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Make time to read - or hear - a good book

April 18, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”

With this sentence, I began to read aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” to the 9th graders last week. I explained to them that my first exposure to this frightening tale came when I was an eight- or nine-year-old at summer camp and a  counselor read it to us before we crawled into our bunks to go to sleep. Perhaps the counselor thought we would be more inclined toward literature if he read a classic horror tale instead of telling us a common ghost story. Whatever the reason, I didn’t sleep well for the rest of that camp session, and this tale has held a special place in my heart ever since.

The freshmen in Ms. Bray’s English class may have thought that they were beyond being read to. However, as the increase in audio book sales demonstrate, people are just as hungry today to listen to books as they are to read them. While the physical and e-book markets have remained flat, or even decreased according to some counts, the audiobook sector increased by 32 percent in 2018. One study showed that seventy-three percent of audiobook listeners heard the book on their phone.  Whether people are listening to audiobooks while shopping, working out, walking,or doing chores, sales are up, and more people are listening to more books than ever before.

Over the span of history people were listening to stories long before they were reading them. In this day and age, though, we have lost the aural nature of stories, and audiobooks are one way to restore the art of oral storytelling.  As a voracious reader for almost all of my life, I consider myself fortunate to have rediscovered audio books in the past decade. For example, I cannot imagine how reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”, Brené’ Brown’s “Dare To Lead,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” could be as powerful as listening to the authors reading them.  These audiobooks made me think, laugh, cringe, and yes at times, they brought me to tears.

As with just about any topic these days, there’s quite a debate on the merits of listening to books versus reading them.  Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last year called “Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?” According to Willingham,  “research shows that adults get nearly identical scores on a reading test if they listen to the passages instead of reading them.” Nevertheless, as he also explains, there are differences in some cases between reading and listening: for example, we can sometimes interpret a text more effectively when we hear it versus reading it, particularly if it contains nuance or ambiguity. On the other hand, reading a piece of science prose or technical language may be more comprehensible than listening to it, particular as one re-reads to ensure understanding. Perhaps, reading and listening to different types of texts may be the most effective rule of thumb.

However, there is no argument that reading aloud to children, particularly at a young age, can be foundational. We have known for years that reading to children helps with language acquisition and bonding between the child and the reader. Reading aloud also guides children toward understanding patterns of language and increases vocabulary. According to “Why Reading Aloud to Kids Helps Them Thrive” from the PBS Blog, “brain scans show that hearing stories strengthens the part of the brain associated with visual imagery, story comprehension, and word meaning. One study found that kindergarten children who were read to at least three times a week had a ‘significantly greater phonemic awareness than did children who were read to less often.’”

In addition, reading has been shown to benefit children in the affective arenas. Children who are read to are more prone toward empathy, more patient, and more able to delay gratification.  The “Why Reading Aloud...” blog offers helpful suggestions on how to read to children effectively with tips like starting early, reading often, and stopping periodically to check for understanding and discussing what was read.  

So, where does this leave us? To give our children the greatest chance for success, we should begin reading to them as soon as possible, and we should make it a daily habit. There are few other things we can do for our children that will have the same impact. In addition, we need not stop reading to them once they can do it for themselves. Reading to our children at any age offers parents and children an opportunity to share a story, and it teaches them that words are meant to be heard as well as seen.  

Please allow me to close with a quotation from writer Neil Gaiman:

“We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.”