Mrs. Miersma is the wife of Rev. Thomas Miersma, missionary in Spokane, Washington. Previous article in this series: April 1, 2007, p. 300.
Last time we began to look at developing in ourselves and our children the ability to read the written word and listen to the spoken word with understanding. We saw how important this ability is, for we are children of the Word: reading and listening to the Word of God with understanding is the means by which God works our growth in the knowledge of Him and our salvation. From the Word of God in II Timothy 3:15, we know that God uses this means for the salvation of us and our children: “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” To that end we began looking at ways in which these abilities grow and develop in our children, focusing first on our conversation with them.
In this article I hope to encourage you to read with your children, especially to read aloud with them and to them. It goes without saying that we will certainly read aloud the Scriptures with our children as part of our daily walk with God. Even if we read nothing else, this stands above all, as an absolute necessity, and may include reading from a Bible story book as a supplement to the Scriptures themselves. Especially when our children are young we will help them to grow in understanding if we stop from time to time and explain the sense of what is being read. In this article, however, I would like to focus on reading in general, especially reading aloud with our children, as a means to develop in them a love of the written and spoken word.
When I was a young wife, my mother gave me the bookHidden Art, by Edith Schaeffer. In this book she advocates using our artistic talents in our everyday lives, whether they be talents of musical expression, writing, drawing, or gardening, to name a few. She includes a chapter on using “dramatic ability,” in which she encourages families to read aloud together as a way of using this ability in everyday life. She says, “This is a far more uniting experience than being entertained by radio, TV, or any sort of entertainment you go to, or sit and watch . . . . Whether it is with small children, adults, or a group of varied ages, there are questions or thoughts that simply burst out at times as the book is shared together, and which open up opportunities for knowing each other and each other’s responses and attitudes in ways which no other ‘entertainment’ could ever do . . . It gives the family a background for thinking and growing in their concepts and understanding, together, rather than always separately.”¹
This idea seemed so good to me. Although my mother had read to me as a child up until the age of eight or so, this idea of continuing to read aloud together had never occurred to me. Though we had no children at that time, nor until many years had passed, we began reading aloud together as a couple. This became something we enjoyed far more than the vapid entertainment to be found on the television set, so that when our set broke for the second time in a month, we decided to live without it. We grew together as a couple in this way, and when we were finally blessed by the Lord with children, I couldn’t wait to start reading to them. At the time, I saw it merely as something enjoyable to do together as family, but over the years I have seen other great benefits flow from this practice.
Listening to stories read aloud was found, in a study conducted in Great Britain, to be the most powerful predictor of children’s school achievement. Why? In addition to other factors, the authors of the study emphasized the importance of learning to understand words alone “as the main source of meaning. Because the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with ‘the symbolic potential of language’— its power to represent experience independent of the context of the here and now.”² A child can thereby begin to understand that there is a reality beyond what he can see. He or she learns that he can use language to reflect on his or her own experience in relation to someone else’s or to put himself into another’s experience in such a way that he can learn and benefit from it without having actually to have the experience. Obviously we need this ability when we read and study God’s Word and reflect on His dealings with His people and us. Although when children are very young we will use mostly books with pictures, we should try gradually to wean them away from dependence on illustrations.
Further, listening to books and stories read aloud develops vocabulary and an ability to understand the patterns of speech. Not only will your children be able to benefit from books that would otherwise be on too difficult a level to read on their own, but they will absorb by osmosis the way in which language works, how it is structured, and how to express ideas effectively, thereby not only raising their own reading level, but also improving their ability to express themselves in spoken and eventually written language. While this also occurs in silent reading, oral reading and listening seem to be a more effective means. Some excellent books, especially what we call “the classics,” can be a little daunting at first, hard to “get into.” By reading them aloud we can help our children to read books they might otherwise give up on too easily. They will learn by this to persist in their own reading, not to cast a book aside simply because they find it a bit difficult at first. This is something that will aid them someday in reading meatier doctrinal books.
There will also be times when we may stop reading a book because the content is not edifying. The whole book breathes a spirit of rebellion against authority, for example, or the book is simply poorly written. Our children will learn that you can stop reading, stop listening, or stop viewing, that there is a place for rejecting that which does not serve to edify. When we stop and talk about the reasons for the rejection, we will help them to become critical (in the good sense) listeners, viewers, or readers.
Hoping you have been convinced of some of the benefits of reading aloud with your children, I’d like also to answer possible questions or objections. What should we read? When do we find time to read? What if I’m not a good reader? How do I get my children to listen? What about sinful behavior and thought in books?
