Once Upon a Time: The Magical Power of Reading-Aloud

I remember the sun beating down upon our moist heads as we were ushered in from another scorching recess. We walked into the  chilled portables as we slogged in lazily  and melted upon our desks. Mrs. Schwemer, without any deliberation would soothingly begin reading from our read-aloud. With our eyes closed, heads rested upon the desks, we were transported. Some days we were transported to a barn among talking animals and an intelligent, sympathetic spider trying to spare a young runt pig’s life from his eventual slaughter. Other days we were in the greatest candy factory of all time, with a zany yet brilliant chocolatier ushering us all into an entirely edible garden. We all braced ourselves when we experienced a plane crash into the Alaskan tundra and had to survive with the companionship of only our hatchet.

If I were to tell you that these were the only memories of my childhood in school, that would be the utter truth. I don’t remember much about my elementary days, but I remember the stories that my teachers read. Whatever memories I have left are linked to books they read to us. I read those stories now to my kids as my teachers used to read  to me, emphasizing the parts they found to be fascinating and pausing for comments as they did. I’m thirty years old now –but that stuck with me. Those twenty minutes of being transported as a little girl to faraway places and meeting characters I grew to love like friends, those moments became so much more to me than just listening to a good story, I would later learn that it became a rich imagination and my eventual fuel to write.

Fast-forward a few decades later…

As a  homeschooling mother, I often failed to connect with my kids. I know what you’re thinking, spending all day and everyday with your kids, how could you possibly not connect? We spend an inordinate amount of time with them learning, teaching, but do we really connect with each one heart to heart? I can’t speak for every homeschooling mother, but I certainly was not. Homeschooling was in many ways straining my relationship with my eldest child. There was a burning desire in me to connect with each of my kids on an individual level in a very real, deep, and meaningful way. I knew if I could, it would solidify our relationship, and I wouldn’t just be the drill sergeant (which we so often can become during the day), I could be their friend. But that doesn’t just happen because you’ve started homeschooling. It takes active engagement, and it was hazy territory for me. We tried a variety of things, and nothing truly stuck.

I remember the day I came across a blog called, AmongstLovelyThings.com (Later renamed ReadAloudRevival.com). It was a very inspiring blog with a very simple message interspersed all over the place. Reading aloud to create lasting bonds with your kids.

Reading aloud? I thought to myself, I did read aloud to my kids who couldn’t read, but with Adam? He had been reading since he was three, and his reading level far surpassed my own, why on earth would I read aloud to him?

Then like an eternal explosion, my skin became prickly with nostalgia, thinking back to those sweaty turned icy cold days, under the fluorescent lights, being transported through read-alouds. I stood motionless for a moment as I reflected about staring down the snow-capped mountains of the Alaskan tundra, the giant peach we voyaged on to escape two dreadful aunts, the scorching sun in a sweltering desert as it beat down on us as we had to dig hole after hole…I couldn’t help but smile, my entire world lighting up, just like that. The excitement that I could re-create those moments again, with my beautiful babies beside me.

The woman who ran the blog had also just launched a podcast which inspired families to read aloud as a family. I was beyond intrigued, so one night after I tucked the kids into bed, I started to load the dishwasher and listened to the first podcast. And just like that, a fire ignited within me to make reading aloud the best, most important part of our day.

Sarah Mackenzie , interviewed Andrew Pudewa (Founder of the IEW) and they talked extensively about the countless benefits of reading aloud. Mr. Pudewa talked at great length of the absolute dire need of reading aloud, especially reading aloud to children who read on their own just fine. This blew my mind:

To what degree are we able to sit and have long, meaningful, in-depth conversations with our children and I realized even though I’m homeschooling, I am blasted busy all the time. A lot of what I say to my children are, “Do your math or you’re not going to eat lunch ever” or “Hey, you’re doing a great job, keep going with that. I got to go over and do something important and then I’ll come back.”

-Andrew Pudewa 

This hit the nail right on the head! I was with them all day-homeschooling no less! Yet still I felt I couldn’t truly connect with my kids. And in many ways, our relationship was being strained. Andrew and Sarah both discussed that not only are the academic benefits so crucially outstanding of reading aloud, it was literally the most important thing you could do with your children all day, to simply read aloud from a book. For me, the ability to connect with your children through reading a book was magnificent and enjoyable and oh so simple!! And boy, oh boy, they were right!

Academic Benefits of Read-Aloud

Since the discovery of that podcast, and The Read-Aloud Handbook ( Written by Jim Trelease–A MUST read for every parent!), I have made it a goal to try and read-aloud with the family, every day for at least thirty minutes, and I feel more connected to my family than ever before. Our children (ages 2, 5 and 8 at the time) listened to the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia series, and The Series of Unfortunate Events books. We have literally read hundreds of books together. This could never have been accomplished without reading aloud. My younger daughters didn’t read at the time, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t understand high quality literature. My younger kids listen attentively to books written far beyond their suggested reading comprehension levels. It’s incredible what kids are capable of when we don’t dumb things down for them.

