It all started about fourteen years ago. I already had a habit of reading aloud to my toddler, but for some reason I felt like I’d had a life-altering experience the day I was reading Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn’s Teaching the Trivium and arrived at the place where they recommended reading aloud for two hours per day. As in most every day. My heart swelled a little. I wasn’t sure about all that grammar, logic, and rhetoric stuff, but reading aloud was something I could embrace.
Essentially, they were asking me to do more of what we were already doing.
Naturally, one mustn’t read aloud to a toddler for two hours straight. Spreading it out over the day seemed natural enough — a little after breakfast in the morning, then mid-morning, then again after lunch before naptime, then again after dinner before bedtime in the evening.
I wasn’t aware then that I was setting up a family liturgy. (I’m using liturgy here in the vein of James K.A. Smith — a deeply formative habit — a habit that has impacted the culture of our family as a whole, as well as the character of its individual members.)
So here we are. The toddler to whom I was reading aloud all those years ago is now 16-years-old. In fact, my youngest turned 10 yesterday, which is what caused me to ponder the significance of this whole thing. He has been read aloud to almost every day of his entire life. Because he’s the youngest, he was read far fewer picture books and far more chapter books, and he doesn’t seem damaged by that in the least.
I have been asked many times over the years how we manage to read so many books aloud. So far this year, we’re only on number 16, but the books on our list are lengthy (such as Mornings on Horseback, The Odyssey, and The Fellowship of the Ring). The answer is simple: we have developed an almost unbreakable habit. On nights when I have book club, there is a collective groan, and it has nothing to do with missing their mother — they simply regret skipping the evening reading.
My friend Sarah has literally written the book on reading aloud (which I highly recommend!), so it’s doubtful I have anything to add to the conversation. But still, I maintain.
Reading aloud has so far been the big success of our family life. There are many ways I fail as a mother. There are many times I drop the ball. But one thing I’ve been able to do is fill our life with books — with beautiful stories — with an irreplaceable shared experience.
Here’s the deal: it is really easy to over-complicate things. Even things like reading aloud. So I’ll just share what I have not done for lo these many years of reading aloud:
- I have not planned meals around the book we’re reading.
- I have not planned activities around the book we’re reading.
- I have not planned trips, vacations, or tours around the book we’re reading.
- I have not planned a perfect list of future reads for years to come.
- I have not asked my children questions about the books.
- I have not attempted to have discussions about these books. (This is not to say that discussions have never happened.)
- I have not had them narrate these books or try to recall them in other ways.
- I have not made lessons out of these books.
- I have not chosen books because they met certain noble educational goals.
- I have not put any pressure on this process at all!
And here are some things I have done:
- I have chosen books just because I wanted to read them.
- I have chosen books just because I thought my husband would like them.
- I have allowed my children to choose books.
- I have chosen books that weren’t written for children.
- I have done the obligatory voices and accents.
- I have continued a book until the end even though at least one child was convinced he didn’t like it. (In my experience, the objectors come around 99% of the time.)
- I have read books that were “too hard” for the children.
- I have read books that were “too easy” for the children.
- I have read more than two hours in a day.
- I have read less than two hours in a day.
Reading aloud isn’t this big, fancy thing. It’s just you, your family, and a book — the book you chose, just because. Decent lighting is also imperative.
Now, if you like planning book feasts, that’s great. I will enjoy viewing your photos of said feast on Instagram! But if you had told me all those years ago that reading aloud required trimmings, I would have been crushed. I was already carrying the load of constant morning sickness — the kind that only leaves when the placenta is delivered, and not a moment sooner. The actual reading part was hard enough in those days.
I am so glad someone encouraged me to read aloud to my kids early on. I was reminded of this when I was reading In Memoriam, and came across Henrietta Franklin’s memory of Charlotte Mason:
It was she who told me to read aloud daily to my children; and how possible a daily half hour is even in a busy life I proved for over 20 years. (p. 34)
I’m still years away from being able to say we’ve done it for 20 years, but what I can say is that having a habit of reading aloud is what makes it easy to accomplish.
The renshi at our dojo always asks new white belts, “How do you eat an elephant?” Once they look at him in confusion, the other students reply, “One bite at a time!” And then he explains how karate isn’t learned in a day, but rather one day at a time.
If you want to look back on a life of reading aloud — or a life of anything else, really — it is the dailiness that makes the difference.