I clearly remember the first time I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede.
I was about 9 years old, tucked away in the odds-and-ends room of my childhood home, surrounded by shelves and Sterilite plastic totes filled with extra toys, out-of-season holiday decorations, and dozens of books. I sat on a hard vanity chair dragged from the bathroom across the hall. The house’s spare bed was also in the odds-and-ends room, but that’s where my sister was sitting.
The sharpest memory of all from my first encounter with the Enchanted Forest is that I wasn’t the one actually reading the words on the page.
I don’t recall the details of how we found ourselves squirreled away together in the spare room, my older sister reading the chapter book series aloud to me. I know fuzzy details: My sister loved the books and rereading them. There was a three-year age gap between us, and we were had reached the tipping point where she, as a middle schooler, and I, as a grade schooler, were forking apart in interests.
By some stroke of luck, she offered to read the 200-plus-page books to me. I leapt at the chance. So there we were, spending after-school afternoons and weekends sharing her favorite series of books.
The four-book series became one of my favorites, too. Whether by merit of the stories themselves or through the bond of reading together, I can’t say. But nearly twenty-five years later, they still hold a special place on my bookshelf.
The timing of my sister reading the Enchanted Forest Chronicles fits into a larger scheme of reading trends.
Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report coined the term “decline by nine.” Research shows this is the time in a child’s reading life when reading books for fun begins to drop. Fifty-seven percent of eight-year-olds read for fun; that number plunges to thirty-five percent of nine-year-olds.
There’s another trend that begins around age nine that may or may not be linked — the research doesn’t directly address it. Read-aloud sessions between parents and children are common in a child’s developmental years and on the rise for six- to eight-year-olds, but read-aloud sessions rapidly decline as a child ages. Notably, this begins around age nine. The same age when reading for fun diminishes.
“Continuing this habit are key factors in predicting whether or not children ages 6–11 will be frequent readers,” the Kids and Family Reading Report says.
Furthermore, the report says: “Taking a closer look at families’ habits during read-aloud time, this research reveals it is a highly interactive experience — it’s a partnership. Children choose books, kids and parents ask questions of each other, turn pages and punctuate the experience with sound effects. This interactivity fuels the child-parent bond that children express when asked to describe why they love(d) read-aloud time .”
In my case, a sister instead of a parent read aloud, but the impact is the same. The reading sessions provided invaluable bonding time. She was always ready to end them long before I was (although, to be fair, she was the one getting the dry mouth and hoarse throat after humoring my begs of, “Just one more chapter. Please?” multiple times.)
Beyond building strong family bonds and a love of books, read-aloud sessions offer young readers a variety of other benefits.
Melissa Taylor, a teacher and writer, cites six additional benefits children absorb from a family member reading aloud:
- Lets children experience the joy of the story.
- Models fluent reading.
- Helps expand the child’s vocabulary.
- Exposes children to new authors, books, and genres.
- Builds awareness and empathy.
- Improves long-term reading success.
My Enchanted Forest reading sessions could check every item on the list. Experienced the joy of the story? Absolutely. Expanded my vocabulary? When I later read the books on my own, I could pronounce all of the words since I had already heard my sister say them. Exposed me to a new author? Yes; I went on to read several other Patricia C. Wrede novels, including another favorite, “Mairelon the Magician.”
Read Aloud into Teen Years
Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” told KQED news writer Holly Korbey reading aloud to children who are capable of reading on their own has emotional and academic benefits. He recommended reading aloud together into the teen years, as much as age fourteen.
The benefit of this, Trelease said, is because children’s reading level doesn’t catch up to their listening level until they reach eighth grade; he cited a 1984 study that found children can comprehend reading material beyond their reading comprehension level if they are read aloud. Young students can more easily decode meaning from higher-level material by hearing it first instead of reading it first.
“You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading at this level happens through the ear,” Trelease told KQED.
A Sense of Simple Pleasure
Read-aloud sessions have had a long-term impact in my love of books. In fact, I would say the childhood experience of sharing and bonding over books with family members is a significant reason I became a writer as well as a reader.
A final anecdote: One of my kindergarten memories is repeatedly checking out a tattered copy of the 1947 book “Downy Duck Grows Up.” The 176-page book has only one or two sentences per page, but it makes for a semi-lengthy read-aloud. I renewed it frequently and asked family members to read it over and over. It’s a family joke these days that everyone groaned when they saw me come home from school with that book in tow, but that book stuck with me so much that I ordered a used copy as an adult.
Why did it stick with me? In this case, it certainly wasn’t the story. (In fact, I honestly couldn’t remember a thing about the story when I ordered my copy.) Instead, it was the memory of togetherness.
Never underestimate the power of reading together. It’s memorable, and it hard-wires an association between simple pleasure and the act of reading.