On Reading Aloud

Kate Pitrone

January 1, 2007

I sit cross-legged on the bed, reading out loud, the book in one hand, the baby cradled in another. Arrayed about are the other children. Picture a boy with plastic construction toys, snapping the pieces in and out; making first a gun, then a spaceship, then a mannequin in a funny pose. Thirty some pieces of plastic are made into one fantastical form after another. Next to him is another boy with a drawing pad in front of him, sketching badly men and monsters from his imagination. Sometimes there are single figures and other times the page is filled with patterns or a scene from the story he hears. Another older boy lies on his back, staring at the ceiling, discerning who knows what on the blank white expanse above—no one but he can see the pictures of his mind. In and out of the room, on a little four-wheeled toddler toy, drives a very little boy, who comes and listens when he will for a time, before wandering off down the hall in an adventure of his own making. The fifth boy is my precious baby, and he lies in my lap, head snuggled under my t-shirt, suckling and perhaps even listening. If I am reading poetry, his little foot might swing to the beat of the words. I keep him there as that is his favorite activity, it keeps him quiet and he might sleep. What does he hear, beyond the rhythm and pattern of the language? Who knows? That seems to be enough.

I am reading aloud to my sons. Where are we? In that year, we might have been with Captain Nemo, leagues under the sea, or we may have been with Kipling, in a jungle, with hardly any men about, only animals, who talk to us and to a djinn. Or our talking animals may be from Narnia, where whole worlds are created in one book and vanish in the next. We may be in the Hundred Acre wood, with a boy and his lively stuffed animals; that book begun for the wandering toddler, but listened to by the older boys, who still love being there. We might be in the very different, dense, dim wood of Mirkwood Forest, in the company of dwarves. Twain may take us down the Mississippi or to King Arthur’s court. We were in that latter place, just yesterday, with another author. We might be anywhere else, but in the bedroom, on the big bed and also sprawled off of it across the floor. That, of course, is our true realm, but we make of it what we would.

It is a busy place. Some people think that when children are doing other things while they are being read to, it means they are not listening. That is false. What they hear is made complete by what they do with their bodies while they listen. The problem with making children read to themselves and silently is that it requires them to sit still, which is not natural to them. They might choose not do it at all as the stillness of it is too hard for many of them to bear. When you read aloud to children, their bodies can be as active as they need to be, and the vital information still enters their minds. Their natural restlessness, of both types, the physical and the mental, can be allowed and released when we read aloud to them.

We began reading aloud to our first son when he was about six months old. It would quiet the very active infant if we sang songs or read poetry to him. Something in the rhythmic language, like my heart’s beat from before his birth, perhaps, soothed him. First, I sang the old songs of the nursery, then we used nursery rhymes, then the poetry from the old Childcraft collection of my youth, then A.A. Milne, who entertained us, too.

King John
Put up a notice,

Happily and suitably, the better language in the better children’s literature grabbed my children’s attention as the books with Disney characters never could. The patterns of the language engaged their ears. My children have remembered those poems of their early childhood for these many long years after I read them, repeatedly read them. Best of all, the patterns of that language engaged our collective minds. I found myself speaking to my children in that kind of language and with the rhythmic patterns of the literature that I read to them. My words felt incomplete unless they had a sort of poetry to them. My tongue sought to replicate what my ear had heard from my own mouth. I found myself needing to speak in complete sentences, needing to complete my thoughts. What a gift to child, to have that in his earliest understanding of language. To deny him the goodness that is our language is to impoverish him, no matter what your other circumstances.

“I suggest you clean up your room,
If Papa trips there, it’s your doom!”

“What does ’I am sorry’ mean?
It means I did something wrong,
I should not have done it,
And I won’t do it again.”

The patterns of language in everyday speech are incomplete. We make up for this deficiency with gesture, expression, tone and inflection. Written language must be complete to be clear. When a sentence is incomplete as written, the mind complains, demands revision, but regular spoken language may be sketchy. If all of the language we give our children is of flat things, (“Pick up your toys,” “Do not lie to your mother,” “We do not bite other people,”) then their instruction, while worthy and inclining them to obvious virtue, is yet incomplete. They need more to be fully human. The examples of excellent literature teach them how to be human, even when the purported voice is that of a talking animal.

