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How to Read to a Child

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Natalie Layne Baker

Staff Writer

Natalie Layne Baker's writing has appeared at Audible, Hachette, Book Riot, Submittable, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Howl Round, and Bone & Ink Lit Zine. She currently resides in Philadelphia.

One of my favorite feelings in the world is the rush of joy that comes when my niece approaches me with a book in her hands and asks, “Can you read this to me?”

The first time this happened, I wasn’t prepared. Aside from the fact that she’s an early reader (so I wasn’t expecting her to ask so soon), I had no idea how to read to a child. As the youngest of all my siblings and cousins, everyone in my life already knew how to read by the time I figured it out, so I had no practice. Then suddenly, one day in my mid-20s, a small human approached me expectantly with a copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, as though I, like all other adults, was an authority in reading aloud.

Of course, I went with it. How could I say no? But my self-consciousness lingered behind every word. Was I speaking clearly enough? Was I holding the book at the right angle so my niece could see the illustrations? Did I sound silly, or not silly enough? Was my niece bored, regretting her decision to ask me of all people to read?

Well, I’m thankful to report that I survived that reading of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and several thereafter. Now, a few years on, reading out loud to my niece is one of my favorite things to do when I visit. Along the way, I’ve cobbled together a few ideas of how to do it well, so I’m sharing them here in hopes that if you, like me, are childless but have a child in your life, my small insights might help you figure out how to read aloud to them.

Don’t Talk Down

Kids are smart. A lot smarter than most adults give them credit for. Most importantly, they’re smart enough to know when you’re talking down to them. The death knell of any reading session with a little one is condescension.

Instead of affecting a specific tone (i.e. one of those performative I’m talking to a child voices lots of adults put on) speak in your natural cadence. Remember that the person you’re sharing this experience with, although small, is still a person, with a functioning, fertile brain, and they deserve to spoken to as such.

But Take Your Time

Conversely, you don’t want to barrel through the pages at the same rate as you, a fully cognitively formed adult, would read them. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, but they aren’t masters of language, nor have they had the years of experience reading and writing that you have.

Reading out loud to a child is a great way to help them improve their ability to comprehend language on their own, so let them really absorb the language as you speak! (Taking your time also lets you savor the beautiful illustrations you can find in most children’s books.)

Appreciate the Experience

So, maybe it’s the hundredth time you’re reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your niece. Maybe you’d very much rather read a phone book than crack open Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs again. When a kid you love asks you to read out to them, again I ask, how do you say no?

I’ve gotten well past the point of feeling invested in any of the picture books my niece asks me to read to her (and can only imagine how her parents feel!), but every one that she listens to me read aloud is a source of fascination for her. You can see it in her face as the stories progress—even, or especially the ones she’s heard a hundred times before.

I can’t ever imagine being moved in the same way by these books ever again, but I do know I’ll never get sick of the joy reading out loud brings to her.