Some of my most vivid childhood memories revolve around my mom reading to my siblings and I. All five of us children would be sprawled across our living room floor, as my mom read us tales of hideous crimes during the Salem Witch Trials or the horrors of the Bubonic Plague. Maybe not your traditional bedtime reading material but we loved every second of it. I imagine it was the quietest portion of my mothers day as we all lay silent, hanging on her every word. Even though 5 siblings brings a wide age range, my mom would always pick books that captivated us all. My brother and I would have been old enough to read to ourselves before bed, but my mom continued to read to us every night well into our middle school years. She knew that reading aloud to older children builds an enjoyment of literature, improves engagement and fosters great discussion among peers (or siblings).
Now I am grown and have a family of my own. My childrens’ age range is similar to my mothers. We have four children with a 7 year age range. My oldest two daughters are in the beginning stage of reading. They are able to read short, simple stories but their ability to comprehend far exceeds their ability to read. They are able to grasp big concepts and follow plots far above their “reading level.” I would be failing them in many ways if I only let them engage with material at their “level.” Over the last 12 months our family has read Tom Sawyer, Where the Red Fern Grows, White Fang, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and the entire Little House series. These stories have consumed the conversations of my children. They talk about the novel we are currently reading day and night, they act out portions of the books regularly and they beg all hours of the day for me to read “just one more chapter”.
I love to increase their connection to these chapter books by asking open ended questions like “Is that how you would have handled that situation?”, “Would you have been brave enough to do that?” or “How do you think that character is feeling right now?”. Often times they will ponder these questions for days. They have even been known to wake up in the middle of the night with new found insight. These questions will frequently evoke emotions as they seem to become friends with the main characters.
The lessons that my children have learned from these books have been surprising and seem to surpass anything I could have taught them in a traditional sense. Even with the best planned lesson, I could have never fostered the type of compassion for an adopted child that Anne of Green Gables brought to our family. White Fang was harassed and abused by humans who claimed to love him. In many ways he was shaped into the fierce, feared dog he became. No anti-bullying curriculum could have even scratched the surface on the importance of kindness and respect that White Fang taught our family.
In addition to chapter books our family also loves to listen to audio books. I find these to be particularly helpful during nap/rest time, car drives or busy seasons of life that I’m struggling to devote long stretches of time to finishing a book. Buying audiobooks can be expensive, which is why we utilize Youtube and our local library. Some books are more fun on audio! We listened to Chronicles of Narnia this past summer on an audiobook. I could have never done justice to the different characters’ voices and the added music during intense portions had us all on the edges of our set!
At about age three I find my children can listen and comprehend a chapter book. I know this is only because they have first grown to love short children’s books during infancy and toddlerhood. Little ones might not be able to sit for long periods of time to listen to “big books.” So I find it helpful to give them a quiet activity to do with their busy little hands and I stop frequently to ask engaging questions or define unfamiliar words. Although my seven year old loves to hear the woes of Laura Ingless, she also never misses an opportunity to listen to her beloved The Gruffalo’s Child, The Wonky Donkey or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. It seems to me that, to some degree, children simply love to be read to, regardless of the content. Parents would be wise to find time to include both short stories and chapter books into their elementary age children’s day.
I hope this March, regardless of your childrens’ ages, you will pick a book and dive into it with them. I think you might be surprised how much your entire family enjoys your little book club meetings before bed or reading just one page of a book during breakfast.