Sunday, September 19, 2010

The magic of reading outloud

What magical force draws kids from all four corners of the house, almost as reliably as the crinkly sound of a candy bar wrapper? What same magical force can an also infuse a jaded writer with new creative energy? I'm convinced there is something wonderfully powerful about reading out loud.

This post is mostly about reading to kids, but I believe there is also an important component to reading out loud that matters to writers, too, so skip down to the "for writers" section if you're interested in that.

Every time I start reading a book out loud to one of my kids, within seconds the other three (age range 3-9 years) gather round with whimsical smiles and dreamy looks on their faces. When my 15 year old stepdaughter is around, she won't act like she's listening, but I can tell she is. There is something magically drawing about hearing a story told out loud.

One of my favorite bloggers and MG/YA author Susan Kaye Quinn has written a great post called Twelve Tips for Reluctant Readers and reading out loud to kids is one of those tips.

In a recent interview at the Writer's Alley she says "kids will do just about anything to get you to spend time with them, including tolerating that paper book thing you insist on reading. Eventually, they’ll get caught up in the story – they can’t help it. Stories are like air for kids; they need them to exist and grow."

Jemi Fraser has another great blog post about how she reads out loud to kids in the grade-school classes she teaches. She specifically says she reads to them for pleasure, and not for some ulterior educational reason (though I think one of the best and lasting ways kids learn is through stories). She says "I've had students come and talk to me years later about their favourite books."

Strangely enough, I don't ever remember my mother or teachers reading out loud to me. But my mother did tape herself narrating a story about her childhood on a farm (I was a city kid, so her farm stories fascinated me), and I must have listened to that tape a hundred times, or more. I'm sure I had it memorized - I can still remember large parts of it.

For writers:

At another one of the blogs I read, like, religiously - Lisa Gail Green's Paranormal Point of View, she had a series of vlogs about developing voice in your writing. And one of her suggestions was to pick up a favorite book and read a scene out loud in character. "Getting into character" - can give you a feel for voice. Is there a particular character that you really enjoy reading out loud, or a particular part of scene that is really easy to "act out"? Those are the parts where the "voice" is coming out nice and strong. Then, Lisa points out the next logical step is to take your character worksheet, write yourself a scene with that character, and then read it out loud. Sometimes the way you end up reading it will not exactly reflect the character you first envisioned - but that's all right - "the character is trying to tell you something and you need to listen to them."

Okay I tried this and at first I felt kind of silly. In fact I purposefully did it after the kids were in bed (and the husband) so I didn't inadvertently collect a crowd. But I have to say, once you start relaxing, this "getting into character thing" really works, and it gave me some fresh ideas to develop my character's voice.

I tell you, reading out loud really is magic.

Recently I've had a blast reading The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, and How to Train Your Dragon, translated by Cressida Cowell, to my kids. The kids especially love it when I get into character for them. My favorite characters to read from these books were Ares, god of war and Harley bike dude, and the Green Death, an awesome Smaug-like evil dragon.

Do you have any favorite read-out characters or books?


  1. My husband was the one who read out loud to the kids, a memory they all remember fondly. I just sang folk songs when they were little.

  2. Awwww that's so sweet - the image of your children gathered around you as you read out loud - lovely!!

    I recall my elder sister reading and acting out her many stories (she used to be such a prolific story writer - what a shame life has shrivelled that out of her somehow..!) Anwyay!! I used to listen to her in rapt attention she was so good at it - and I had the pleasure of watching her do this to her own children. I tried once when I babysat my little nephews but was so self-conscious we decided to watch telly instead! LOL!

    Anyway, I am rambling! I guess the point for me is that I read my stories out loud silently in my head - I'm yet to get to the point where I am able to listen to my voice and relax! But I was blessed with a sister who was and is a natural at this, so I do see how reading out loud can bring characters and stories to life!

