Keep the Story Going by Lynne Vanderveen Smith
If you are anything like me, you have fond memories of having a child curled up in your lap as you shared a story. It might have been your own child or your grandchild. Remember how they often had a book they loved to hear over and over. You almost got to the end of a story and heard, “Read it again!” My father and son developed a great memory of a book that they shared. It was truly boring with no story so Dad made up a story, and they “read” that book continuously. So why did we quit doing reading aloud? Those toddlers turned into a school aged children who went off and learned to read without us. And we let them read and read without us. But why let it go on – without us? Why not continue these treasured times together?
Looking back, I know that people have always loved a good story. Earliest civilizations had rich heritages of stories passed down through the oral tradition from one generation to the next. Gatherings with family and friends have always become time to reminisce about wonderful times gone by. Who didn’t love a good ghost story around the campfire? I enjoyed hearing authors read their works in person – Angelou, Alexie, McCourt, Kingsolver… There are times that I have read a passage so wonderful that I had to share it with someone. Just look at the abundance of recorded books for proof that reading is enjoyed by all ages.
As a high school English teacher, I used picture books in my classroom to introduce subjects, spark conversation, or illustrate a technique. When I pulled out a picture book the first time, the kids looked skeptical. But as the year went on, they became excited when the picture books appeared. They’d shout “Story time!” A couple of small classes wanted to sit on the floor to hear the story just like when they were little. Once while my yearbook staff worked in one area, I read an assigned story to two learning support students. As I read “The Gift of the Magi” from a beautifully illustrated picture book, I was suddenly surrounded by many teenagers wanting to hear the story and see the pictures.
And so I began my journey of reading aloud with teens. I read aloud Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Jackson’s “The Lottery” before discussing them. I read the first chapter of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The next day I had students who were not avid readers telling me, “I can’t believe how that book ended!” Once a student expressed his opinion that everyone should read Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. I reminded him of how few did assigned reading and asked for suggestions. His recommendation? Read it to them. And I did. We started the first chapters reading one daily. When Mitch and Morrie decided to meet on Tuesdays, a student suggested we do the same. On Tuesdays, they would bound in the door announcing “It’s Tuesday! Time for Morrie!”
Our senior English teacher also read aloud. She prefaced the reading of Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian by telling students that they didn’t have to listen. They didn’t have to do anything except be quiet and respectful while she read. Soon they were all wrapped up in the story. She had one place in the book where she would finish a chapter at a particularly gripping part and act as if she had finished for the day. The seniors would scream, “No! Don’t stop there!” She’d grin and tell them they had to beg for more. And they did.
Late in the year students often told me which pieces of literature they liked the best. It was no surprise that the most common titles were the ones I read aloud. They liked hearing stories read with the inflection and emphasis of a storyteller. Some of the teens who were not strong readers said they liked it because the piece “sounded like a story.” Most associated being read to with good memories and just enjoyed it.
Let experiences like these from your past, inform your current reading habits. The academic benefits of reading aloud to children are well documented. Reading aloud develops vocabulary beyond ordinary conversation. It develops a reading habit, curiosity, the ability to concentrate, and other valuable skills. However, what I consider most beneficial about reading aloud with older children is that it continues and reinforces that bond we started early on. These older children and teens won’t cuddle up on your lap, but the habit of sitting close can stay. The time spent together enjoying something that has been part of their lives from their earliest memories is precious.
During the time spent reading and conversing together, we get to know each other better and keep in touch with what is happening in our children’s lives and thoughts. Like having family dinner, reading is a beneficial, enjoyable time to slow down and just be together. Likewise, both should be integral elements of family life as they are vital in uniting family together in shared experience and conversation.
So grab a good story and your family for story time. Read on road trips. Share passages from what you are reading. And enjoy the time with your children of all ages.
Lynne Vanderveen Smith worked as a high school English teacher and middle/high school librarian before retiring from public education after more than thirty years. She now works as a children’s librarian planning library programs for middle grade students and doing story time programs for preschoolers at the Cleve J. Fredericksen Library in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, where they have story times for Baby and Me (under 2), two year old groups, three year old groups, and Picture Book Time for 4-6 year olds.