A few weeks ago, my son and I finished reading Stephen King's 11/22/63: A Novel. The unusual part is the fact my son will be 18 years old in less than a month.
I also read with his sister, who is 14.
I didn't plan to read aloud with my kids for this long. It just happened. As a former adjunct English professor who tutors students with dyslexia, I am an ardent lover of literature. Our home is packed with magazines and novels for all interests and ages. But these days, having a parent who loves and promotes books is not always enough. Reading competes with busy sports schedules, homework, and the ever-powerful screens that dominate our kids' lives. My kids have trouble saying no to the incessant flow of Netflix entertainment that draws them away from books. While they love a good story, they are not bookworms the way I was as a kid. Consequently, I discovered early that reading together encouraged an activity that my kids may have skipped altogether.
It's well known that reading aloud benefits infants, toddlers and emerging readers. Aside from introducing children to a love of literature and storytelling, reading exposes them to written language, which differs from the spoken word. Writing contains more description and typically adheres to more formal grammatical structures than speech. When you choose books that exceed your child's independent reading level, you promote language acquisition, increase vocabulary, and improve comprehension. These benefits foster literacy in young people, but the pluses don't diminish just because the kids grow up.
Of course, once our kids become readers themselves, they can reap the intellectual rewards of reading independently. But there's more to it than academics. Before the days of radio, television and the Xbox, families often gathered to listen as someone read aloud for entertainment. This communal activity prompted discussion, speculation, and debate.
In our modern day, reading together can generate common ground for parents and teens who might otherwise find their interests diverging. Reading with my kids has spurred lively discussions about war, pride, racism, greed, capitalism, and addiction. Of course, we also spend plenty of time soaking in the suspense of what will happen next. For my kids, it's pure entertainment. For me, it's rare quiet time spent together and the opportunity to connect. Whatever our motivations, this pleasure and bonding has kept us reading together for years.
But let's be practical. Who has time to read with their kids during high school? Homework, plus soccer and swim schedules have made it increasingly difficult to keep it up, so I try to be realistic. That means what I maintained as a nightly ritual during elementary school has dwindled to occasional evenings now. On some nights, we read during chores - where one of us washes dishes while the other reads out loud. Other times, we read on vacation. When my husband, the kids, and I drove to Florida this past Christmas, we listened to The Help on CD for 18 hours, bringing our family together around one story in the car.
Still, it's easy for a week or two to slip away without touching our latest book. Even when that happens, however, we know the story is out there, waiting for us to pick it up again.
The novel my son and I just finished is one of many Stephen King books we have read together. When I gave it to him for his birthday last June, I knew the 842-page tome might be the last we'd have time to read together. It took us almost a year to get through it, but at least that gave us months to talk about the book. We speculated all winter about whether the time-traveling protagonist could save President Kennedy, and if he did, what sinister repercussions Stephen King might have in store this time.
When we finally turned the last page, I was sad for the end of an era. My son will graduate this June and leave for college in August. But I'm so grateful for the stacks of books and memories we've made over the years. From Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? to the Magic Treehouse series, to classics like Huckleberry Finn, to fantasy series like Harry Potter, to dramas like Ordinary People, and of course, to Stephen King, we've shared a lot.
Many parents already understand it's never too early to start reading with their kids. But it's also never too late - and it can never go on too long. Reading aloud isn't only about teaching literacy, it's about sharing stories, and we can do that at any age. So if you've already got a good reading ritual going, don't stop. And if not, consider plowing through some of that summer reading list out loud. You never know what you might discover together.
Deb Werrlein is a former adjunct professor of English and current freelance writer and editor. She blogs about writing and her post-academic life at Professor Never.