One of the most important things parents can do for their children is to read with them.
Earlier this spring, a study out of Ohio State University made the news for its jaw-dropping finding that young children who were read five books a day from ages 0-5 enter kindergarten having heard 1.4 million more words than kids who were not read to. It’s not difficult to imagine the implications of such a discrepancy, for the benefits of reading aloud for language development and social-emotional well-being are widely documented. Hearing books read to them is so critical to a child’s intellectual and social development that it is not only the educational community that sounds the virtues of the practice, but the medical community, as well. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted a policy recommending that parents read to their infants, and since that time, according to Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report (2019), there has been an uptick in the number of parents with children ages five and under that are reading to their kids. This is encouraging, but, as the Reading Report notes, “reading aloud peaks at age five,” and the percentage of parents reading aloud to their 6-11-year-olds “declines dramatically with each additional year of age.” It seems that once children begin to read books on their own, fewer parents recognize the value of reading aloud with their kids.
Yet, there are good reasons for continuing a read-aloud practice with kids well into their teen years. Much like reading to infants and toddlers helps to develop language and social-emotional well-being, reading aloud to school-aged children does the same. In fact, continuing a read-aloud habit with children older than five for 5-7 days a week is a predictor for whether 6-11-year-old children will be frequent readers (Scholastic, 2019). This is important, for decades of research have shown that “kids who read have good vocabularies, write well, and do well overall in school” (Taylor, 2019). Reading aloud to a school-aged child on a regular basis is likely to facilitate his/her academic success, but proponents of a regular read-aloud practice with older children are quick to point out that the habit also is likely to play a role in social-emotional wellness. There is the continuing benefit of parent-child bonding over a shared activity, of course, but we also know that “literature is one of the best ways to help kids understand something without experiencing it themselves” (Taylor, 2019). Since the practice gives parents opportunity to talk with their children about the people and problems that inhabit narrative, reading aloud is a particularly good tool for building empathy and shaping worldview.
For all of the intellectual, social-emotional, and spiritual benefits that reading aloud renders for school-aged children, RCLS wants to encourage parents to make this a summer of reading, not just for your child but with your child. It is easy enough to find compelling books to read with younger readers, but as your children start to read fiction––particularly chapter books––on their own, it may seem more difficult to find texts that parents and children can enjoy together. There are plenty of great titles out there, though, and the internet is full of recommended reading lists. Dig around and find those lists for titles that might appeal to your family. Here, we offer a short list of recommended titles that may get you started. Each of these titles finds its place on this list because it is recommended by RCLS teachers and administrative staff as a worthy read for middle-grade students (approximately grades 3-6) who are just ready to begin to talk about perplexing spiritual or social concerns. You’ll find in the list a variety of texts––some classic and other contemporary reads, some imaginative that foster faith or character and others that explicitly foster empathy––but they are all appropriate for you and your 8-to-12-year-old to share. A shared reading, in fact, is what we recommend for these texts. Pick a book, grab a chair––at home, at the lake, on the beach––and read together!
Fish in a Tree, Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Ally hides her inability to read with clever distractions. Then she meets a teacher who sees a bright child beneath her troublemaking schemes, and she learns to see beyond her label and see that there are multiple ways to be intelligent. Resource and 6th-grade teacher Mrs. Strohschein and 5th-grade teacher Mrs. Woolman both love this book because the storyline is likely to be encouraging to those that need encouragement about their own uniqueness and, also, useful for building empathy for others.
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia, C.S. Lewis
There are few fantasy series as compelling as Lewis’s Narnia books. RCLS students read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 3rd grade, so Mrs. Wooten thinks middle-grade students and their parents could spend much of their summer in Narnia and never get bored. We love the Narnia series for its inventive dramatization of the battle between good and evil. In this sequel to Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe, the Penevsie siblings (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) are back in Narnia to help the true king of Narnia, Prince Caspian, regain his throne. Familiar places and characters from Narnia as well as a bevy of new personalities inhabit this narrative, but dual storylines (that eventually cohere) make this book ever-so-slightly more challenging to read than its more famous predecessor. Still, Aslan is there, and he is the voice that Lucy (and we!) “like best in the world,” so reading this text feels like coming home. Note that there are seven titles in the Narnia series and there is some debate about the order in which they should be read (in chronological order or in the order that Lewis wrote and published them?). In whatever order you choose to read them, this and all of the texts of Narnia are not to be missed in childhood.
The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll fans know that those authors were inspired by this 19th-century master who penned the first of the modern fantasy genre. A classic among classics, The Princess and the Goblin is the adventurous but comforting tale of young Princess Irene who lives with her grandmother, a queen who shows the princess how to always find her way back home. The Princess and her friend Curdie bravely work to foil the destructive plans of the goblins. MacDonald’s writing is bursting with symbolism and Christian elements, most likely to be appreciated when parent and child read and discuss this story together. Consider the delightful richness of this quintessential fairy tale, even in the first lines of the novel:
"There was once a little princess who—
'But Mr. Author, why do you always write about princesses?’
'Because every little girl is a princess.’
‘You will make them vain if you tell them that.’
‘Not if they understand what I mean.’
‘Then what do you mean?’
‘What do you mean by a princess?’
‘The daughter of a king.’"
Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Willow is a unique, 12-year-old, gifted student who struggles to fit in. When her parents are killed in a car accident, Willow must adapt to a dramatically different life. In this way, parents can anticipate some heavy emotional moments in the narrative, but it is a heartwarming story as the storyline follows Willow’s development and the unexpected love and friendship that surrounds her. Mrs. Woolman heartily endorses this title as a worthy read-aloud––“it’s just so good,” she says, as it is a read that pulls at heart strings and serves to foster understanding and empathy. Families will leave this book encouraged by Willow’s resilience and compelled to practice love and acceptance in their own contexts.
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
Like other books on this list, Madeline L’Engle’s Newbery winner is a childhood “must-read.” We guess that most RCLS parents read this book when they were middle-grade readers, too, and we put this on the list hoping it will jog your own fond memories of this science-fiction classic. When Meg’s father goes missing “on a dark and stormy night,” she, her brother, and a friend embark on an unforgettable intergalactic expedition to find him. The author’s Christian understanding permeates the narrative, while math, science, and themes of family and faith underscore the characters’ interstellar adventures, making this a fantastic selection for the whole family to read (and discuss) together.
Ohio State University. (2019, April 4). A 'million word gap' for children who aren't read to at home: That's how many fewer words some may hear by kindergarten. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190404074947.htm
Scholastic Inc. (2019). Kids and Family Reading Report. Retrieved from https://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/rise-of-read-aloud.html
Taylor, M. (2019). The importance of reading aloud to big kids. Brightly/Penguin Random House. Retrieved from https://www.readbrightly.com/importance-of-reading-aloud-to-big-kids/