Reading aloud to my babies

Yesterday, Diana wrote:

This coming Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will announce a new policy: Doctors will now advise parents to read to their children from birth. . . .But is it really necessary to begin at birth? Daniel Willingham advises waiting a bit.

First of all, I found this rather surprising as I didn’t realize the policy was new. I think I remember being told by University of Virginia (of all places) pediatricians shortly after the birth of each of my children (I have fraternal twin boys and a younger daughter) that I should be reading to them. Of course, I didn’t really need to be told this since most of my teaching career up to that point had been spent mostly with students with lower literacy skills and so I was aware of what happens when children don’t get a strong start with reading. In any case, we started reading to our babies when they were a few weeks old.

Diane further wrote:

The problem I see is this. What are the consequences–for the poor and wealthy alike–of reading to your children primarily in order to boost their academics? Will this be good reading?

Some who didn’t previously read to their kids might follow the advice with gusto. Some might treat it as a chore. “OK, it’s time to read an informational text together. You’ve got to do your vocabulary building.” The kids will hate it.

Willingham sees a way through this: give parents some basic advice on how to read; that will both increase the chances that the parents will follow the advice in the first place, and also make it more enjoyable. He offers a few suggestions from his forthcoming book:

  • Read aloud at the same time each day, to help make it a habit.
  • Read a little slower than you think you need to. Even simple stories are challenging for children.
  • Don’t demand perfect behavior from your child.
  • Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Your child is not judging your acting ability.

I would add another: get used to listening to audio recordings of poems and stories. The better your ear for these things, the better you yourself will read aloud.

My husband and I generally have found reading books to our children to be pleasurable–it’s a nice way to spend quiet time close to them, and our family and friends enjoy it for the same reason. I also love many children’s books, especially the artful ones. But, to be honest, I didn’t always feel like doing it at bed time or other times. Sometimes, it was a chore, not for them, but for us. I got really tired of reading  Trucks, Trucks, Trucks and then even more tired of reading longer and denser books about trucks. You would not believe the number of books we read about trucks, some of them over and over and over and over again. And sometimes, we were just plain tired. But that was the routine at bedtime or a distraction on a long trip, and we knew that building background knowledge, vocabulary, providing those moments of closeness, and showing them that reading books was wonderful were helping them to positively grow and develop.

Now that our kids are older and can all read to themselves, we still read aloud to them sometimes (reading aloud a series together is especially fun) and it was dear to watch our oldests read to our youngest. But we also, well, compel them to read independently.  At bedtime, our children have the choice of reading for up to an hour or going to right to sleep–those are pretty much the only choices at that time. One of our sons can really complain about this (speaking of reading as a chore), but once he gets started reading then he complains about having to stop to go to bed. Some summers, we have also done summer reading “initiatives” (can you tell I’m a teacher?) where our children earn money for each book they read, but the money can only be used to purchase more books.

I would take Diana’s “another” a step further (or lazier, maybe): play audio stories and books for your babies and children. My children heard so many great stories and books that way and it gave us a bit of a break. One of the best, both in terms of the storytelling and the subject matter (if you’re thinking about background knowledge or cultural literacy) is Jim Weiss (coincidentally from Charlottesville).

Just please don’t ask me to read any more books aloud about trucks.



  1. Crimson Wife says:

    LOL on the trucks book thing. When my son was a toddler, I thought he didn’t like me reading aloud to him. Turns out he just didn’t like the same books that his big sister had loved. He had no interest in fiction, but as soon as I started reading him non-fiction books about trucks, trains, planes, boats, etc. he all of a sudden LOVED books. Eventually he was willing to sit through fictional stories involving vehicles like “Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel”. Then he started branching out to other fictional stories. He’s now 8 1/2 and still prefers non-fiction (especially books about science) but he does like fantasy & adventure stories as well.

