It is a quiet weekday evening in a typical home with school-aged children. Homework is completed and tucked in backpacks, children are bathed and in their pajamas, and the bedtime hour is closely approaching. A parent carefully selects some reading material and recites an interesting story to their child. The parent exudes enthusiasm, inflections in tone, and other parental tricks to make this reading time interesting and pleasant for both the parent and the child.
Yet something is different. It’s 9 p.m., not 7 p.m. The setting is not the character-themed bedroom of a young child, but the family room of the house. The parents are not nestled into a cozy single bed, but are sitting on a sofa, as are their children. The stories are not Where The Wild Things Are or The Cat In The Hat. These are articles from national magazines and newspapers, or a chapter or two from a popular young-adult book. And the children are not young elementary-aged, but middle and high-schoolers. Let’s clarify the situation: The parents have found an interesting story in the daily newspaper or a favorite magazine, and they are sharing the story with their older child. Maybe the parent is even reading aloud a chapter in a contemporary teen novel.
By the time your child reaches their teens, they have been reading independently for several years. So, is this scenario really necessary? Yes, reading aloud to your child can and should continue into the teen years.
Why not? It’s done in the classroom
Teachers have been advocating read-aloud sessions in the classroom at the upper levels for years. In the Education Week article, “Reading Aloud To Teens Gains Favor Among Teachers,” author Mary Ann Zehr points out that this practice is not exclusive to a language arts classroom: “English teachers are reading aloud to teenagers, classics ranging from the Odyssey to Of Mice and Men. History and social studies teachers are voicing the words of the Declaration of Independence and letters home from U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War. Even some math and science teachers are reading to adolescents in class.”
The Sir Cumference series and Flatland are books read aloud in math classes, while Animal Farm has been a staple in social study classes for years. Teenagers are a captive audience when this occurs during class because they are at an age at which having an adult read aloud to them is almost non-existent.
Research supports it
Let’s take a look at some of the research that supports the positive benefits of reading aloud to pre-teens and teens. Lettie K. Albright, an associate professor of literacy at Texas Woman’s University, presented findings from a study of a reading aloud program involving eighth-grade students. Teachers surveyed reported that reading aloud “builds middle school students’ knowledge in content areas, helps them have positive attitudes toward reading, and helps increase their reading fluency.” The teachers in this survey stated several justifications for reading aloud to their students — create interest in a specific topic, model fluent reading, and expose students to a variety of genres. However, the most important reason of all was to foster a love of reading. These above-mentioned reasons are worthy enough to encourage parents to implement this practice at home.
I recently shared four articles with my teenage daughters. The first two came from Time. One article, “What Reality TV Can Teach Reality Politics,” takes a look at the reality-TV format of the presidential campaigns and compares the campaigns to the show Survivor. The other, “In Our Over-Documented Lives, Letting Go Has Gotten A Lot Harder,” explores how our children are growing up with digital banks of memories, occasions, letters, pictures, etc., that will be a constant reminder of their past. Both daughters are interested in the presidential campaigns and, of course, they are involved with digital devices, so these articles were of interest to them.
Earlier this year, New York Times magazine published its music issue, and this was a huge hit with our family. Both the song “Say No to This” by the Hamilton cast and “Stressed Out” by 21 Pilots were featured in the article — something that resonated with each daughter. Even dated reading material can be of interest. There was an article in a 2012 Town & Country magazine chronicling the epicurean adventures of an American chef in some of the most innovative restaurants in Hong Kong — perfect for my daughter who was born in China and longs to be a chef someday. The point: We can reshape our thinking of reading aloud to our kids when they get older, but we should not eliminate it altogether.
Home vs. school
Contrary to the classroom, home is an environment where reading will not be followed by a comprehension quiz or a paper outlining character development throughout a novel. Parents have the opportunity to read aloud to their children for pure enjoyment — for both the parent and the child. Try to think of the last time this was done. Many parents discontinue reading aloud to their child once their child has mastered independent reading. A parent feels they have done all they can do by providing a good base of reading skills when the child was younger. There is absolutely no doubt this is true — a parent reading to a child is one of the best gifts the former can give (both educational and emotional). However, there are still many advantages to continuing this practice. The parent now has the opportunity to read aloud something that is enjoyable to them as well as opposed to one more reading of Pinkalicious.
