On reading aloud

Katharine Eastvold offers a spot-on analysis of the recent NYT article on the decline and fall of the picture book market. Her observations and hunches about the economics, art, and developmental psychology of picture books are worth reading.

I was particularly struck by her suggestion that the decline of picture books reflects a broader decline in the practice of parents reading to their children -- she points out that classic picture books can demonstrate rather advanced sentence structure and vocabulary even as they have relatively few total words; they are designed to be read TO, rather than BY, young children. I had never made that connection, but I don't doubt that it's true.

Considering the subject of reading to children more broadly than as applies to picture books, I would be dumbstruck if someone offered me evidence that it is not in decline. I suspect that the growing necessity of two-parent incomes to maintain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed and the ubiquity of communication technologies could not but cut into the practice of reading aloud, even among families that value the practice.

Even in my own childhood -- I recall a conversation with some of my high school peers -- my fellow high-achievers, which is to say, kids from the kinds of families where you would expect that they had been read to as they were growing up -- in which I was surprised to learn that I was the only one whose parents had continued to read to me after I had reached the point of being able to read for myself. (They, in turn, seemed surprised to even hear of such a novel practice -- once a kid can, and does, read for themself, why would a parent bother?)

And that was before we had the world wide web in every household and DVD players in every minivan.

At the end of the American audiobook production of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince there is a blurb promoting the use of recorded audiobooks as a substitute for reading to the children in our lives, since "few of us have all the time we would like" for such activity. It includes the claim: "Listening to an audiobook has the same educational value as it would if someone were doing the reading in person." Every time I hear that, I have to resist the impulse to talk back to the invisible narrator and demand scientific evidence for this claim, since it is far from obvious to me that this would be the case.

Indeed, the irrationality of my impulse to talk back to the audiobook narrator is basic evidence of the  inferiority of the audiobook experience to hearing a book read aloud by a live reader:  there is no possibility of engaging with the narrator. You can't ask or answer questions. At best, you can go back and listen again to a section that was particularly puzzling or moving, but even that is more trouble with a recording than with a real person.

Katharine notes that there is more to the educational experience of reading (or being read) a picture book than absorbing the literal meaning of the words on the page -- interpreting the artwork is an integral part of the  process. Likewise with read-alouds that lack illustrations; when adults read to children, they can guide and model engagement with the text that goes beyond following the words on the page. This doesn't require long conversations or nitpicking dissection of each reading -- even occasional brief comments on the reading can serve this purpose in a natural way.

I recently began studying Spanish. So far I am relying almost entirely on computer-based tools, which are great for getting a handle on grammatical basics and a core functional vocabulary. But it is already very clear to me that it would be impossible to become fluent in a second language without communicating with actual human beings. Even the most sophisticated language-study software could not respond to my attempts to construct meaningful statements in a foreign language with the kind of feedback a learner needs: first and foremost, whether I have successfully communicated my intention; and secondarily, whether the way in which I did so is technically correct (and if not, why).

To become fully literate in our first language, we need similar feedback to that required for becoming fluent in a second language. Audiobooks and other mechanized forms of storytelling just can't provide that, but real people can do it without hardly trying.

And that's not even taking into account the attention differential between listening to a recording and listening to a real person. When my friend Sarah recounted with an air of astonishment how her younger son sat with rapt attention listening to the opening chapter of Little House in the Big Woods, she was certainly describing the power of a good story. But I can't imagine that the story would have held such sway if she (or someone else close to Theo) had not been the one reading it to him. We don't attend to devices the way we attend to people, because we don't have relationships with devices.

(As an aside: I suspect that the odd behavior some of my teaching friends observe in their classrooms is a symptom of a disorder whereby students fail to recognize that their instructor is not an image on a screen, but an actual flesh-and-blood human being who is in the same room with them and can see what they are doing.)

Now don't get me wrong: I love audiobooks. They are one of the great pleasures of my adult life, and I remain deeply grateful for the way that my imagination was shaped by a few select recordings that I listened to ad nauseam when I was a child. If the point of the blurb on my audiobook was to suggest that recordings are a worthwhile supplement to adults reading to children, then Yes! Absolutely! But to claim that audiobooks are the equivalent of reading aloud is simply absurd. In fact, even if someone were to present me with the evidence I keep on demanding from the relentlessly unresponsive recording of Jim Dale's voice, my immediate reaction would be not to accept it, but to look for flaws in the study's design.

I frequently read with concern, if not alarm, reports of the various experiences the current generation of children are missing out on: from opportunities to foster self-reliance to experiences of nature to instruction in penmanship. I have no statistics on the decline of reading aloud, but if my (and Katharine's) hunch on this is true, it is at least as worthy of dismay as these other hand-wringing-inducing trends. Would that every child had at least one grown up in their life who read to them, and kept reading to them, and then read to them some more after that.


Mandy Mc said...

Thank you for this, friend! HOORAY for reading.

Wendy said...

Well-said! I'm surprised at even how many teachers I know didn't/don't read aloud to their children. Even once she had stopped reading to us on a daily basis--maybe late elementary school--, my mom continued to read books to us on long car trips. I have to confess, one reason I really wanted to have a girl-child was for the sheer joy of sharing (as in reading aloud to her) my very favorite books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, etc. Of course my boy-child will be subjected to those too, as well as the plethora of wonderful books perfect for reading together. I can't imagine just handing them A Wrinkle in Time. Who wouldn't want to savor that first time with his/her child. (Sorry--this is a pet topic of mine).

SnakeWoman said...

Another important point: parents have more influence on children than any other adults, including teachers. Parents show their true priorities by what they do, not just what they say. If a parent reads to a child, it shows that the parent highly values not only reading, but also spending time with the child.

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