“In order to grow good vegetables, you need good soil with lots of various nutrients. Likewise, we have to think about the kind of “soil” we’re providing for our own education” – Teacher Tami (92-year old Japanese author and cooking teacher)

The importance of reading aloud

In our common quest for ways to strengthen our relationships with one another and support personal growth and development, reading aloud together as a family is one of the best and easiest ways to get started.

In The Read-aloud Handbook, author Jim Trelease outlines the academic and social benefits of reading aloud to your children. Above all, he sternly reminds us that we simply cannot expect schools to be the primary place of education for our children.

Put in numbers, the average U.S. student will spend about 900 hours in school in contrast to the 7,800 hours they will spend outside of it. The habits and activities determined by the family (i.e., parents) needs to be considered more primary to a child’s education than what they might acquire in the classroom. Trelease cites conclusions from the U.S. Department of Education’s 1983 Commission on Reading to support his claims: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”

But the truth is, success in reading is not our goal – although it is a nice perk we can acquire along the way!

Raising families of shared understanding

Closer to our own endeavors, podcaster, author, and mother of six, Sarah Mackenzie, offers the benefits of building a shared understanding with your family by reading books aloud, together. While she draws inspiration from The Read-Aloud Handbook, her goals and her own experiences, are perhaps closer to our own. She confesses her own hopes for her own first child:

I had high hopes for Audrey right out of the gate. I knew that I wanted her to grow up to love God with all of her heart, mind, and soul. I wanted her to do well in school. I wanted a warm relationship with her, always. I wanted her to be kind and compassionate, to do what was right even when no one was looking.

We, as parents, might mirror these same sorts of hopes for our own children. Fortunately for us, Mackenzie reinterprets the educational practices touted in The Read-Aloud Handbook in a way that might be even more meaningful for us as parents. In Mackenzie’s recently published, The Read-Aloud Family, she recounts the ways through reading aloud together with her children has helped her children develop what we might label as a character and a healthy, active family culture of learning and growth.

In exploring books across a range of genres and cultures, her children began to explore moral questions about right and wrong, aspirations and values. In short, the family is able to build experiences, moral resources and a shared sense of certainty about the most important things, together.

In our own families

As Mackenzie recommends, in our own families we can use adventure stories, novels, picture books, nonfiction books, to explore moral values while deepening familial bonds. Reading aloud with the whole family or one-on-one with a child, parents are able to build bridges between the minds and hearts of their children.

Knowing and being able to share thoughts, feelings, and understandings about the same characters, situations, and storylines equip us later with ways to reinforce lessons or to turn difficult moments and decisions into moments for growth and development.

Humanity has always told stories to one another and this has often been the primary way through which they communicated the most important values of one generation to the next. For this reason, the stories we tell or read to our children are perhaps the most important ones to might ever tell.

If we furnish our children’s minds with stories, characters, and understandings of important truths and understandings, we may be equipping them with the strength of character to get them through the hardest times and decisions. We can’t always be with our children and we can’t always protect them. We need to nurture them in the mindset and habits that allow them to become good and strong. In this, they can both withstand the difficulties they will inevitably face as well as to gives them the room to grow into their own unique destinies.

Reading to older kids

Mackenzie also recommends different questions to open up conversations with your kids about the books that you read together. In this, the acting of reading aloud to your children begin to take on magical dimensions – it builds another pathway to open one mind or heart to the other, utilizing questions and conversation to become more fully connected with one another. Imagine the implications of having such a habit and what it would mean for your relationship with your children as they get older!

To this point, while many parents are enthusiastic about the general idea of reading aloud to kids, but most would see it as an activity primarily for the very young and those who have yet to read. Many might feel more awkward to read aloud to older children. But both Trelease and McKenzie are adamant that those children who already know how to read and older should consciously and intentionally be included in this sacred family ritual. Trellis notes that in the aforementioned 1983 Commission on Reading that “[reading aloud to children] is a practice that should continue throughout the grades.”

Perhaps it is in the most confusing time of adolescence that we want to have space for the family to continually engage with each other as well as to have a common language, understanding, and values to keep the channels of communication open between teens, their parents and siblings.

How to start?

For obvious reasons, we are concerned just as much about what one might read aloud as with the act. Many families may choose a mix of devotional scripture or faith-based stories for a younger audience. Both The Read-Aloud Handbook and The Read-Aloud Family have a great list of book recommendations. The Read-Aloud Family also includes a few good audiobook recommendations and some simple crafts or quiet activities to keep little hands busy while parents read!

In this specific handbook, we’ve provided one story that we found to be particularly interesting and useful in teaching good values to families. While the story featured here is from the Korean tradition, the discussion questions and pieces exploring different themes in the story is something that can be done with any story.

As part of this, we will go into the elements of a good story and ways to understand how to bring out the important lessons that lay within the best stories. Many of the most beloved children’s stories have within them important lessons for us in our day-to-day lives. Being able to uncover these lessons in stories can also make us more well-attuned to the lessons that lie in our own stories.

While our efforts are still in its infancy, we hope to develop a wide range of recommendations for just this kind of activity with the mindset of building God-centered families. Please feel free to share your own efforts and discoveries!