In the Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease suggests that the academic benefits alone of reading aloud are so great, that if someone invented a pill to deliver those benefits, there would be a line miles and miles to get it. Parents would fall over themselves and pay enormous amounts of money to give their kids the benefits of this pill.

Sometimes, we want a grandiose plan of action to turn out amazing kids. Can it really be that simple?

When you’re reading aloud to your child on a normal basis, and having a discussion based on open-ended, thought-provoking questions, there is no need at all for a formal reading curriculum. Honestly, the sheer torture generations of children must endure through those mindless, boring, fruitless worksheets that stimulate neither the mind nor creativity. I hated those worksheets. I still HATE those worksheets. DON’T USE THOSE WORKSHEETS! Reading should be enjoyable, something our kids do to entertain themselves, and stories DO stimulate the mind and nurture creativity, so steer CLEAR of anything that can inhibit the ability to enjoy reading.

Here are some open-ended questions I use for starting the conversation, but we often swerve and venture to uncharted territories, and I allow the conversation to be organic, led by them. They ask their own questions. I have very rarely ever had to refer to a question sheet. They are bursting at the seams with their ideas, questions, and comments. Folks, this is reading comprehension.
(Through the conversation, more open-ended questions will come to mind, jot them down 😊)

• What other story have we read, reminds you of this story?
o How?
• Which character do you feel you are most like?
o How?
• Which character do you not understand?
o Why?
• What would you have added to this chapter?
o Why?
• What is one thing you would like to remember from this chapter?
o Why?
• What is one thing you would like to remember from this story?
o Why?
• What is something you would like to tell the character of the story (to help him/or her) gain what he/she wants?
o How would that help?

What good can come from fiction? Beyond Academia:

A beautiful thing always happened after we put the book down. Everyone discussed what was read, the kids were comparing characters to people we knew in real life, or to other characters in other books we read, and we had hearty, amazing discussions. I wouldn’t trade these moments for anything.

I remember the day we listened to the part in Harry Potter when Snape’s identity was revealed (we used the audiobooks by Stephen Fry). My daughter burst into tears and asked to please pause the recording. Her lips quivered as she released her thoughts, or rather, her philosophical ramblings. She told us she was so sad that Snape lived a lonely, friendless, loveless life and how he was so tragically misunderstood, only for it to end like this. She was mad at Harry and the other characters for not showing him the kindness and gratitude he deserved. And now it was too late. She paused and remembered that even if no one knew all the good Snape did, Allah knew. And Allah would never waste our efforts. I remember my husband and I staring at each other in astonishment. That connection, between a character in a story and linking it to mankind and his judgement before Allah was one of the single most amazing moments of motherhood. I wrapped my arms around my little girl and thought to myself, this is the most incredible moment I’ve yet to experience,  and In shaa Allah, many more yet to come.

It was Einstein who said:
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales.”

I don’t know how many people would generally argue with the gems Einstein has left behind, but I know my parents weren’t proponents of this influential belief. We weren’t encouraged to read fiction and if we did, it was just as bad as watching a television show. My mother was an immigrant, a business woman, but also a loving and amazing mother, understandably however, she didn’t realize the effect of reading aloud, and she didn’t understand the need to read stories. I believe this is the general misunderstanding for many people in our culture.

Excerpt from The Read-Aloud Handbook By Jim Trelease:

“Stop for a minute and remind yourself how long the fairy tale has been with us- in every nation and in every civilization. surely there must be something important here, an insight so important as to transcend time and geography and cultures to arrive the twentieth century, still intact. There are for example, nearly several hundred different version of Cinderella from hundreds of cultures. Nevertheless, they all tell the same story–a truly universal story. What distinguishes a fairy tale is that it speaks to the very heart and soul of the child. It admits to the child what so many parents and teachers spend hours trying to cover up or avoid. It addresses itself to the child’s sense of courage and adventure. The tale advises the child: Take courage in hand and go out to meet that world head-on. By recognizing the child’s daily fears, by appealing to his courage and confidence and by offering him hope, the fairy presents the child with a means by which he can understand the world himself.”

Some days, or most days rather, academia takes a back seat to teaching my kids real life opportunities. I am not interested in exceedingly intelligent children, who lack emotional intelligence and empathy, who lack the ability to feel his friends’ pain when facing a devastating experience, who lack  the ability to read the face of a person in need, without the ability to quietly help without being asked, in a messy situation, without praise or applaud, without the ability to do what is right, when only Allah is watching. I want well-balanced kids who love Allah, love mankind, and love learning. Children who react courageously when it’s easy to fold in to fear.  Children who recognize the sight of Allah upon them and try to honor that sight and do Ihsaan in every capacity. And this is where the beautiful stories we read help us create the opportunities to practice.

