It’s not teaching your child new words. Or helping her sound out unfamiliar ones. Or choosing the right books. Or asking lots of questions. No, the most important thing to do when reading aloud to your preschooler is: tell the story.
Your preschooler will become a better listener
Reading aloud to your preschooler is more about allowing her to listen and learn than it is about teaching them to read. There may be no “listening” class in school, but listening is an incredibly important skill for life. Good listeners are good friends, good readers, good learners, and good team members.
Children are learning at multiple levels while they’re listening to good stories. They are picking up new words, creating a mental map of the physical world, and discovering the range of human emotions. They are beginning to construct a moral framework: What kinds of feelings and actions are to be admired and copied?
The best thing you can do is to get your child hooked on stories, that ancient and powerful human art form. “How do we educate the heart?” writes Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. “There are really only two ways: life experience and stories about life experience, which is called literature.”1 Sharing great stories with your child is like giving her more lives to live.
Prepare your preschooler for reading instruction
Storytelling is also a practical and powerful way to prepare children for formal reading instruction in kindergarten and beyond. A young person who has fallen in love with stories will be highly motivated to learn their code. The more they listen, the more knowledge they’ll have. The more they listen, the larger their vocabulary.
So, how can you become a great storyteller while helping your child become a great listener?
First, Reading aloud and telling stories well does not come naturally to most people. Be kind to yourself. Choose one thing at a time to work on, like reading speed or reading expression. Be patient with yourself — and with your child. Listening is a skill your child is developing slowly over time. Give your child the opportunity to settle down before attempting to engage her with your story.
Second, slow down. According to Trelease, the number-one mistake parents make is reading too fast. Children need time to imagine the world being described. They need time to track the plot and anticipate what might happen next.2
Third, use plenty of expression. Change your tone to fit the dialog. Adjust your reading pace depending on what is happening. Speed up for frenzied activity and slow down and lower your voice for suspenseful moments.
Fourth, slowly build up to more sophisticated stories. You may be reading classics like Go Dog Go! or Cat in the Hat to your three-year-old. Excellent! Then, over time, try to work up to high-quality chapter book stories with simple plots and dialog.
Listening to stories helps your child become more knowledgeable about the world
Your goal is to draw your child deeply into stories. To have her on the edge of her seat wondering what is going to happen next. To have them cheering or jeering at the behavior of the protagonist.
George R.R. Martin has written, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”3 The better you are at storytelling, the more your child will want to listen. The more your child listens, the more she will know about the world. The more she knows about the world, the better reader she’ll be later.
By telling stories to your child, you’re introducing her to the many worlds out there beyond the one she knows, and to the wide range of choices human beings can make. It’s a good strategy for great teen SAT scores. It’s an even better strategy for raising curious and empathetic human beings.
Do this one thing
When you read aloud to your child, focus above all on telling the story well.
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- Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook, p. 45.
- Trelease, p. 75.
- George Martin tweeted this on April 23, 2015.