The Rewards of Reading Together

Amy and Don Wuerfel featured image

When family members read aloud together, lots of good things happen — including learning, laughter and love.

by Don Hooser

Family members reading together is an ancient tradition that is being rediscovered with delight in many countries. Many families vouch for the importance and pleasure of reading aloud. It is a family activity par excellence.

At the same time, many people lack the ability or desire to read. Thus they read little. The situation can lead to a vicious circle. Lack of skill leads to lack of interest and enjoyment, and lack of enjoyment leads to lack of motivation to improve one’s skill.

Most children learn to read well enough to get through school, but many of them stop reading any more than is necessary. Schools have produced school-time readers, but not lifetime readers. While teaching students how to read, they have failed to teach them to want to read.

Missing motivation

Why don’t more people relish reading? The search for the answers to that question began in earnest with the 1955 publication of the book Why Johnny Can’t Read. Since then much research has confirmed a major conclusion: Reluctant readers were not read to as children.

Since reading is the single most important skill in education, the National Commission of Reading formed in 1983 to study what works and what doesn’t work in teaching reading. After two years of intensive research, in 1985 the commission’s members published their report, Becoming a Nation of Readers. Note their conclusion: “The single most important activity . . . for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” If parents want their children to be readers, they need to read aloud to and with them.

Why is this so? First, success in many endeavors depends most of all on attitude. More than any other single activity, in or out of school, reading aloud has the greatest impact on building positive attitudes about books and reading.

A secondary reason is that regular reading aloud strengthens children’s language skills—in reading, writing and speaking. Why is that so? Because it improves children’s listening comprehension. Listening comprehension must come before reading comprehension.

In the United States Jim Trelease is the best-known advocate of reading aloud to children. Those who read his book The New Read-Aloud Handbook will likely be sold on the value of reading aloud with family members. The book answers the common questions on the subject and teaches parents how to be more effective when reading aloud.

Overcoming obstacles

Why aren’t parents, grandparents, older siblings and teachers reading aloud to children like they used to? It’s largely because television, overly busy schedules and modern education that places too much stress on assignments that can be measured and tested. But parents shouldn’t rely only on schools to teach their children to read, and we can turn off the TV and give children the full attention they long for and need.

You say you just don’t have the time? A mere 15 minutes a day is often sufficient, unless you and your child choose to read longer than that. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We spend our time doing the things we think are most important. Each of us must decide: How high on my priority list is the academic, mental, emotional and spiritual development of my child? How important is spending time with him?

Youngsters need to be introduced at a young age to the pleasure, joy and adventure of reading. Parents who tell stories and read to their children and have their children read to them mold them into devoted readers. They instill in them a lasting love of literature, a deep appreciation for the printed word and a fondness for lifelong learning. Adults can ignite the spark of desire in their toddlers and fan its flames throughout their youth.

Later benefits from reading

Some parents stop reading with their children as soon as the children can read for themselves. This is a mistake. When a child becomes a reader, he can take his turn at reading aloud, and reading with his parents and siblings continues to provide the same benefits and pleasures. We never get too old for a good story.

As a child ages, reading with their siblings and parents is important in a different way. It helps to keep the lines of communication open. Children may open up more about a relationship problem after reading about a similar problem. As children face moral temptations and dilemmas, the situation in a story and the relaxed togetherness with parents may lead to a helpful discussion.

Family members reading together helps bind families together. Reading, unlike TV viewing, is a social experience. Members of the family can stop anytime to talk about the story and laugh or cry together. Reading funny, sad and inspiring stories builds emotional bridges as members share matters of the mind and heart. Reading together is an ideal activity to draw and keep us together, to snuggle and benefit from the healthful tonic of touch. The whole experience is the making of pleasant memories and warm love.

The benefits of reading are illustrated by a poem by Strickland Gillilan, “The Reading Mother”:

You may have tangible wealth untold:

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be—

I had a Mother who read to me.

Fathers, too, need to get involved. When mothers do all the reading, boys get the idea that reading is not masculine and then lose interest. This is a reason most of the children in remedial-reading classes are boys. Fathers need to support and participate in reading aloud.