    Take care

  3. I love those two books, and I'm intrigued by the idea of "reading aloud" my characters! I just may have to try that...

    I'm so glad you enjoyed the tips on Reluctant Readers! I need to re-read it every once and awhile to remind myself, once again, READ OUT LOUD to the kids. It takes time, but as you say it is MAGICAL. :)

  4. I love reading out loud. My husband's fondest memories of home schooling were when they read out loud to each other.

  5. I work with the elderly and often if we have some quiet time after lunch we read them a story or some poems. It's nice and relaxing, and some staff are particularly good at getting lots of expression into their reading. We find people expecially like to hear poems they may have learned at school, and they can still join in with parts of them.

  6. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of my mom and dad reading out loud to me, my sister, and two brothers. We especially loved The Berenstain Bears, the Little House books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and everything by Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, and E.B. White.

    The teachers always read aloud for pleasure in my grade school (in 1st grade I remember my classes' raucous laughter from hearing Amelia Bedelia stories!) and in the older grades the teachers would play tapes and we'd follow along with our own book copies (that was for grading reasons, though, boo).

    I love reading out loud to my nieces and nephews! Their shining eyes during the story and their sweet begs to read it again takes me back to my childhood. :)

  7. I read out loud to my daughter every night --all through the chapter books until she wanted to read alone:) Loved doing it! It made her a reader today I think.
    I like that idea about finding voice:)

  8. This idea about developing voice is so interesting; thank you for sharing. I do read my stories out aloud to myself, but just for fluency, not actually examining character voices.

  9. Reading out loud is magical!!! My mom read to me as a kid, and I had a few favorite teachers who did as well. Once, a long, long time ago, when I was subsitute teaching, I wasn't given any lesson plans and . . . I searched through my bag, and found a book of humorous short stories, so I read aloud to a classes of Middle School students all day. My voice ended up hoarse, but they loved it, and I was often asked to read while subsitute teaching after that.
    I've been reading aloud to my kids since before they really could understand me, and I'll read to them aloud as long as they'll let me. They are 11 and 9 now, and I hope they'll let me keep reading to them for a while.

  10. Too true! I have a tape recorder and record myself so that I don't naturally fall back into a whisper like I do when I'm reading over something I write. I just have to force myself to read aloud.

    For my kids, they love when I read to them. I let them usually pick the books, but as far as character voices, their favorites are The Wide-mouthed Frog and Chicken Little. They giggle the whole time. :)

    Great thoughts, Margo!

  11. That is an awesome idea and one so simple, I don't know why I didn't think of it. (Smacks forehead.)Thanks! I will have to try that. At 5 A.M. when no one else is awake. LOL.

    You're going to laugh, but the one character that's been "popping" off the page in character voice for me recently is the pigeon from Mo Willems' awesome Don't Let the Pigeon books. I can hear that darn pigeon even now!

  12. I used to love reading aloud to my kids. No matter their age, it always was a good way to spend time together. Now I read aloud to my grandson. :) That's a lot of fun!

  13. I like to read the story of "Stackalee" or Staggerlee as he is most often known. I've ready it to children and to my former students, grades 8 through 12. I've never known anyone who didn't like it. I played the song for them too. It's my all time favorite story to read to kids of all ages.

    Great topic!

  14. Awwww, I'm grinning from ear to ear because my vlog was useful! What do you know? :D I love Susan and Jaime's blogs too! Great post, and not just because you quote me.

  15. Thanks for all the suggestions! Some of these books I haven't heard of - will be picking up the Pigeon book and Wide Mouthed Frog next time I'm at the library!

  16. I actually dropped in here from the "compelling characters" blogfest. I love the Gandalf analysis then this post struck a chord with me. I've read to my kids, but not often enough and not for a while now.

    They lapped up "The Hobbit", and I started in on LOTR but got bogged down in the council meeting at Rivendell, which is a long way into the first book but before the adventure proper really gets moving. I've got to get back into the habit.


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