Recently, I have been thinking about my mother reading books aloud to us girls during our preschool years. Of course it happened: that’s how I knew about The Three Little Kittens, Blueberries for Sal, and Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka. Every Saturday Mother visited the library for books to get her through the week – and some for us. Supposedly we each chose a book for her to read. As our number gradually grew to four little girls, I heard a paltry four stories a day. My entire goal in going to school was to learn to read lots of books every day all by myself. I cannot for the life of me, however, recall any of those long-ago read-aloud sessions, nor can I even conjure up the sound of Mother’s voice reading The Little Engine That Could or The Gingerbread Man.
Fortunately, our elementary teachers also read to their classes, most often after lunch and the extended noon recess to settle our brains and refocus our attentions. Third grade was a banner year because Mrs. Rushaw introduced us to both sets of the Bobbsey Twins: Nan and Bert, Freddie and Flossie at the circus, at the seashore, or on a ranch. I so wanted to be a Bobbsey kid! The next year we listened to Mrs. Calland read Black Beauty. And when I showed her my copy of a Ginny Gordon-Girl Detective book, she read it to the whole class. Wow!
My fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Panaanen taught us all about outer space because America was racing the Russians to arrive there first. But my classmates and I were beside ourselves at her mid-year departure after her minister husband’s reassignment. We didn’t want to like her replacement, who was certainly no Mrs. Panaanen. But to this day I clearly recollect Mrs. Zimmerman’s rendition of Casey at the Bat, every word, every emotion – and the subsequent lack of joy in Mudville.
In my final year of elementary school, Mrs. Reeves read to us twice daily. She started the day with a chapter from her Bible story book. Every year she included The Yearling as an after-lunch book; every year she cried when the fawn was shot. It was an experience etched in our memories.
And then the reading aloud stopped. Junior high and high school conducted business differently – without recess or the need to settle and focus, I guess. It was then I entered a new phase of reading aloud: I became the reader.
I read to my baby brother during holidays and college breaks. When nieces and nephews began to arrive, Aunt Shirley was always good for a story – or five. A performance reader, I was loud and dramatic, often creating distinct voices for each
character. Even in Germany, Miriam and Alexander collapsed into hysterical laughter when they realized Green Eggs and Ham meant Gruenes Ei mit Speck.
All too soon, however, my audiences grew up and moved away. I haven’t read a story aloud in this century, and it has been a good six decades since I have heard a story read to me.
Instead, I have focused too much on how a child’s rite-of-passage, learning to read in an atmosphere of joy and discovery, has been transformed into an anxiety-inducing ritual complete with legal ramifications, deadlines, and multiple assessments. Not that schools were controversy-free when I began in 1954. Mother owned a copy of Why Johnny Can’t Read, the bestseller that laid bare the struggle between rival teaching systems based on phonics and whole language. That debate continues.
And then a week ago I happened upon a Facebook video that melted my heart. A former student recorded a read-aloud session between her husband and their first-grade daughter, who has been struggling of late. Tucked in beside her dad, the little girl commenced to read a Goldilocks-like story. The man was a rock, cool and calm. When his daughter occasionally stumbled, he allowed her to right herself. From time to time, he pointed to a word, without interruption or correction. And he provided all the dialogue sentences ranging from chirpy comments of “I like this one!” to deep-throated exclamations of “Oh, no!” It was a read-aloud experience, the likes of which I have rarely observed.
After several more viewings of this two-minute video, I finally realized its impact. Yes, the daughter did her homework while her dad supervised, but they were totally attuned to each other. Despite any hesitancy, she sensed her father’s complete support. Together they shared a place of understanding – the one spot where she need not even think about the third-grade deadline.
Reading aloud was an important piece of the foundation upon which my education rested. I wish we would spend more time and effort helping our children learn to read as naturally and joyously as possible. After all, they have 1825 days from birth until age five, 1825 two-minute opportunities to develop a love of books and reading.
By the way, although I don’t remember Mother’s voice as she read to us, I once heard her reading to a grandchild. No theatrics, no showboating – no matter. She read in her regular voice – even the dialogue sentences. And there was the child snuggled on her lap as they shared sweet, intimate moments – just the two of them. I am pretty sure that is how it was for the four sisters some seventy years ago…