    • That difference between boys’ and girls’ taste in books (and in many other things relating to education) continues into ES, where too many teachers fail to read/assign books reflecting boys’ interests. Forcing them to read an endless diet of chick lit is a good way to turn them away from reading – as it does for many girls (like mine).

    • Aw, Mike Mulligan. We have that on audio, too. Other adults were stunned at the depth of knowledge on vehicles. And heaven forbid you confused an excavator with a digger truck. The only thing now is that they seem to have forgotten all of that–maybe it is buried somewhere deep in there.

  2. When you can define ‘articulated’ to a male preschooler, your read aloud education is complete. Think of knowing details about trucks as very helpful to your driving and housebuilding.

  3. Thank you for this piece, Rachel. I agree that audio recordings can be great for children (and for the parents, who get a break and can enjoy the recordings as well).

    Listening takes stamina–all the more reason to start building it at a young age. In addition to building vocabulary, it works all sorts of intellectual “muscles”; you have to put together what you hear, detect the shape and direction of the story (or other work), and so on. It’s too bad that people regard listening as “passive,” since it capacity at a young age will probably find themselves drawing on it throughout their lives.

    • Yes! I have thought of what your work about the value and skill of listening when considering my own children. We also encourage our kids to listen to baseball games (rather than watch). My parents have always done so, too–I grew up with the sound of baseball games on the radio. The game in particular also happens to lend itself to listening.

  4. —-You would not believe the number of books we read about trucks, some of them over and over and over and over again.

    Yes, we would. We are parents too. We’ve listened to that Thomas CD *thousands* of times, we’ve read One was Johnny 18 times a day, often 10 in a row. We’ve read about trucks, cars, planes, and trains for years. We’ve stopped and watched them, too.

    It is lovely when adults want to share things like books with their children. These people are not the ones pediatricians are talking to. The point is that parents who don’t know to do this need to know, and they need to do it EVEN WHEN THEY DO NOT FEEL LIKE IT. Because that is what good parents do: they do things to benefit their children even when they prefer not to.

    So, no, audio books are not the point, though they are again, at times, lovely. The point is to teach parents to invest the parents’ time in their offspring, not to find another labor saving device that lets them hit their iphone.

  5. cranberry says:

    Correlation is not causation. Had you not started reading to your children at birth, the chances would be quite good that they would read just as well today.

    We didn’t read to our infants, until they were old enough to sit in a lap and pay attention to a simple board book. And we stopped reading out loud to them once they were able to read chapter books at their own (fast) speed. These days we have to remind them to go to sleep, rather than continue reading.

    Certainly children should have access to appealing reading material at home. They should visit the library with their parents. Parents should model reading. Parents should also be willing to reread books their children love.

    I worry, though, that this discourse over reading to children ASSUMES that parents from other classes are not good parents, because they don’t follow the particular parenting habits of upper-class parents, which may include reading to infants. I can point to many parents in our town who are good diligent, upper-class parents. They obediently followed the whole read-to-your-children thing recommended by our schools, down to keeping reading logs of at least 20 minutes a night, etc., for years on end. Yet their children would rather play sports or go to the beach than read a book. Temperament is not easily influenced; see _The Nurture Assumption _ for more details.

    • A number of friend’s children were bookworms until they were forced to take an Accelerated Reader quiz on every single book they read, so they could win the schoolwide competition. I do believe from this that nature can be influenced.

      • My DD read herself to sleep every night until her 6th-grade teacher force-fed the kids a chick-lit-only diet; the more navel-gazing and sappy emotionalism the better. She hated it just as much as the guys did.

        • cranberry says:

          In both cases, correlation is not (necessarily) causation. It sounds as if all the children mentioned were in, or entering, middle school. It’s well known that peers become more influential as children enter middle school. It’s just as likely that their peer group did not see reading as a “cool” activity.

          Do Accelerated Reader schools post lists of leading readers? That could make being a good reader too public. Middle school books begin to enter young adult lit territory, which differs from elementary school books.