How – and What – to Read to Siblings
Everyone knows that reading out loud is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. Sharing stories as you cuddle together develops language skills at the same time it strengthens family bonds. It is hard to imagine a more perfect and pleasurable parent-child activity … until a new sibling comes along!
Suddenly, the activity that was once the calmest of the day is turned into a circus, the parental lap into a battle zone. One child tires of the book and wanders into trouble; another demands you read a different story; there doesn’t seem to be a book that suits the ages of each of your children. How can you do it?
As with so many of the challenges of parenting, the answer is part creativity, part determination and part learnable skills.
Be an Expressive Reader
The most obvious solution is dividing and conquering: finding some time each day for the more complicated books your older children require, and asking your older children to amuse themselves while you read the simpler books to the younger ones.
But, as we all know, dividing our children is not usually possible, and the challenge stands: How do you keep children of different ages interested in the same book?
The most effective solution is more dynamic, engaging reading, according to experts. Reading out loud well not only makes reading more pleasurable to a single child, but can make it possible to hold the attention of children of different ages. The techniques used by preschool teachers and library storytime readers everywhere are easily within the reach of all parents.
All the world’s a stage. Children respond to reading out loud when adults are performers in the reading process, according to picture-book author and literacy specialist Mem Fox. Fox, author of Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, says parents should pay attention to the way they read and encourages them to use what she calls “vocal gymnastics” – contrasting voices (loud/soft, fast/slow, high/low) and the all important “p-a-u-s-e.” If you pay attention to the story, she says, the author will tell you when to use each of these techniques:
– the slow or quiet voice for dramatic moments,
– the high or fast voice for moments of great excitement,
– the pause before dramatic changes in mood, and
– the slowing down at the end of the story to bring it to a satisfying close.
We’re in this together. The second role of the adult reader – the conspirator – is equally important, according to Fox. The parent is not only performing, he is sharing the love of reading and delighting in the same silliness. The toddler wanders off, but his attention is recaptured by your enthusiasm when you holler: “There’s another pig! Oh no! Another horse! And look, there’s a cow in this book, and a cow in this book, and another cow in this book! Cows, cows, everywhere!”
Effective readers share the experience of reading itself, asking the child to help supply familiar refrains and predict the rhyming ends of lines. Children love to fill in left-out words: Adult: “Do you like Green Eggs and Ham? I do not like them Sam-I- ...” Child (triumphantly): “Am!”
Enter into a reading dialog.
Involving your children in the reading process not only retains their interest but helps them get more out of the experience. How you read matters as much as how often, according to research conducted by Grover Whitehurst, an expert on pre-reading and language.
Children learn most from books when they are actively involved, rather than passively listening, according to Whitehurst’s research. To help parents learn how to include young children in reading aloud, Whitehurst pioneered a system of reading to young children called “dialogic reading.” Using this approach, parents augment their reading with open-ended questions about the story – questions that require an answer of more than one word. Parents then work with the child on her answer, adding to it and rephrasing it, and have the child repeat back the more complicated answer. Dialogic reading accomplishes two goals at once: holding your child’s attention and increasing her speaking abilities. With children of different ages, you can tailor your questions to their different developmental stages.
Everyone gets a role. Preverbal children can help “read” a book even if they can’t answer questions yet. Invite them to participate in the story by giving them motions to do at particular parts of the story (a hand smacked down on the page to show a splash in the water, for example).