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Giving Birth to The Hobbit: Why We’re Totally Sold on The Family Read Aloud

My daughter was born right after Chapter 6 of The Hobbit. No, seriously. Bill was reading aloud from The Hobbit while I lay there trying to think about something other than my contractions. Of course, he put the book down when he could no longer hear himself above my angry demands for more epidural. But still, you could say that I gave birth to the sounds of The Hobbit. In just a few months, our firstborn will be entering eighth grade, and our son will be entering sixth grade. And, Bill still reads to us. In this blog entry, I’d like to share a little about what the family read aloud has done for us, some tips for selecting great books, and our family’s top ten read-aloud book list. We’re firm believers that you’re never too old to be read to. And, the benefits of the read aloud can not only help your kids ace their SATs, but can also help you bond through deep and meaningful conversations.

Bill and I work full time. So, it’s easy to come home and get caught up in the minutia of life-- getting dinner made, homework done, etc... If we allowed it, our dialogues with our kids would consist of stilted yes/no questions: “Did you do your homework?” “Would you please lower the volume?” “Would you not taunt your sister by dangling insects in her face?” “Would you not stare at your brother while you do that evil Darth Vader breathing thing?” The family read aloud has provided opportunities for quality discussions that have helped us get to know our kids better. It has provided a common ground, even as we’ve seen our children growing into individuals who are pleasantly unlike us. We have had some of the deepest introspective conversations that started out with simple story-based questions like, “When have you ever felt this way?” “What would you do if you were in this character’s shoes?” “Which character is most like you? Why?” “What do you think of this author’s writing style?” Great stories have developed into great discussions that have helped us know our kids better and grow closer as a family.

Both our son and daughter, see the family read aloud time as one of the most special times of their days. And, while our daughter loves to read, our son is a competent but reluctant reader. He will not pick up a book without being required to do so. His interests lie in the fields of math and science. As educators who know a little something about the relationship between leisure reading and academic language development, we know how important it is for him to be exposed to academic language in meaningful contexts. And, though he wouldn’t voluntarily pick up a book, he loves our family read alouds. No kidding. He begs for Bill to keep on reading. In an age of cellphones, iPads, and Nintendos, nothing is more gratifying than to hear an 11 year old boy and a 13 year old girl insist that we not stop reading. And, in the case of reluctant readers, we especially feel that it is important for them to experience the act of getting lost in a good book. As long as they can decode their way fluently through text, the academic vocabulary development, the comprehension, the story elements, the analysis of good writing, can all be framed by your reading aloud to them. It is a great shared experience that allows you to make connections from text to self (making personal connections to what's in the book), text to text (making connections to other texts that have been read), and text to world (making connections to things in the world outside).

(Apologies-- I don’t have a citation for the folks who came up with “text to self, text to text, and text to world.” Please feel free to enlighten me by letting me know to whom we should be indebted for this simple, but wonderful, framework related to making literary connections.)

Here’s our unscientific litmus test for choosing a good family read aloud: Note: We read our first chapter book to our kids when our daughter was just beginning Kindergarten. We selected Roald Dahl’s, The BFG because it starts fast and never lets up. So, when we talk about read alouds, we’re actually talking about chapter books rather than picture books.

  • Our best read alouds have contained short chapters, and not a lot of unnecessary descriptive text. Who cares if a tapestry of washed-out colors adorned the three layers of curtains, and despite the fabric's thickness, they flowed gently, but noiselessly in the breeze? Read a lot of that, and your kids will hate you.

  • Read the first couple of chapters. If you're not hooked yet, put it back. You'll lose your kids in less time than that.

  • If your kids wouldn't want to watch a movie-version of this book, then don't read the book.

  • Some of the best books we've found are marketed toward kids in the 3rd through 8th grades.

  • Audiobooks are AWESOME!!!! They're particularly easy on your throat. The best seem to be read by professional actors who have very few inhibitions, as opposed to audiobooks read by the author. So, consider replacing your "Movie & Irresponsible Carbs Night" with an "Audiobook & Irresponsible Carbs Night." Put on your jammies, pop some popcorn, sit back and let your mind form the pictures. Your kids won't even notice that they are basking in layers of meaningful contextualized academic language (which will help them make sense of non-fiction content texts). And, you can pop these into your car's CD or MP3 player to be read to during your summer travels. They’re also great for helping English language learners develop academic language.

Our Family’s TOP TEN Recommendations for Family Read Alouds (and approximate ages of listeners): #1 Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke. Ignore the movie reviews. This book is kick-butt awesome! The movie... not so much. (Grades 2 through adult)

#2 The Last Words of Will Wolfkin, by Steven Knight. This book starts fast and doesn’t let up. Really suspenseful with a really unique story line. (Grades 2 through adult)

#3 Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke. We listened to the audiobook for this one- [cue the angelic background music] AMAZING! (Grades 2 through adult)

#4 The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke. No. We are not getting paid to promote her books- we think that she is just plain that good. And, boys and girls alike will love her books. By the way-- Would you get on the carousel? What would you do over? (Grades 2 through adult)

#5 The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stuart-- This will grab you quickly. It is a really unique story with interesting and memorable characters. And, it has puzzles which make great discussion starters! (Grades 2 through adult)

#6 Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo. Great story and character development. This book led to our own writings about the ten things we’ll remember about each other. (Grades 3 through adult)

#7 The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. Grab a tissue- but so good! Awesome fodder for deep discussions. (Grades 2 through adult)

#8 The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis- We listened to this in an audiobook format, and it was amazing! It was read by a British actor with absolutely no inhibitions. After we listened to the book, we went to the theatre to watch the newly released movie—8 thumbs up! (Grades 2 through adult)

#9 The BFG, by Roald Dahl- It grabs kids’ attention quickly and keeps their attention. Dahl has a sick, edgy humor that kids love. (Grades Pre-K through Grade 4)

#10 James and The Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. A great story which is so much better than the movies. (Grades Pre-K through Grade 6)

(Two additional books that didn’t make our top ten, but that are great for helping young children develop empathy and appreciation for what they have, are the abridged and illustrated classic versions of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Grades 1-3)

If none of these titles seem to grab you, think of a favorite family movie, go to your local bookstore, and ask what book would be most like that movie.

This article was a family effort (3 additional voices were chiming in as I typed). Persida and William Himmele are the authors of three ASCD books, Total Participation Techniques and The Language-Rich Classroom.

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