when this barrier is removed and, I’ve found, are some of the most active contributors to conversation. Reading aloud to adolescents is a great way to build their character and to reinforce important values and principles. Many of our favorite stories navigate the obstacles of growing up in ways that can serve as models to our children.
The Library Grows
Now that my daughter is nine, our library of read alouds is large and varied. We mostly read chapter books together – some of my old favorites like Anne of Green Gables and The Westing Game and contemporary authors she loves like Grace Lin and JK Rowling – but we still love a good picture book, one she remembers from her younger days like All the World or a newly acquired favorite like I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. And while we read, we snuggle and chat and giggle and tell secrets.
Would I like to say goodnight when she walks up the stairs, rather than be called up a half hour later for our nightly ritual? Sure, plenty of evenings. But I know there will be a time when she no longer wants me to read to her, so I’ll make the most of it while I still can. And we’ll both learn a lot from the experience.