Of the myriad pieces of advice parents get about raising their kids, here's one that deserves to be at the top of the list: don't stop reading to your kids. Even when they can do it themselves.
Mind the gap
"Parents should definitely continue to read to their kids," says Patricia Hallion, an adjunct faculty member at the graduate program for reading teachers at Salem State College in Massachusetts. "Research has shown that until about eighth grade, kids are able to listen to books at a much higher level than they are able to read on their own.
"The gap is at least three reading levels, and sometimes more," Patricia says. "A lot of children have such depth of comprehension when listening, but their skill for sounding out words impedes them and stops the flow of comprehension when they are left on their own."
When children begin to read by themselves, normally between the ages of 6 and 8, they enter their comprehension gap years that continue typically until they become teenagers. They should certainly read on their own, but for these five or six gap years, adults have an opportunity to bend the branch down and allow children to grasp literary fruit still out of their reach.
Roger Rosenblatt is currently reading to two youngsters at just those very ages--Sammy is 6 and Jessie is 8. They are two of his three grandchildren, all of whom he and his wife are helping to raise since the death of their daughter two years ago.
Roger tells this poignant story in his new book, Making Toast. Among the reassuring rituals Roger engages in with his grandchildren is reading to them (this includes James, who is 3).
Ironically, one of the most important aspects of reading aloud to them, Roger says, is knowing when to be silent. This is particularly true with Sammy, "a very dreamy child," as Roger describes him.
"In the interstices of the reading, I try to lie quietly with him and let him think about it," Roger says. "The whole intention is to encourage children to see reading and books as part of their own imagination. Take your time and give them the dreaming time."
"I think that parents who stop reading aloud to their children when the children learn to read themselves are making a big mistake," cautions librarian and famed book recommender Nancy Pearl (Book Lust, Book Crush). "To read aloud to your child is to give him or her three things: the gift of your uninterrupted time, the unspoken--but obvious--message that reading is important, and a shared experience of entering together into the world of a book."
Nancy and her husband both read plenty to their two daughters past the time the girls could read for themselves. "It's a good way to begin a discussion of a difficult issue," Nancy adds, "but beyond that, it's a pure pleasure to watch a child respond to a book in his or her own particular way."
Same time, same place
Lynda S. Hunter, the head of youth services at the Delray Beach Public Library, says a sense of place can help fill the gap. "I encourage parents to choose a comfortable area and designate it as the 'Story Place.' It can be the parents' bed, or a large comfortable chair. Try to read together at the same time of day or evening. Encourage your child to share the reading but do not make it a condition."
Slow down and savor
The bestselling In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore has tapped into a deep need so many of us feel to slow down in our lives.
It's part of a whole Slow Movement now embracing Slow Food, Slow Exercise, Slow Sex, Slow Art and a slew of others.
It's curious that Honore had his slow epiphany when reading to his own young children. It occurred to him, finally, that it wasn't about rushing through Snow White, leaving out several dwarfs along the way, but slowing and savoring--so very different from his rushed life as a journalist.
Is reading to children like watching a sunset? Who ever wants it to go faster?