March is Literacy Month, and I do my happy duty by reading to children at local elementary schools. There are a few I visit occasionally during the school year – nothing takes me away from the routine of office and blog deadlines like some time spent with kids. They're the reason we at Sylvan Learning do our jobs, anyway, right?
So this year I read to children in Ms. Klock's fourth/fifth grade "split" class at Seven Oaks Elementary School in Perry Hall, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. I've been to this lovely school many times before, so it was nice to return. I thank them for inviting me to read to their kids. You can tell this is a school where everyone works for the children. They greet me and other guest readers pleasantly. There are snacks for those of us who want some. There are piles of wonderful books for us to choose from, selected by Ms. Radcliffe, the school librarian.
I've brought my own, though. I love reading the books of Jerdine Nolen, especially the ones with the illustrations by Kadir Nelson. The stories are fun, thought provoking, and create lots of discussion. The pictures are imaginative, colorful, and engaging. We have lots to talk about as we read, laugh, and enjoy the story.
Kids of all ages love to be read to. (I even read occasionally to my high school students who never once complained. I hammed it up through Edgar Allan Poe, chapters from To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies. I stormed around the room during Macbeth, and mooned over Romeo and Juliet. I recorded stories and chapters for kids to listen to and read along with at their "listening tables." I'm convinced many of my "reluctant readers" were motivated to pick up the books on their own for the next chapters and scenes. I'd do anything to get and keep their attention.)
Even adults love listening to stories. Why do you think audio books are so popular?
Here are some things I've learned to keep in mind when I'm reading to kids.
Be prepared. It's always good to have a general knowledge of the story you're reading. You don't have to be an expert, of course, but it helps when you don't stumble over words or emphasize the wrong phrases. This is particularly true if the kids are reading along with you, so they can see and hear the words come to life. Slow down. Reading aloud is just a little slower than conversation.
Be a ham. Making the "words come to life" requires you to leave behind your adult shyness and re-engage with your childhood imagination. When the story demands it, let your voice reflect emotions -- scary, funny, surprising, awed, sad, angry, silly, loud, whispering, threatening, brave. They'll follow along.
Challenge them before reading. Get them ready by giving them something to listen or watch for. "I love the pictures in this book. At the end, we'll vote for our favorites, then I'll tell you which one is my favorite." Or prepare them for unfamiliar words ahead of time, so they'll not be lost. (Another reason to "be prepared.") Have a short, informal chat ahead of time to get them ready for the subject of the story.
Chat with them after reading. After the reading, stay quiet for a few seconds to let them think and return to the present. It's like waking up after a pleasant dream. Give them a few moments. Then talk about the story, giving them plenty of time to think, ask questions, express opinions, and respond to your comments. Listen carefully, respect their points of view, and respond to their comments.
Follow up. If the kids really liked the story, there are a few things you can do to encourage interest and further reading. Write letters -- individually or as a group -- to the author or illustrator. Ask the librarian to stock up on other titles by the same author. Go to Book Adventure for free suggestions for similar stories or others by the same author and to win some neat prizes. Do whatever you need to do to light the spark of reading for enjoyment. As early as possible. These kids will soon enough have plenty of distractions. Get them in the habit of reading, and go to any length to feed that habit. It'll be a lifelong gift.
Whether you're reading to groups of kids in a classroom, in Sunday School, or a scout troupe, or whether it's just your own kids at bedtime after bath, tooth-brushing, and prayers, these little reminders will help to instill a love of reading. The children will associate a warm, fun, intimate time with books and with you. Winners all around, you and the kids. Not bad, huh?