10 Tips for Reading Aloud to School-Age Kids
By Diana Black
Our first post in this series described the many benefits of reading aloud to elementary and middle schoolers who are already capable of reading on their own, explaining how it empowers and enriches their reading lives. This post focuses on how to do it well.
Thankfully, many of the strategies you used for reading aloud to your child when they were younger still apply when they reach school age. But there are also, naturally, other tips and tricks much more suitable for reading to older kids. So how should you approach a read aloud with your elementary- or middle-school-aged child? Here are ten expert tips to get you started and provide your family with Mia’s favorite boredom antidote:
- Take care of your voice. Vocal health, like any other physical self-care regimen, requires upkeep. Stay hydrated, avoid smoking, and if something hurts you vocally, quit doing it. Dial down the screaming at sports events or concerts, please. Keep a cup of water or herbal tea beside you while you read to your child so you can focus on what you’re doing without being distracted by a sore, scratchy throat.
- Make it dynamic. At its best, reading aloud has much in common with great music. Keep listeners hooked by varying volume, speed, and pitch. A mixture of loud, soft, fast, slow, high, and low: that’s the recipe for engaging read-alouds (and what Mia calls her “trusty boredom antidote”). It also helps to distinguish characters from one another and to communicate their state of mind. Remember, you’re likely reading books out loud which are more sophisticated than those your child would read solo: The more your rendition can clue them in to what’s going on, the better.
- Respect your child’s intelligence. Discuss the books you read together over breakfast or a cozy cup of hot chocolate. Think of it as a two (or more, if other children are also listening to your read-alouds) person book club. Ask open-ended questions and listen well to the answers, allowing the conversation to evolve organically. Notice any book features that seem to evoke strong feelings in your child. If the story parallels their experiences in some way, perhaps ask them whether they relate to it. Try not to quiz kids on plot points or test their recall for its own sake, as it can feel unappealingly close to homework.
- Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. So many wonderful children’s books demonstrate an irresistible sense of humor. Sure, mom or dad being silly in public or (heaven forbid!) in front of peers might mortify your middle schooler. But in private, believe it or not, they still love to see you loosen up and lean into your goofy side. Consider it an opportunity for you to play.
- Choose voices that make sense for the characters. This is easier than it sounds. A young character’s voice should be higher than an older or large character’s, for instance. Monsters’ voices are usually deep and gruff (think the titular beast in Julia Donaldson’s classic The Gruffalo), while mice are squeaky and high-pitched. A comic relief character could have a voice that’s amusing in some way.
- The unexpected is often very funny. Sometimes an incongruous voice makes for comic gold: think of Kenneth Grahame’s poetic, soft-hearted Reluctant Dragon, who is huge, yes, but also achingly gentle. Giving him a suitable voice contradicts our expectations for dragons and helps set the story’s tone. You can also make use of an unexpected, sharply contrasting vocal shift as a plot point. Think what fun it is to hear a seemingly harmless character with a heretofore sweet sound – surprise! – turn out to be a dastardly villain with a vicious voice!
- Listen up. Be an observer of conversations. Casually eavesdrop at the coffee shop or in line at the grocery store, and take mental note of vocal qualities that stand out to you. How are emotions conveyed in speech? If someone’s speaking voice irritates you, what exactly makes it annoying? You’ll find yourself becoming a more effective reader for your children the more you study speech patterns. Better still, it feels like a game for you!
- Illustrate meaning to up EQ. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, an indispensable life skill linked to a myriad of positive outcomes, involves picking up on non-verbal cues. Facial expressions, grunts, sighs, snorts, and more are full of information that can be quite challenging for children (and even adults) to figure out. So it’s helpful to give kids multiple routes to understanding meanings. School-aged kids can up their EQ by hearing stories read aloud and seeing your face reflect the feelings of the characters. In a sense, you are an illustrator, because you illustrate meanings facially or with simple gestures. Situate yourself beside your child or in a chair across from them, so they can see your face in full. If you’ve just read the sentence, “He laughed contemptuously,” follow with a patronizing chuckle and let your face show scorn to illustrate what “contemptuously” means. For parents with kids on the autistic spectrum, this may be an even more important teaching tool.
- You don’t need to be a professional to be effective. If you’re an audiobook fan, you’ve probably noticed a trend in recent years toward having books performed by celebrity actors. Or maybe you have certain professional narrators who amaze you, like Jim Dale from the Grammy-winning Harry Potter audiobooks. For some, this is intimidating: “Why would my kid want to hear me read Matilda when she could hear Kate Winslet reading it?!” True, you may not be an Oscar or Grammy winner, but you have one key advantage over the pros: you know your child. That relationship is the metaphorical stage on which this performance plays out. You’re enriching your child’s experience of the book with your unique interpretative choices. The quality of your performance is far less important than the fact that it’s you doing the reading.
- Above all, have fun! Don’t lose sight of the fact that this is supposed to be enjoyable. If you forget what voice you were using for a character the last time you read, if your vocal interpretation turns out to have been all wrong, or if you just feel completely out of your depth with this whole endeavor…it’s alright! In fact, it’s more than alright: think of what a great example you’re setting. If you can work through your discomfort, acknowledge or even laugh about your own limitations, and persist for your child’s sake, you’re modeling resilience, humility, and discipline.
Next up: find out what to read aloud to your independent reader! Mia’s been hard at work assembling your dossier…