The Magic of Reading Aloud: A Review of Reading Magic and Better Than Life

reading magic               better than life

Last week, I listened to Mem Fox’s Reading Magic on audio, and yesterday, I read Daniel Pennac’s Better Than Life, a book recommended by Fox. Both books focus on the importance of reading aloud to children and teens. Importance almost seems too slight a word for how Fox and Pennac present the benefits of reading aloud. Fox’s subtitle gives a much better clue to both authors’ beliefs about reading aloud: it is nothing less than life-saving. Reading aloud, Fox argues, will change children’s lives forever.

I am trying to figure out how to help my son, who is a struggling reader. Fox and Pennac both suggest that using a school model for teaching reading is exactly what doesn’t work.  “Teaching is the flip side of what works,” Fox says.  “What teachers we were, when we had no concern with teaching!” Pennac observes. Once we start demanding that students read and read well, however we’re defining reading well, that’s when we begin to lose readers.

There is no such thing as a child who doesn’t like stories. But there are many children (and many adults) who don’t like everything else that goes along with reading as we teach it in school.  While some readers (and certainly I’m one of them) would have kept reading no matter what nonsense happened at school in the name of reading instruction, many readers quit. Once reading becomes high-pressure and high-stakes (tests, grades, school advancement), what Pennac calls “the fear of not understanding” begins to distance kids from reading.

And that’s certainly what I see with my son. He is so fearful, so anxious, about reading. For months now, he has been loudly, explosively telling me that he hates to read, he hates books. But last week, he admitted that’s not really true. He loves books, loves stories, loves hearing me or his dad read aloud to him, even loves listening to audiobooks before bed or in the car.

What he hates is how reading is taught to him at school. He is pulled from his classroom, which stresses him out and leads to teasing by his classmates. He is pulled from his classroom during read-aloud time, which makes him miss the one thing about reading that he does like. He is forced to read aloud boring stories that barely make sense—and when he’s done struggling his way through letter by letter, they make even less sense. After he’s done suffering through thirty minutes of what he considers torture, he still can’t consider himself finished with reading stress for the day, because he has to bring those same books home to read to us. So all morning, he dreads the mid-day reading time with his teacher, and all afternoon, he dreads the evening homework reading time with his parents.

Mem Fox notes that forcing struggling readers to read aloud doesn’t make much sense.

First, “reading is the ability to make sense out of print, not sound out of print.” The ability to make the sounds on the page doesn’t automatically translate into an ability to comprehend the sense on the page.

Reading aloud is also a harder brain activity than reading silently, she claims, which suggests to me that struggling readers would have more success reading to themselves than reading aloud.

Interestingly, Fox claims that good readers don’t sound out words they don’t know. I have no idea if this is true: personally, I don’t ever remember sounding out a word, but then I learned how to read so long ago that I don’t think I would be able to remember what I did or didn’t do.

Finally, she believes that the very slow pace of struggling readers as they struggle to sound out each letter leads to boredom, frustration, stress, and an almost total lack of comprehension—which we certainly see with our son.

Daniel Pennac has a wonderful sentence to describe what it’s like for the struggling reader who is forced to read aloud: “Every syllable was like giving birth.”

Yes! For months now, we have listened to our son give birth—painful, bloody birth, with maybe some medical complications thrown in—to books every evening.

For both Fox and Pennac, the solution to the problem of the reluctant reader or non-reader is reading aloud—TO children. Pennac asks, “What if, instead of demanding that students read, the teacher decided to share the joy of reading?” The teacher does this by selecting wonderful books and reading them aloud: “A teacher who reads out loud lifts you to the level of books. He gives you the gift of reading!”

Fox emphasizes the relationship between the child and the adult who is reading aloud:  “The fire of literacy is created by the spark between a child, a book, and a person reading.”

Reading aloud takes the dread and tension out of reading. It refocuses reading energy where it should be: on pleasure—the pleasure of stories, the pleasure of connection, the pleasure of language.

Fox focuses mostly on reading with very small children. She recommends that parents start reading aloud to their infants—it’s never too early to start, in her opinion. She claims that children need to experience 1000 stories before they are ready to begin learning to read themselves and suggests that parents read three stories per day—one favorite, one familiar, and one new. Children will learn to read naturally when parents read aloud daily.

She does address the issue of the struggling reader and has some good advice. First, she suggests that we stop having the child read aloud altogether. Instead, the child should listen to a trusted adult read aloud. But if the child is going to read aloud, do everything possible to hurry them through the reading. Don’t let them linger over words they can’t read: “anything that slows them down is a bad thing.”

Pennac’s focus is on adolescent non-readers. First, he sketches the story of how a reader becomes a non-reader. Compulsory education has much to do with that. Focusing on reading comprehension, skipping read-alouds once the child can technically read for himself, overscheduling, overstimulating…. all play their part.

Pennac’s description of what he did with his class of “thirty-five non-readers” frankly astounded me. He reads aloud to them—but not the YA lit fare I would have thought to use. Oh, no. Pennac starts them with Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (his description of opening his book bag and pulling out the largest edition of the novel he could find is quite funny) and moves on to Garcia Marquez, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Hawthorne….  I tried—and failed—to imagine reading Crime & Punishment aloud to any of my high school classes and having them hang on my every word. But Pennac does it with great success. In many cases, the kids get their hands on the class read-aloud so they can read ahead and finish the book outside of class time.

There are certain rules for these read-alouds. He asks no questions; he adds no words of explanation to the story; he teaches the students nothing about the context. If they ask, well then he will answer. But their curiosity must come first, and come it does. He reads for the entire class period, one full hour, five days a week. He can finish a 400-page novel in about two weeks reading it aloud.

And although he is reading a great deal of classic “great literature” aloud to his classes, what he reads is not what is on the syllabus. He intentionally avoids the books that are on the official syllabus. He is vague about how he does get to the books on the syllabus, but he assures the reader that the whole syllabus is, in the end, covered.

He describes the kinds of literary conversations he ends up having with his students—all driven by their inquiry.

It all sounds a bit idealized to me, but I believe it could work. Pennac epitomizes what I consider to be the best practice for any English teacher: create a richly literate environment and get out of the way.

Both of these books make very large claims for the benefits of reading aloud, and neither has anything like data to support those claims. But they’re not that kind of book. There are charming anecdotes in Fox’s book and impressionistic sketches in Pennac’s book. Both authors are also parents and teachers, and they write with conviction and an appeal to common sense.  And that was quite enough for me.

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