The Read-Aloud Family – Post 1 (by Kim Jansen)

Happy New Year! As the Christmas decorations come down, I often reflect on our celebration of this Holy Season. What went well? What needs a little tweaking next year? I find that making notes for the following year prevents making the same mistakes again and again. This year’s notes look something like this:

  1. For gingerbread houses, buy a kit for the little ones, so they don’t need constant help. Buy another hot glue gun for older kids, so the graham cracker construction doesn’t take all day as they pass around the single “gun.”
  2. It’s ok to stray from the tradition of prime rib for Christmas Dinner…especially when steak is on sale, and the forecast for Christmas Day is 57 degrees. Bring on the grill! J
  3. Don’t bother waking the big kids up early on Christmas morning. Enjoy the excitement of the little ones opening their stockings! Relax and read Christmas picture books by the lighted tree, while the big kids sleep in.

The list continues, but Note #3 fills my heart with the greatest joy. My absolute favorite Christmas tradition is reading aloud by the light of the tree.

I thank mother & author Sarah Mackenzie for her book The Read-Aloud Family (and her podcast Read Aloud Revival), both of which inspired me to make reading aloud a priority this holiday season.

Now, don’t you start thinking, “Must be nice to have kids who sit quietly and listen while you read!” I’ll be the first to admit that reading aloud in the Jansen household rarely looks like a fairy tale.

Here’s how it actually transpires:

 My 7-year-old almost always responds to, “It’s storytime!” with “Nooooo!” He then proceeds to snuggle on my lap and ask so many questions about the plot that it’s difficult to make it through more than a few pages in a sitting.

My 4-year-old usually wanders around the room appearing to ignore the book. However, the next day she’ll make a comment about Laura & Mary from Little House on the Prairie that shows she’s tracking far more closely than she appears.

As for my teenagers, they think they’ve outgrown such nonsense!

Without Mackenzie’s encouragement – and her strong doses of real-life experience as a mother of six – I surely would have thrown in the towel on the 2nd Day of Christmas. Her chapter entitled, “Debunk Five Myths,” was particularly helpful in setting reasonable expectations for the endeavor of reading aloud to children of all ages.

Myth #1: “If you want reading aloud to make a difference, you need to do a lot of it.”

MacKenzie wisely realizes that if parents wait until they have 30 free minutes, they won’t read very often, or even at all. She does the math for us, and explains that even just 10 minutes per day adds up to 60 hours over the course of a year.

What if reading aloud every day – even for just 10 minutes – feels like too much? Mackenzie is still your cheerleader. Over the course of an entire year, 10 minutes every other day adds up to thirty hours – an amount she calls “a tremendous amount of reading.”

“You can find ten minutes, and that’s all it takes,” she says. “If you want reading aloud to make a difference…you just need to do a little bit of it over a long stretch of time. It all adds up.”

This tip helped me a ton over the Christmas vacation. Although we had time to read for long stretches, my teens were often itching to go do something else. After the first read-aloud of “A Christmas Carol” – in which I became so engrossed in the story that I failed to recognize over 30 minutes had passed – we decided to set a 15-minute timer the next day. This practice decreased the teens’ moaning & groaning (a little bit), but I still felt good about carving out a chunk of time to put away the “screens” and connect.

Myth #2: It only counts as reading aloud if you do the reading yourself.

According to Mackenzie, “the magic of read-aloud is achieved when we share stories together.” Therefore audiobooks most certainly count as “real reading.”

“It’s the shared experience itself that makes the biggest impact,” she says. Regardless of whose voice is reading, “children still benefit from correct and sophisticated language patterns…and they’re inspired to become heroes of their own stories.”

Mackenzie also notes that using audiobooks multiplies the number of books families can share, because they can be played in the car, during a meal, or while the entire family joins together to tackle a pile of laundry.

Furthermore, some books are much easier to enjoy in audiobook form. Relying on a trained actor to do the heavy lifting with difficult pronunciations and complex sentence structure of classic literature can “allow ourselves the privilege of getting lost in the story” rather than becoming bogged down in decoding it ourselves.

I noticed this phenomenon with A Christmas Carol. I fell in love with the story by listening to the audio drama version in my van while I ran errands. The British accent, coupled with sound effects in the background, made the story so much more meaningful. After stumbling through a few attempts to read the Dickens classic to my teens, I tried playing the CD for them instead. I believe it improved the experience for all, even if only slightly. (There was still a fair amount of grumbling.

Throughout the entire book, I above all appreciate Mackenzie’s honesty and personal anecdotes. She doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t say the experience of reading aloud will look like the picture in our heads. In fact, she guarantees that it most certainly will not.

As Mackenzie debunked each read-aloud myth one-by-one, I felt myself relax, filled with hope that the simple gesture of reading aloud has potential to yield great dividends in my family, even if I don’t immediately see the results.

In my next post, I will cover Mackenzie’s final three myths of reading aloud. I’ll also touch on the fascinating research that shows the incredible benefits reading aloud offers to our children.

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