‘I’m tired of reading aloud to my son’

Experts say 20 minutes of read-aloud time is the “magical number” for young children, writes Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic in a New York Times parenting blog. “It does all kinds of crazy-good things for kids — develops their vocabulary, makes them love books and stimulates them to ask sometimes-impossible-to-answer questions about life.” But, she’s tired of reading aloud to her 3-year-old son.

Take Richard Scarry’s books, which I adored growing up. (Please. They’re on the floor behind the bookshelf.)

In Richard Scarry’s world, there is a lot to look at, but not a lot to read, and when there’s not a lot to read, you have to make up things. I could go that route, and I probably should go that route, but since I am a writer by profession, having to write aloud someone else’s book to my kid at the end of a long day kind of ticks me off.

My math professor husband, who loves a good counting book, has his own Richard Scarry gripe: “The Best Counting Book Ever” is not a good counting book. “The first 40 pages are devoted to the numbers 1 to 20,” he says. “Even if you just count up to each number once and turn the page, by the time you get to the number 10, you’ve really counted to 55! Getting to 20 roughly quadruples the number we’ve effectively counted to — in general, it’s a quadratic growth function. When he’s older, I’ll explain that we didn’t always have time to count to 1,050.”

Curious George is “dull and insipid,” she writes.

A friend can’t stand Goodnight Moon.

In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease, advises: “Don’t read stories that you don’t enjoy yourself. Your dislike will show in the reading, and that defeats your purpose.”

I read my daughter Goodnight Moon — or recited it from memory — every night for years. It’s supposed to put you to sleep.

We also read a second book of her choice. I unfondly remember a Strawberry Shortcake book. And I probably could recite Big Dog, Little Dog from memory too. “Fred and Ted were friends. Fred was big. Ted was little.” And it went on.

Allison was reading fluently before she started kindergarten. When did I stop reading aloud to her? When did we give up Goodnight Moon?

About Joanne


  1. Mark Roulo says:

    “Experts say 20 minutes of read-aloud time is the ‘magical number for young children …”
    They sure do. But finding actual research results to back this up is difficult. Does anyone have any suggestions on finding data?

    • It’s not really about parental enjoyment… Sigh. There are many things we do that are good for children that aren’t necessarily fun for the adult. 20 minutes of reading a “boring” book doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Whether the child enjoys the reading is kind of orthogonal to a request for data on the reading being *good* for a child. I have no problem taking my child to an amusement park, but I don’t claim that it “does all kinds of crazy-good things” for him.

  2. I had a professor in grad school that proudly proclaimed,”Each child should have had 4-5000 books read to them by kindergarten.”

    I raised my hand and immediately disagreed, I said based on my children that seemed to be 3 or 4 books read to them a thousand or more times.

    Upon reflection, she agreed with me. And she was correct to, the point of reading aloud, with the child is for them to associate sounds with printed words.

    Or as Tarzan said, speaking bugs.

    • I’d disagree. The point of reading aloud is far more than associating sounds with printed words, although that is one. Reading aloud does a lot.

      1. You are stocking the child’s mind with words and complex sentences. Our normal conversation is not as complex and structured as book language is.

      2. You are teaching him the structure of story–how stories work, the logic of fiction. (Or, OTOH, learning about tanks or dinosaurs. It’s all good.)

      3. A child’s aural comprehension is far higher than his reading ability for years–right up through junior high. You can fill him full of higher-level literature, background knowledge, and so on.

      4. A close association between books, comfort, and happiness is, I don’t know, priceless. You’re teaching the child that reading is something to love and enjoy.

      I’ve become convinced that reading aloud to a child is far more important that we realize, and we should do it more, for much longer. 20 minutes/day is a minimum! Most of us probably quit reading aloud once the child can read reasonably fluently, around 6 or 7. We should do it up through the early teen years.

      Pretty soon her little 3yo will be mature enough to listen to a chapter per night of a longer story! She has tons to look forward to. I always recommend Ruth Stiles Gannett’s “My Father’s Dragon” trilogy to start with.

      • Oh! I forgot learning about rhyme, rhythm, and meter, and all that stuff. Nursery-rhyme-type material is perfect for small children, but most parents do not have a mental stock of nursery rhymes and songs.

  3. cranberry says:

    If her kid enjoys the books she’s reading, she could read advanced books to him which she would also enjoy. Treasure Island? Nancy Drew? Travelogues? Before radio and television, people often entertained others by reading aloud. It’s not obligatory that children start with picture books.

  4. Obi-Wandreas says:

    Two words: Sandra Boynton. That stuff never gets old. My 16 month old son can’t get enough of it, and his (nearly) 5-year old sister still loves it too.

    For my daughter, however, we are currently splitting our time between story books like Strega Nona, Learn-to-Read Star Wars Books, and the occasional My Little Pony comic book.

  5. Not a lot of sympathy to parents who whine about reading to their kids (as both teacher and parent). Suck it up and find stuff you like to read to the kid. It exists. We discovered “Sheep in a Jeep” and that worked for all three of us–parents and kid.
    Seriously, reading was part of bedtime for our family up until some point in middle school. Not only was it a chance to unwind and settle the kid, but the cat insisted on it. Really. For several years during the kid’s elementary school years, until the cat died, the cat started fussing at us at the kid’s bedtime if we weren’t prompt about getting kid and cat settled in bed. It was quite the ritual.
    It was also an important part of our parenting life, as well as the kid’s life. It provided an opportunity for expanding his world, and teaching him more things about it. And when parenting a kid with Asperger’s (as he is), anything that provides a relaxing bonding time is pure gold.

