I can remember my mother reading to me nightly when I was a child; I still have many of those Beginner Books she bought—THE CAT IN THE HAT, THE BEST NEST, MR. PINE’S PURPLE HOUSE. I can also remember my father telling me his vividly imagined stories of chain people with fiery eyes; undaunted rabbits; determined frogs; and a serial involving a special dragon named Cree, his foster father Jeremiah, and the magic forest whence they came. I fell asleep to those nightly narratives, and my dreams continued the stories long after my parents stopped speaking.
So when my first child was born, I felt like I should carry on the tradition that my parents established with me. Lull her to sleep with the cadence of poetry and prose, introduce her to the concept of storytelling and vocabulary. But I’m a reader, not a speaker. I’m not particularly fond of the sound of my own voice, so I don’t like talking just to hear myself talk. And I don’t love reading aloud for the same reason.
Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan, author and literacy advocate, says that parents should begin reading to their children at birth, and continue well beyond the age when they can read fluently on their own. “When you read a book or a story, you’re exposing your child to more complex and challenging vocabulary than they can read on their own,” she says. “As you’re reading, you can talk about those words as well as the context in which they appear.”
But it’s more important than vocabulary building, she says. “Early exposure to literature impacts a child’s conceptual development. It adds knowledge networks that enable the child to learn faster in the future. They’ll be able to gather information more efficiently and comprehend it more thoroughly. Even in a world where information is available via so many other media, the primary source of knowledge comes from the printed word.”
Interestingly, reading from a text is more informative than telling a story. “When you invent a story, even a wonderful one, you’re likely to use more colloquial, familiar speech. Books offer more unusual, unique, dramatic vocabulary in sophisticated context,” Neuman says. “The unfamiliarity factor is what drives the learning.”
Since I couldn’t in good conscience let my babies’ brains shrivel to the size of walnuts, I had to get over the discomfort of reading aloud. And, as you would imagine, they don’t care if I sputter or stutter or lose my place or use terrible inflection. They love listening to books, regardless of how they’re delivered.
Even after more than ten years of doing it, I still cringe at the sound of a story being carried on my own voice. I wish I sounded like Emma Thompson, who just released an audio version of The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit, with lovely intonation and pacing—the way a story should be read. But I, with my ambiguous Southern accent and poor acting skills, continue to read to my children—and not because Susan told me to and not even because I want them to have rich vocabularies and a penchant for reading.
The truth is, I do it for the giggles.