What about the competition of TV? Spending significant time watching television has many negative effects. Even when a family avoids TV’s moral trash, TV viewing can detract from time that could be spent in more-beneficial activities including reading, thinking and communicating. Unlike reading, passive TV viewing stifles imagination and creativity. Intellectual junk food smothers children’s mental and emotional development. Children’s TV-viewing time needs parental regulation and rationing.

If mishandled, reading aloud can be monotonous and boring. Here are a few suggestions to keep it interesting:

  • Make sensible choices of reading materials—not too difficult and not too easy.
  • Read together regularly with your children.
  • Choose reading together for short sessions more often than reading together for a few long sessions.
  • Don’t let a session go longer than a child’s attention span.

Be enthusiastic and use expressive tones of voice. Modulate your voice to fit the dialogue. If a story contains words or sections that are boring or too difficult for the child to understand, skip over them or change them. In other words, talk the story. Vary the pace. Don’t read too fast. Slow down during a suspenseful part. Take time to discuss what you just read.

Suggestions for reading

What should you read? A vast variety of valuable literature is readily available: wonderful books, stories, poems and articles. In general, pick subjects that you know will be interesting as well as wholesome and profitable to your children.

Choose literature that clearly communicates right vs. wrong, that glorifies virtue and condemns vice. We can learn so much about how to live and how not to live by the heroes and villains of fiction and nonfiction. If your child’s school is neglecting important subjects such as history and the great leaders of the past, include those subjects at home.

The New Read-Aloud Handbook gives many suggestions for good read-aloud books (not all good books are good for reading aloud). The author, Jim Trelease, also edited the book Read All About It! Its subtitle is Great Read-Aloud Stories, Poems, and Newspaper Pieces for Preteens and Teens. Both books are published by Penguin Books.

The book no one should be without

The volume we most highly recommend is the Bible, a perennial best-seller around the world and the foundation of all proper knowledge. Even when the Bible is judged only as literature, the scholars of the world consistently rank it among the world’s greatest works of literature. Actually, it is a collection of a wonderful variety of types of literature.

Many great men and women of history have appreciated the Bible. Notice what some American presidents have said:

George Washington: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

Abraham Lincoln: “This book . . . is the best gift God has given to man . . . But for it we could not know right from wrong.”

Theodore Roosevelt: “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: “I feel that a comprehensive study of the Bible is a liberal education for anyone. Nearly all of the great men of our country have been well versed in the teachings of the Bible.”

To underscore the unique importance of the Bible, including its divine origin and purpose, The Good News has produced several accompanying articles about this Book of all books in this issue. Be sure to read them because they explain how the absolute truths of the Bible are relevant and applicable to our everyday lives.

Family Bible reading

Everything said so far in this article is applicable to reading the Bible aloud. When family members read the Bible together, they draw closer to each other as well as to their Creator, who inspired the Bible.

Everyone love stories, and the Bible is largely a collection of stories. Even most of the instructive parts are presented within a story flow. The Bible has an abundance of action and adventure, heroes and villains, tragedies and triumphs, drama and emotion.

Some parents feel inadequate or even hypocritical in taking the lead in Bible reading. But God doesn’t want parents to wait until they overcome their flaws before they teach the Bible to their children. Ask for God’s help and He will answer. Reading the Bible gives parents increasing strength to overcome their own faults.

Some have made brief attempts at reading the Bible and concluded it is hard to understand and boring. When reading to children, remember the suggestions above for making it interesting. One can skip sections that seem uninteresting, hard to understand or relatively unimportant without distorting the overall message. One can paraphrase and summarize sections in one’s own words.

Children understand much better when a parent chooses a modern version of the Bible rather than the King James Version with its often-outdated language. Though some versions of the Bible are more accurate than others and should be relied on for serious study, almost any version of the Bible conveys the lessons fairly accurately. The Bible quotations in The Good News are mostly from the New King James Version, which is similar in wording and accuracy to the King James Version but uses modern English. Or a parent may choose to use the King James Version and substitute a modern synonym each time he encounters an archaic word.