  6. Cranberry says:

    Once children can read fluently, there’s no need to tether them to the adults. Reading to fluent readers is fine if everyone involved enjoys it, but parents shouldn’t feel they’re sacrificing their children’s intellectual development if they don’t enforce Family Story Hour.

    I side with the Freakonomics Folks, there’s a lot of wishful thinking that “reading to children” makes a difference. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-05-03-parents-edit_x.htm

    • My experience matches this. I was a fluent reader long before I started school, such that I don’t remember learning to read, and I really preferred to read on my own. I seriously hated the daily, after lunch story hour in grades 1-4. Thank heaven the teachers gave me permission to read independently. My kids also trended that way, although not quite as early. Beyond the first few years of ES, they read alone (certainly by age 7), with occasional exceptions. We were all able to read good fiction, poetry and non-fiction on our own; it wasn’t just picture books and kiddie-lit-lite.

      That being said, kids whose reading ability is further behind their oral comprehension would certainly benefit from more read-alouds. Like a lot of other things in education, it depends on the kid because not all kids are the same.

      • mom: Careful – take that arguement much further and you’ll advocate things like meeting kids where they are and maybe ability grouping and demonstrating competency rather than meeting seat time – soon you’ll think tracking is good. Leads to the dark side of the Force this does.

      • I also hated being read aloud to, and I snuck my mom’s copy of the Hobbit to finish myself. I still don’t listen to audiobooks. I’m a big believer in it anyway. If a kid hates it, fine, but for most kids it’s a good thing. Plus I never would have read the Hobbit on my own if my mom hadn’t started me on it; at the very least it can hook the fast readers on new material.

        My 13yo daughter, who reads faster and better than I did, still listens to read-alouds, but she cleverly does something while she listens–a craft or whatnot. If I’d thought of that I would have enjoyed being read to much more.

        • I hadn’t even thought of audiobooks; I’ve never even wanted to try one. The other kids don’t use them, with the exception of my youngest. He and his wife get a couple of them from the library, to use on long car trips.

      • Even fluent readers often have a reading ability that lags beyond their oral comprehension. I can read Shakespeare to my 9 year old and she gets it. I don’t think she could read it on her own.

        • Cranberry says:

          I remember reading Lamb’s _Tales from Shakespeare_ at a young age. It was a fine preparation for reading the plays later.

          There is the problem for precocious readers, that they may understand certain aspects of a text, but not others. I don’t think a child who hasn’t gone through adolescence can understand _Romeo and Juliet_. Yes, if guided through the text, they can recount the plot, and presumably could do well on a test of vocabulary knowledge. However, they won’t “get” the emotional import of the (spoiler alert!) doomed passionate teenaged obsession, as most people 14 or older will.

  7. Claire Boston says:

    Some combination of reading to your kids aloud, letting them read to you, and letting them read to themselves can work. Reading aloud the same stories over and over to my daughter used to drive me nuts – until she started reciting the story with me. I started asking her to read to me, and between reciting the story from memory and gradually learning the words with a bit of prompting, she was soon having one story read to her, then quietly reading one or two more to herself at bedtime.

    But if you want something effective for putting kids to sleep, just turn on a classical station at bedtime – zonked in nothing flat! At almost 18, she still jokes about her ‘sleepy time music’, but adores classical music anyway (her favorite choices for her piano and violin). And she knows better than to listen to classical while she’s driving (ha ha!).

  8. Amy in Texas says:

    Calef Brown!

  9. Cranberry says:

    We listen to podcasts or audiobooks in the car. There are many free podcasts suitable for children; many old radio shows are wonderful, and blessedly outside current marketing of corporate characters. Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, the War of the Worlds (and many others) are tremendous. We also love The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and The History of Rome.

    Neil Gaiman narrates many of the audiobook versions of his books. Caution! Some are wonderful for children, some are more appropriate for teens and adults, much like Roald Dahl’s works.

    Sure, it is wonderful to listen to stories being told. On the other hand, some of the current crop of people willing to give advice on parenting have left moderation in the dust. (as in, “all things in moderation.”) If reading to your toddler is healthy, well then, you should read to your graduate student! Playing board games is fun; you should institute a weekly family game night! I feel it’s fine (and likely healthier for all involved) to allow your child to follow their own interests, rather than whatever fad a Parenting Expert is pushing this year. The teen playing Magic: The Gathering or Settlers of Catan with his friends is developing the same skills as the teen kept home to play Monopoly with parents.

    • But the whole POINT of having kids is that you can get a good group together for Dominion or Pandemic on a moment’s notice!

      (Sheesh. Monopoly? Talk about boring)

      • cranberry says:

        It is fun to play Words with Friends with late teens. (Not appropriate for anyone younger.)

        There’s always a cost/benefit tradeoff in children. Do you aim for a string quartet? Bridge partners? Your own baseball team? Any one precludes the others.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        I thought it was the free labor. Have I been doing it wrong?

        • Why not both? Except, personally, I find that the kids (9,7,5,3,1) MAKE more work than they DO.

        • Mark – it’s a bad business proposition. Way too much training involved; poor attitude and they’re tenured to boot! You can forcibly transfer them (adoption, Gypsies, safe harbor), but they’re still identifiably yours. Most children are clearly NPV negative in the post-Industrial world even with a zero discount rate. The warranty is terrible too.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    At one point, I was tired of changing diapers. So?

  11. Mike in Texas says:

    My son loved me reading The Berenstein Bears to him. Later he moved on to reading my Calvin and Hobbes books, but we had him underline the words he didn’t know so we could go over them with him later.