Our ears take in what the printed word can never give us. Reading aloud combines aspects of language: the completeness of thought of written language with the expression, tone, inflection, and even gesture of the spoken. Playing with words and their sounds on the tongue—Monongahela River, extravagance, cellar-door, contentment, capacity, lavender—are positive pleasures. Say them aloud. The really juicy-sounding words come rolling out like gems from the tongue of a fairy-tale princess. Even ordinary things gain charm in context. Take anything:

The Badger’s winter stores, which indeed were visible everywhere, took up half the room—piles of apples, turnips, and potatoes, baskets full of nuts, and jars of honey; but the two little white beds on the remainder of the floor looked soft and inviting, and the linen on them, though coarse, was clean and smelt beautifully of lavender; and the Mole and the Water Rat, shaking off their garments in some thirty seconds, tumbled in between the sheets in great joy and contentment.

The ordinary is made wonderful and the wonderful is made at home.

Even children who can read can understand far more by ear than they can by sighted reading. A child who could not read more than a bowdlerized version of The Three Musketeers in cartoon or comic book form might be entranced by Dumas, unabridged, when he could never read the language of even the best abridged translation. Children will sit, relatively still, for the longest books as the process of reading a good story is a pleasure, meant to be prolonged.

We might set children in front of a machine and let a professional reader tell them stories. That is good. There are professionals who perform on audio and give you dialects, characterizing the voices, beautifully. Poetry ought to be heard aloud, as it is written to be spoken. A play, read, is a raisin compared to the fine full grape it is when heard with voices on tape or CD. Of course, to see it performed is to know a play at its best. It is full and complete there, the work in it makes it wine, and even if not perfectly done, it is a different experience. When done well, it is a wonder, and even a child loves such a performance. Shakespeare, particularly, is available to all, and we took our children to see and hear his plays so they would love him.

But as parents, we give them ourselves, when we read aloud to them. We give our understanding of what we read, as well as the time involved in the giving. That is better. It is our performance, immediate, fresh, and even a story twice or thrice-told, is a different adventure every time. A child’s favorite nursery rhymes might be retold a dozen times in day, and one never could tell it the exact same way, twice. Reading aloud to another is a performance, and even if a stranger would see it as a bomb, your child will be entranced, as it is you, speaking words that are not of you, nor in your own normal patterns and that is a marvel.

Even to ourselves, as adults, we ought to read aloud. We make our tongues conform to another’s pattern of language, and that frees us from our own, and improves our own language. We have this gift of the English language and what is written in it. To apprehend it best, we ought use all the senses we have available, as more than sight can be involved.

There is also this: we could not afford to travel with our children, but we gave them more than this world through poetry and literature. The house we lived in was our realm, but we gave them many worlds and many perspectives on the world, in the words we gave to them. They saw the world differently every time, with every book, and every author’s vision. We fed our family with more than food. We fed our longings for more than mere life. We took ourselves far and away with the words we found: the words that are the best that men have offered. When we read aloud to our children, we gave them language and vision and a context for the human in the world. They are grown, now, but they still remember.

We reach the end of a chapter. In my room, the daylight is fading. The baby is long since asleep in my lap, and I hope the toddler crawled under his crib and is also sleeping, as he sometimes does. It is far too quiet in the house for motherly comfort when you consider what a two-year-old can get into. “Read another chapter?” a boy says, hoping. I have to fix dinner and find that toddler. I hand the book to the oldest boy. “He doesn’t read it right!” is the complaint. He does not intend to read it aloud at all. The book is his now and he’ll read it to himself. “I’ll read more later, after dinner.” Even the boy reading to himself will be back, then, to listen.

Kate Pitrone teaches English Composition at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio. Prior to her professional teaching position, she home-schooled her six children for nineteen years.