We had a dental appointment yesterday that required us to leave the house by 6:15 a.m. This is super early for us to be out and the kids were groggy as we got into the van. Once on the interstate, my three older kids were telling me how dark it was outside, guessing that it was the middle of the night. Then twenty minutes into driving, one of the boys asked, “Is it right before dawn now?”
The homeschool mom in me did a little victory dance. Yes, it was, I confirmed, and it was darker then while we were driving than it was at midnight, or three in the morning. We were just at the point where the moon and the sun were both mostly or completely out of view.
This felt like a success instead of a merely an observation because we just read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the chapter in which Lucy and Susan are mourning Aslan’s death (hey, now, it’s 2016, this can hardly be a spoiler), there are several references to the degree of light in the sky in relation to the time of night. We stopped and talked about this a little while reading. We didn’t pull up science websites or get out books, we didn’t move and go to look it up anywhere or watch videos, we just discussed it for a few minutes.
If you aren’t the sort of person who loves reading aloud to your kids, I won’t advocate for you to dedicate a large amount of your time to doing something you don’t enjoy. You can do it in small amounts and call it good enough, that’s totally fine.
But if you love reading, you love reading aloud, and you feel like it distracts from “real” school, let me encourage you for a moment. If you feel like you could learn to love reading aloud or like the idea, but aren’t sure if it’s worth it, let me try to convince you.
Reading aloud introduces context for your kids as well as increasing vocabulary. This is why it is important that we read aloud stuff above their own reading level.
Imagine for a moment you are in a hotel, walking to the hotel pool in your flip flops with your pool key in hand. You take a wrong turn and find yourself outside the open door of a conference room. Inside, a small crowd of doctors is listening intently to a fellow physician lecture on new treatment methods for Eisenmenger Syndrome. The language is complex and about specific sizes of medical instruments, all with their own names.
If you are a lay person who has never heard of Eisenmenger Syndrome, this would probably sound something like white noise to you. A lot of blah de blah deh blah. If, however, you were a person with Eisenmenger Syndrome or you yourself were a doctor specializing in heart conditions, even just a few minutes of overheard lecture would make perfect sense to you– it might lead you to seek new treatment or become a better doctor. The context of your years of personal experience or study would make a world of difference in your reaction to those few minutes in the wrong hallway.
Now, instead, imagine your children in a world that seems mysterious and magical and scary and amazing all at the same time. They are struggling to make sense of everything they encounter, by physically testing boundaries or repeatedly asking questions. Being a parent is overwhelming at times. The amount we are expected to teach or explain to our children for them to function as they grow is, at times, staggering. We regularly run up against walls of mistaken belief or gaps in understanding– “I had no idea he didn’t know this,” or “I just thought she understood.” We find ourselves in public bathroom stalls trying to explain what germs are in the “don’t lick the door latch” speech and bewildered at the absence of what seems to us to be “common sense.”
So with all this information to impart– what to do in a fire, what an eclipse is, when it’s okay to talk to a stranger, how to crack an egg, when to flush the toilet– and all the confusing and heartbreaking situations of the world around them– what does it mean to starve? What is kidnapping? What is poverty?– why take the time to read aloud? Why bother? As a distraction?
Reading aloud is a wonderful opportunity to provide your children with context for their world. The fictional experiences and languages of people in the past, or another universe, or one very much like their own, gives them the opportunity to process and sort out what they see and experience in their own lives.
In my house, reading aloud often happens while kids are coloring, or playing with play-doh, or playing with LEGO or Duplo. The general rule is that they aren’t allowed to carry on discussions with each other while reading, but some noise is okay. It might frustrate me when I want reading time that is everyone holding still and listening intently, but that’s not reality. I don’t even listen that way, if I’m honest with myself.
Many times, I’m not even totally sure how much they are processing until they interrupt to ask questions “What does that word mean?” “What does he mean ‘give up the ghost'” “Is he a bad guy?”
The gears are turning. They are sorting, making sense. And the more we read, and the more diverse materials we read, the more they encounter repetition of ideas and words beyond their own scope. They would not know to seek or hunt down this information or these interests without exposure. And then they start applying those same words and concepts to the way they talk about their own lives and the things they see.
When you make the decision to be okay with distractions and interruptions and determine to not give up, when you read and read and read and choose the books you love, give up some, try new ones, wait and try again later on others, you are giving your children the gift of context. You are giving them the gift of being able to talk more deeply and richly about what they see and feel and notice, and perhaps encourage them to see and feel and notice more.
Reading aloud is not a waste of learning time or an indulgence to mere entertainment. Reading aloud is a family process of learning and developing that doesn’t have immediate, measurable results. But our children and our education experiences are not cookies, waiting to be leveled, mixed, baked, and tested. They are gardens that need the slow, patient processes of sowing and weeding and tending to produce season after season of things beautiful because of usefulness and things useful because of their beauty.
So whether you start with ten minutes of an Aesop’s Fable and fifteen interruptions or thirty minutes of a novel and a mountain of coloring pages, go ahead and read. And don’t feel guilty for taking a break from “real” school. Don’t feel guilty if your kids, at first, whine a bit or don’t seem to get much. Stick it out! (There will be an upcoming post about finding the right reading fits for your family– I don’t advocate reading in situations of prolonged dislike or misery.)
Give your kids the gift of being able to talk about that moment before dawn. Give them the gift of appreciating how much the sunrise can mean.