When to begin (and end)
At what age should I stop reading to my child?
lmost as big a mistake as not reading to children at
all is stopping too soon. The 1983 Commission
on Reading stated reading aloud is “a practice that should continue
throughout the grades.”7 In this recommendation
the commission was really asking us to model on the extremely
successful marketing strategy of McDonald’s. The fast-food
chain has been in business for a half century, and never
cuts its advertising budget. Every year McDonald’s spends
more money on advertising than it did the previous year,
which comes to more than one million dollars per day.
Its marketing people never think, “Everyone has heard
our message. They should be coming to us on their own,
instead of our spending all this money on advertising.”
Every time we read aloud to a child or class, we’re giving a commercial for the pleasures of reading. But unlike McDonald’s, we cut our advertising each year, instead of increasing it. The older the child, the less he is read to—in the home and in the classroom. A thirty-year survey of graduate students confirms how seldom they were read to in middle and upper grades.8
(and sometimes teachers) say, “He’s in the top fourth-grade reading group—why should I read to him? Isn’t that why we’re sending him to school, so he’ll learn how to read by himself?” There
are many mistaken assumptions in that question.
According to experts, it is a reasonable assertion that reading and listening skills begin to converge at about eighth grade.9 Until then, they usually listen on a higher level than they read on. Therefore, children can hear and understand stories that are more complicated and more interesting than anything they could read on their own—which has to be one of God’s greatest blessings for first-graders. The last thing you want first-graders thinking is what they’re reading in first grade is as good as books are going to get! First-graders can enjoy books written on a fourth-grade level, and fifth-graders can enjoy books written on a seventh-grade reading level. (This is, of course, contingent upon the social level of the books’ subject matter; some seventh-grade material is above the fifth-grader’s social experience and might be off-putting.)
Beyond the emotional bond that is established between parent and child (or teacher and class), you’re feeding those higher vocabulary words through the ear; eventually they’ll reach the brain and register in the child-reader’s eyes.
That’s the argument for continuing the reading to a higher level. Now let’s divert to a lower level. If you’ve got a beginning reader in your home or classroom—five-, six-, and seven-year-olds—and you’re still reading to the child, wonderful! Keep it up. But, if you’re still reading those Dr. Seuss controlled-vocabulary books to the child—like The
Cat in the Hat or Hop
on Pop—you’re insulting the six-year-old’s brain cells nightly!
With either book, you have a volume of 225 words and a six-year-old with a 6,000-word vocabulary. The child has understood and been using all 225 of those words since he was four years old. If this is what you’re still reading to the child every night, there's something wrong with the child if he’s not lying in bed at night thinking, “One of us here is brain dead!”
At age six, you’re a beginning reader. As such, you’ve got a limited number of words you can decode by sight or sound. But you’re not a beginning listener. You’ve been listening for six years; you’re a veteran listener! Dr. Seuss deliberately wrote the controlled-vocabulary books to be read by children to themselves. And just to make sure people understood this was a book to be read by the child and not to the child, the cover of the controlled-vocabulary books like The
Cat in the Hat and Hop on Pop contain a logo with the words, "I Can Read It All by Myself."10 The "myself" is referring to the child, not the parent!
In chapter 3, I explore what you could be reading instead of controlled-vocabulary books, including some chapter books that kindergarten and preschool teachers have used successfully with classes.
Is there one book I can read to both my four-year-old
and my nine-year-old?
Parenting is not supposed to be a time-saving experience.
Here’s a little rule of thumb for parents: If you can’t squeeze your kids into the same size underwear, don’t try to squeeze them into the same size book! In doing that, you end up watering down the reading material to accommodate the lowest common denominator—the four-year-old—and boring the nine-year-old. The solution is to read to them individually, especially if there is more than three years’ difference in their ages.
When my children were young, we read the picture books together. But once Elizabeth was ready for novels, I read nearly all of our novels individually—one-on-one. Today my children are forty-one and thirty-seven, and there's no social or emotional gap between them, but when the same two children were eleven and seven, the gap was sizable. The book that Elizabeth could handle at eleven, Jamie either wasn’t ready for or interested in at seven.
A father in New Jersey, after hearing me suggest reading to children separately, interjected, “Excuse me, but doesn’t that take longer?” Yes it does, sir. Parenting is not supposed to be a time-saving experience. Parenting is time-consuming, time-investing—but not time-saving.
covered in Chapter 2 of print and Web editions of The
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