What reading aloud offers
When I was involved in the Literacy Leadership Team at my previous school, we were working with the book Igniting A Passion For Reading by Steven L. Layne. Layne is a professor of literacy education at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., and his book is used by educators across the county to help support literacy in the classroom — across content and grade levels.
It is important to remember that language in everyday conversations lacks correct grammar and sentence structure, challenging vocabulary, and enriched detail — the written language makes up for these deficits. In order to develop eloquent and expressive communication skills, children need to continually hear appropriate and sophisticated language, and a great deal of this can be done through reading aloud.
Layne points out that children are able to listen and comprehend at a higher level than they are able with silent reading on their own: “When we are reading aloud from text beyond a student’s listening level, we are actually bringing him more mature vocabulary, more sophisticated literacy devices, and more complex text structures than he would meet in text he could navigate on his own.”
In addition to exposing your child to a more advanced level of communication, you are also validating their interests by sharing something you feel they would enjoy. The reading can then lead to further discussion about the material. As Layne points out, “Reading aloud is such an intimate act, the conversations that take place surrounding the book being read matter; they matter a lot, and the kids remember.”
What should you read to your teen?
Bank Street College of Education’s article, “Reading Aloud With Children Twelve & Older,” illustrates the numerous benefits that reading aloud offers to the parent/child relationship.
The material that is selected to read is just as important as the act of reading itself. There are scores of articles in national newspapers and magazines that feature stories of interest to our teens and topics they confront every day in school. There have been recent articles on transgender teens, teachers having guns in the classrooms, the death of Prince, issues important to teens in the presidential elections, Syrian refugees, Coachella music festival, and Steph Curry’s amazing basketball skills.
Books in the young adult genre also address some of the more edgy topics that are important to teens, such as violence, drug use, teen pregnancy, bullying, and challenging issues with family and friends. Just because your child gravitates toward these types of books does not mean they are experiencing the specific topic of the book. Many times teenagers are looking for a vicarious experience through literature — something they would not experience in real life but on which they still hold a curiosity.
As mentioned in the Bank Street article, the impression this has on your teenager is much greater than just the reading of the article, especially if there is discussion about the issues: “The impact of this activity may be even greater and more crucial at this point in a young person’s life. A great read-aloud tells a teenager they are not alone in feeling awkward and uncertain. Throughout the characters’ fictional or real-life emotional journeys, young adults learn strategies to handle social situations and conflicts resulting in their own increased self-confidence.”
A special promise
Many in education regard Jim Trelease as the guru of reading aloud to our children. His book, The Read-Aloud Handbook, contains a wealth of information to help parents read aloud to children of all ages.
In the book, Trelease tells the story of a father named Jim Brozina, who read aloud every night to his oldest daughter until she announced, in fourth grade, that she was now of age where she could read on her own, thus ending the nightly reading ritual.
Determined not to let this happen with his youngest daughter, Brozina decided to create a little game — they made a promise to read 100 nights straight. When that goal was reached, his daughter wanted to create a new goal. Ultimately, they reached the grand number of 3,218 nights in a row. Amazingly, this continued despite sickness, prom, divorce, and other daily activities that can threaten such a mission.
However, there was one milestone that proved too difficult to continue the streak — college. The last reading he did was the final chapter of a book on her first night away at college. The story also mentions that Brozina worked for an elementary principal who felt that reading aloud was a waste of valuable instructional time. Well, let’s see: Brozina’s daughter earned all As and one B in college, won two national writing contests, and wrote a book one year out of college, The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared. Not too bad for someone that received 3,218 nights of “wasted instructional time.”
I have an old picture displayed in my home of my family when I was about 8. The setting is a woodsy bluff over the Jack’s Fork River in central Missouri. My father is sitting on a rock with a book in his hand (probably a tale about Native Americans, my father’s favorite). My brothers, ages 5 and 11, along with myself were sitting facing him. Here was our family in the middle of the woods listening to a story my father was reading.