What does the Bible say about itself? The apostle Paul reminded Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Today’s English Version). Paul knew that reading the Scriptures was and would always be the most profitable reading possible.

Paul told Timothy: “. . . From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation . . .” Timothy was greatly blessed to have been grounded in the Scriptures during his early years. His grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, had taught him God’s Word and had served as his role models in the faith (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14-15).

The importance of teaching children

In Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus revealed that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our fellowman. The Bible can be summed up as the Instruction Book that teaches us how to love God and how to love our neighbor.

In stating the first great commandment, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Notice what follows: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (verses 6-7).

Words are “in your heart” after you repeatedly hear them, think about them, believe them and apply them. To “teach them diligently” is accomplished partly by parents reading the Bible to their children and explaining its passages. To “talk of them” shows the importance of encouraging interactive responses, comments and discussion during Bible-reading time. It also indicates parents should daily point out biblical principles and their applications.

Of the New Covenant God said, “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). Parents can greatly aid the process through family Bible reading.

Another help to absorb God’s Word is memorizing key scriptures. Encourage children to learn important verses while they have strong memories.

Why is family Bible reading so important? First, God’s Word is the most important subject by far for our children to learn! Second, childhood is the best time to start learning God’s Word. Children are naturally more teachable and pliable than adults. As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined.

The Bible verifies that information and lessons taught during childhood can have a lifetime effect. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6, New American Standard Bible). To put it another way, the knowledge he learns as a child won’t depart from him.

Provide spiritual nourishment

Most parents want to be good providers, as we are told to be in 1 Timothy 5:8. But God wants parents to provide not just the physical necessities, but spiritual nourishment. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).

For very young children, select parts of the Bible they can easily understand. Often what works best is for the parent to learn a Bible story well and then tell it in his own words. One can use children’s Bible-story books, but be aware that they vary considerably in quality and biblical accuracy.

Some of the most beneficial parts for young children are stories from throughout the Bible (with their lessons) and clear Christian-living teachings. The book of Proverbs is directed especially to children and offers practical advice on all aspects of life.

Family Bible study can include information and material that is related to the Bible as well as the Bible itself. Some books about the Bible are quite accurate and interesting. Nonbiblical stories and articles that teach good lessons and values can be worthy supplements to Bible reading. The Good News publishes many booklets and the Bible Study Course that can help in understanding the Bible, Christian living and God’s purpose for mankind.

Children generally learn more when teaching is interactive. Encourage them to ask questions and make other comments. Bible games can make learning fun, and some games don’t require buying anything. Quizzing each other about the Bible can be fun while it reinforces young memories. For those with computers, many Bible-related software packages, including games, are available.

Many Bible stories and other worthwhile stories have been recorded on videotape and audiotape. Listening to recordings with family members can supplement other teaching methods.

Parental responsibility to teach

Regrettably, a strong anti-Bible bias exists in today’s educational system. Parents need to support their children by teaching them the basic truths and moral values God’s Word offers.

Now a word to fathers in particular: We earlier emphasized the value of fathers reading to their children. Notice that the Bible, too, emphasizes the need for fathers to be fully involved in the spiritual education of their children: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, Revised Standard Version).

Family Bible reading and family prayer are two ways to fulfill this admonition. Fathers reading with and talking with their children help “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).

According to Scripture, teaching children is a top-priority parental responsibility. It is a priceless accomplishment when you teach your children the lifetime habit of reading and studying the Bible. It’s even more wonderful if this gratifying family tradition carries on from generation to generation.

The apostle Paul wrote of the need for people to have “the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Parents can help cultivate in their children a love for the truth of God’s Word that, in turn, will lead to wisdom, faith, character and eternal life.

When members of a family read aloud together, and especially when they include reading the Bible, they truly are doing something worthwhile that will last. Their minds are enriched and expanded as they explore great literature. Their personalities and character are molded both by the wonderful words and the way the words are spoken and shared.

The children will likely become better readers, they will enjoy reading more, and they will become lifetime readers. Someday, when those children have children of their own, they will read to their children. GN