We’re all convinced of the benefits of reading to young children, but what about reading with older kids?
When my twins were in fifth grade, they received the following English assignment: Choose an adventure book to read together with one of your parents. As you read, write notes to each other about your reactions, thoughts, and questions. Communicate in writing about the book!
My son Owen and I chose to read Into Thin Air, John Krakauer’s harrowing account of the 1996 Everest climbing season, when the latest in adventure tourism went terribly wrong. Two teams of fit, semi-experienced climbers paid $60,000 each for a “guaranteed” chance at scaling Everest. When a storm howled in, three tourists and two tour leaders perished.
I loved the assignment, and Owen enjoyed it, too. We passed the book back and forth, wrote notes on the computer, and (even) talked about the book. I shared my surprise that the Everest climbers were miserable from the start, beset by insomnia, headache, and hacking cough. Owen shared his sense of the beauty of the mountain and the lonely horror of freezing to death.
Recently, a fifth grade teacher in my wealthy suburban community told me they don’t give that assignment anymore: Too many parents complained.
Maybe they were too busy traveling for work to read. But couldn’t they use a Kindle on the plane and text their remarks to their children? Maybe they worried the books would bore them. But couldn’t they negotiate with their children for a book that would captivate both of them? Or maybe the parents were afraid of getting a bad grade on the assignment.
As a society, we have embraced the idea of reading to kids too young to read for themselves. Often, though, we forget the value of shared reading experiences as our kids grow older.
I was one of four children, and long after we were proficient readers, we still cuddled on the couch to listen to my mother read to us every night. She didn’t “do the voices” like an actress. She just read in her steady, calming tone; and we listened, learning to pay attention and paint pictures in our minds.
Listening to an adult read aloud exposes children to vocabulary in context, complex sentence structure, and a continuous train of thought. These are all good tools for enhancing children’s thinking, but even better is the shared intimacy of these moments. We don’t have to give them up as our children approach middle school. Even when we don’t read aloud, we can still share bedtime reading, lolling together on the couch or bed, each reading our own book, exchanging comments from time to time.
My father and brother both liked science fiction. Sometimes, on vacation, when there weren’t enough unread books to go around, the first reader tore off sections of a paperback book as he finished them and passed them on to the second reader. I’m not advocating book dismemberment, but what a message about shared enthusiasm!
You and your children can always recommend books to one another. My son Damian’s suggestions have grown from his passionate advocacy of Tony Abbott’s Droon series through his romance with Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl to his current insistence that I read Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen. To tell the truth, I can’t keep up with him, but we do enough common reading that we can always discuss why characters do what they do or how it would be to live in another world. (One friend of mine tells me that the Harry Potter books provided dinner conversation for years.) I reciprocate by saving newspaper or magazine articles for Damian, choosing books from the library I know he’ll like, or sending him links to stories on the web.
By reading books together, we keep communication lines open and share our interests, aspirations, and inner worlds in a way that’s oblique, not too confrontational or embarrassing. Nobody gives us a grade.