I can honestly say I have not thought about that moment for about 40 years, but now I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was common practice for my father to carry a book, usually of short stories, with us when we went on these nature hikes. We would take a little break, have a snack, and listen to these stories. I can remember my father continuing this practice with the reading of Little Match Girl at Christmas and sharing various stories from the newspaper. This was all a wonderful way to bring the family in, if only for a brief moment. Keep in mind that you are not simply reading to your teenager: You are creating memories they will remember for a lifetime — or at least for 40 years.
Tips for Reading Aloud to Your Teen
• Scour book lists to find reading material that would be of interest to you and your teenager — there is something out there for everyone. If you enjoy the book, you will enjoy reading it to your teenager.
• Select a book/movie combination. Read the book, then watch the movie. This provides an opportunity for discussion in comparing the two.
• Do not rule out graphic novels and comic books. These can be very appealing to some teenagers.
• Always keep reading material in the house, car, etc. Magazines and newspapers provide opportunities for quick reads. Keep in mind that magazines are an excellent resource to support a teenager’s interest. There is a magazine out there for almost any interest, sport, or hobby of a teenager (see world-newspapers.com/youth.html).
• Our teenagers will do what we do, not what we say. Model good reading habits for your child. Set aside time each day for them to see you reading something in a magazine, newspaper, or even on the Internet. Let them see that you value reading and learning.
• Carefully select the time you read to your teen. Trying to share an article during the morning rush might not be the best idea — for both parents and teens — however, gathered around the table during dinner might be a little better. Sharing a brief article at the beginning of the meal can lead to some interesting discussion during the remainder of the dinner.
• Be sure to have the adults of the house take turns sharing their reading interests. One parent might be more into fiction while another might prefer biographies. One parent might prefer hard news stories while another enjoys the opinion section. Don’t feel you need to read an entire article to your teenager — maybe just an interesting section or a vivid description you think they might enjoy.
• Above all: Always make it enjoyable. This is a time when reading has absolutely no strings attached to it. It is done simply for the pure enjoyment of sharing something between a parent and a teen.
How To Select Reading Material
There are many websites that offer suggested teen reading. Libraries and literary publications also offer lists of the top-selling teen reads. Below is a list of some websites to help get you started on your book selections:
goodreads.com/shelf/show/teen — Provides an extensive list of the most popular YA books on the market. The site also provides information on each book such as page count and customer reviews.
theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/mar/06/word-book-day-ten-best-teen-reads — Contains a wealth of information for parents and teens. There are several different suggested teen reading lists: “Top Ten Books” (The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Jane Eyre); “Books That Will Change the Way You Think” (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Book Thief, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time); “Books That Help You Understand You” (The Catcher in the Rye, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Outsiders); “Books That Make You Cry” (The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men, The Kite Runner); “Books That Make You Laugh” (Catch 22, Geek Girl, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), “Books That Scare You” (Lord Loss, The Shining, 1984); “Books That Teach You About Love” (Pride and Prejudice, How I Live Now, Wuthering Heights); “Books That Thrill You” (Gone, Skulduggery Pleasant, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones); and “Books That Transport You” (Life of Pi, Northern Lights, The Great Gatsby).
teenreads.com — Provides a variety of information for parents and teens, such as suggested reading lists, information about authors, reviews, and books soon to be released. The site offers several suggested reading lists, including a banned books list (books the site feels would be perfect reads for teens — interesting and a little edgy — yet they are banned in at least one school or library in the United States.
amightygirl.com — Features more than 2,000 books designed to empower girls. The website provides various filters to make selections by age and genre. This site lists books for age ranges from toddlers to adult. A brief synopsis of each book is also provided.
insidedog.com.au — This Australian-based website gets its interesting name from a Groucho Marx quote, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Visitors can find book selections, read and share book reviews, engage in book discussions, and learn more about writers through the writer’s blog.
readingrants.org — This site has been around for almost 20 years. During this time it has provided book reviews and now solicits reviews from teens. The reading lists are divided into categories with interesting names that reflect the themes of the books on the list such as “Bare Bones” (weight issues and eating disorders); “Closet Club” (gay teens)’ “Deadheads and Mosh-pits” (being in a band); “Spectacular Speculative Fiction” (science fiction); “The Silver Pentacle” (witches and witchcraft); and “Word Up!” (poetry written by teens for teens).