• Grace McKinney

Getting To Know You: Tips for Reading Aloud in the New School Year

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

First things first: we're so happy to have so many more folks with us on this reading expedition! Whether you found us through the AMI E-Newsletter, word of mouth, or some very gracious algorithm, it's a joy to have you here.

It's that new-school-year season, rife with bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils (à la Kathleen Kelly), and it's the perfect time to get talking about the place that stories can have in the academic year. For teachers, that could mean cultivating a love of story and a reverence for the book among a new community of children; for families, that could mean reconfiguring that wobbly summer "schedule" to more regularly include reading aloud at the beginning or end of the day. Whatever your case may be, there are plenty of ways to spark interest in the beauty of shared stories.

I've got a few starter tips as you step into new territory, but it's by no means exhaustive or prescriptive. Just enough to nudge you a little closer to the bookshelf, I hope.

1. Make the space for story telling.

That means both physical and temporal. It's very hard to develop a habit if you have to bend over backwards to make it happen, but it's necessary. In her book The Enchanted Hour, Meghan Cox Gurdon states that"reading aloud is not just a pleasant way to enjoy a story. It is a powerful counterweight to the pull of cultural and industrial forces that with stunning rapidity are reshaping infancy and childhood." So let's get countercultural.

In the classroom, create a library or reading nook that entices the child to explore the books on display there individually. (An added bonus: display shelves that show the books' full covers for ultimate shelf appeal). I tend to include books that have been or will be read aloud in the classroom so that children can have some knowledge in their choices and a little more reason to sit and explore. Consider, too, where small or large group story time can easily land; avoid walkways or not-quite-big-enough spaces for when children drift to join the event. Having a recognizable seat or spot can serve as a visual signal to the children that something magical is about to happen.

At home, making space can look much the same: choose a reading spot that can feel like a safe return each day. It need not be some cozy, secluded chair, smothered with blankets and pillows—it could be the kitchen table, your child's bed, the chair you usually throw clothes on instead. The tricky part at home is typically the time rather than the space. When, oh when, in the back and forth of the day are you supposed to make time for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes of reading aloud? That's up to you. Breakfast book reading? Perfect. After school cool down? Ideal. The classic bedtime story? Pile 'em up.

Intentionally prepare the space in which your children can see the joy of shared stories. They'll see your love for them in that you prepared it, and your love for the story because you're sharing it with them.

2. Fall in love with words.

I'm paraphrasing my Montessori Primary trainer, who told us over and over again that we must fall in love with language, or we'll be hopeless getting children to care. Though it seems like an uphill battle to force yourself to fall in love with anything (I see you, broccoli), I would argue that words are worth the climb and, for that matter, quite lovable. When you start playing with the sound and feel of words in your daily speech—slush, cantaloupe, rhinoceros, linoleum!—you open the door a little wider for the child to step inside. The rhymes, rhythms, and patterns in words can serve as endless opportunities for games. Beyond words, there are sentences. The quick sly fox jumps over the lazy brown dog. Beyond sentences, there are... well, you know. Stories.

3. Start small.

Our goal for children is concentration: deep, immersive concentration. With that goal in mind, we have to create opportunities for them to experience it and sustain it. That means that at this time of year, young children most likely have not stretched that muscle in a while. There is a skill to develop in simply knowing how story time works. Talk about how to hold books and turn their pages delicately. (For those in the Montessori community, this is the time for Grace and Courtesy lessons). When you start reading, choose short books.This is not the time for Burt Dow, Deep Water Man. Choose books familiar to you, and maybe familiar to your children, that let them practice the skill of story time listening. Your primary work at this time of year is building the culture and setting the expectation of what it looks like to share stories. Master that, and then you can hop on the Tidely-Idley in the spring.

4. Think outside the book.

Books, though our most beloved territory, are not the source and summit of stories. People are. Don't rely on the books as a crutch, as rich and powerful as they may be. Tell stories from your own experience. Light a candle to give that fireside-chat feeling and share a memory from the summer or an anecdote from a family vacation. Recite—don't read—a poem. (If you need ideas on this one, Julie Fogliano is a Cosmic favorite when it comes to poetry). Introduce a tongue twister. Share a song. There are so many creative ways to gather around the magic of language. Don't cast them aside!

5. Know your audience.

This is where your own experience comes in. What are the intellectual and developmental abilities of the child you're reading with? Can she grapple with fantasy? Make sense of the sideways humor in a book? Retain information from a single book read across multiple sittings? We have a guide on choosing books for every age group, and we're constantly adding to our library of books for suggestions, but your own experience, training, and relationships with the children in your life can (and should!) guide your choices.

Like I said, these are just a few tips on the very large iceberg of reading aloud and sharing stories. Now, you tell me—what are you reading to start off the school year? What advice do you have for setting a rhythm and culture of reading in your home or classroom? I'd love to know!

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