“Build your kids’ lives on a story-solid foundation and you’ll give them a reservoir of compassion that spills over into a lifetime of love in action.”

-Jamie C. Martin

 

Weaving in Faith

We can discuss at length about our Deen with our children through non-Islamic fiction. Islamiyaat (Islamic Studies) is and should be an important aspect of all Muslim homeschoolers, but it is so much more wholesome and organic, when we can apply Islam to everyday life. We shouldn’t isolate our religion and limit our interaction with Islam during only Islamiyaat. To talk about the implication of our aakhirah through certain actions a character might take will motivate them to see our religion for what it is, a tool to guide our moral and ethical judgement. Engaging the child to think through all kinds of situations through an Islamic lens, not just during our reading in Islamiyaat makes our religion truly something we can embody. So, use each opportunity to weave Islam into the discussions with your children, and make not only the story come alive, but our religion come alive and become relevant to our kids.

Reading-Aloud: The Fuel for Eventual Success in Writing

We don’t expect a car to go without gas.
We don’t expect a human to function without food or water.
We don’t expect our devices to work without electricity.
Yet we expect a child to write, without ideas.
A child must be fed a feast of words auditorily to be able to write. In other words, a child must hear rich language to project rich ideas in written expression. A child who hears the junk language of TV, peer interaction, the barking of orders from us as parents as their only language acquisition and then are expected to write to excite, is truly a difficult task.  A great way to surround our children in rich literature, is to bathe them with rich story. The more the children listen to stories that have sophisticated language patterns, the more will they not only write with a fountain of ideas and coherency, they will also speak with great eloquence as well.

We cannot eliminate all the opportunities for children to hear junk language, but we can counterbalance it through rich story. The sophisticated language patterns they will receive by auditory means will be the eventual success in written expression and as stated earlier, reading comprehension.

It really is that simple.

Therefore, it is so crucial to read to older kids. They need the fuel to write more than perhaps even the younger kids. So, reading aloud to kids of all ages, across the age spectrum, is the most effective use of your and your child’s time.

There are exceptions to this, and this research is not set in stone. While a vast majority of children will benefit from having read-aloud time, some children will still struggle with reading comprehension. Even when they are exposed to great literature and rich language for certain kids, that won’t be enough. Some children are visual learners, and cannot make connections until they see the words on the page. Not all of these rules will apply to every child, and the ways to absorb and learn will not always apply in the same way to every individual. Some children will need the extra attention and care to understand the story , and therefore will need extra time and some intervention in between the readings. One of the greatest homeschooling mothers I know, who reads aloud a lot, has a son who is brilliant Maa sha Allah, although he needs extra help in  reading comprehension. Hearing the story for him is not enough, he needs to read along with the book. So please be aware that this research is not for every child in the universe. And if your child is still struggling with reading comprehension, consider professional help as there may be a deeper learning difficulty. All of our children are unique and research is always fluid, and the beauty of our homeschooling is one size never has to fit all. 

Bottom Line: Read to your kids, everyday! Several times a day if possible. It is the best vehicle to connect, laugh, cry and make memories with your kids that will stand the test of time,while also providing them a superior experience in acquiring language and equipping them to be future writers and competent communicators. As parents, we are often seeking the best things to do with our families, the most nourishing educationally, mentally, a power punch. There is nothing quite as powerful as breaking open a high-quality book and letting their minds feast on the beautiful ideas and powerful language.

Alina’s Top 10 Read-Alouds ( For all ages/Full family fun)

  1. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (13 Book Series)
  2. Harry Potter by JK Rowling ( 7 Book Series)
  3. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood ( 6 Book Series)
  4. Anne of Green Gables By Lucy Maud ( 9 book series)
  5. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  6. Nims Island by Wendy Orr
  7. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  8. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
  9. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  10. Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson

** Be very greedy and selective when choosing titles, often reading them yourself first, if possible. We want to make sure the stories are worth our children’s time and mental attention.

Happy Reading!

 

Having had a bitter taste of different educational systems growing up, Alina Jaffery came to the realization that for her children there must be a better option. She decided to put her career and work life back seat to home education. Currently in their seventh year, she has managed to weave homeschooling into their everyday life. She is committed to the belief that learning should not be limited to a classroom or to any one place. Amongst her favorite pastimes is reading aloud to her children, which has developed into a deep love of reading in her own trio. She believes in the holistic power of homeschooling not just to educate, but to strengthen the bonds of family. She is mother to three wonder kids (ages 11,8, and 5) and her goal is to nurture a love of lifetime learning, a profound respect for the gift of knowledge and above all to raise strong Muslims who live a life of which their Rabb is pleased with. You can follow her journey through homeschooling  on Instagram @teachingwithtawwakul

Related posts

Leave a Comment