What should we read? Edith Schaeffer in her book Hidden Art suggests a formula of reading from three different areas: something from good children’s literature, a story with a Christian message, and the Bible, or Bible storybook. This could be modified somewhat, as most of us already read the Bible with our children. We could include reading biographies or history. There are many books from Inheritance Publications, both biographies and historical fiction, that we can read with profit. Portraits of Faithful Saints by Prof. Hanko is a wonderful resource to introduce our children to God’s work in the history of the church. Because our children study history in school with a textbook, they might be inclined to regard it as medicine, but when well written, history is as fascinating, or even more so, than fiction. I have found historical works by Genevieve Foster, Isaac Asimov, and Albert Marrin to be particularly interesting and well written. Their content and perspective must, like everything we read, be tested in the light of God’s Word, because these are secular historians, but we can use books like these to help our children grow in appreciation of God’s sovereign government of all things.
In children’s literature, emphasize the classic works of children’s literature, but also include some lighter fare from time to time. Don’t approach the classics with the idea that wehave to read these because they’re good for us. Read them because they are interesting, funny, well written books. Book lists like Books Children Love or Honey for a Child’s Heartmay assist in finding books to read. While there are some worthwhile modern works, there is much in recent children’s literature that we will probably want to avoid. Not only do themes like alienation from parents, peer values, and “me, me, me” books abound, but much of the writing is not on the same level as the older works.
Finding time for reading should be a priority; however, it does become more difficult as children get older and have demands of homework, catechism, music lessons, or sports. When my children were growing up, I think they regarded reading time as a kind of intrinsic right, so that even when we had been out later than usual for some reason, they would ask, “Can we still read?” It was a time together we didn’t want to miss. First, time reading together does not necessarily have to be long. It can be fifteen or twenty minutes. Secondly, it doesn’t have to be every day; perhaps we will find time only on weekends or during school vacations. Sunday afternoons are a good time to read some of the books I mentioned earlier about the history of the church, historical fiction for younger children, and biographies and actual history for older children. Read together from books likeUnfolding Covenant History. It is helpful to have regularity to keep the line of the book, but don’t give up because it seems difficult to find the time. Like good habits of any kind, it can take time to establish, but, especially if your children are young, start now.
“But I’m not a good reader,” you say? Like any other skill, oral reading improves with practice. Listening to some books on tape or CD can be helpful to model good reading skills and ways to bring out the voices of the different characters, but the sound of your voice reading to your children will mean more to them. “My children are poor listeners; they don’t want to sit and listen.” While it is impossible to read aloud during wrestling matches and vigorous exercise, sitting still isn’t necessary unless we are reading Scripture. My children have played with legos, colored, folded origami designs, worked puzzles, and even juggled while listening. It can be a great time to work on crafts or sewing projects or to do repetitive mindless jobs like sorting things, preparing food for canning or freezing, or inserting flyers, if you have a paper route. It certainly makes the work go faster.
What about books that portray sinful behavior, language, and attitudes? We certainly will want to use discretion here, but the reality of human life is our depravity by nature and how it works death and corruption. The determining factor in choosing the books will not be first of all what is treated, but the attitude or point of view concerning sinful thinking and actions. Is sin glorified and promoted? Or, almost equally dangerous, is man without God glorified as good in himself? Does sin appear to be without any consequence? As our children grow in maturity, we can also deal with some of these issues of sin in the books we read. They will certainly have to deal with temptation and sin in their lives and with what may appear to be moral dilemmas, but leading them to mature reflection on these types of issues by means of the books we read may also help them to recognize the false allurements of sin and the various guises it will use to deceive us. Helping them recognize where an author is “coming from,” what excuses he is making for sin, or what he sees as the solution can be a means for them to grow spiritually. Even in books with Christian characters, we may need to say, “Are they walking in the principles of God’s Word in this or that area?”
What about books that contain occasional cursing or oaths, including minced oaths, like “Gosh” or “darn,” or “O my goodness”? When I read books containing these expressions aloud, I omit these words, whichis usually easy to do, since many times they are not essential to the meaning. But sometimes, it is part of the nature of the character, in which case, instead of reading the actual words of the character, you might say, “He cursed in God’s name,” or “He uttered an oath.” This takes a little practice in looking ahead. Finally, there are times when the dialogue will not make sense without the expression, in which case, I might stop and explain what the character said. This is one of the advantages of reading aloud, rather than listening to tapes of books. It also allows you to stop and discuss the book more easily. For some reason, once the tape, or videotape, or TV program is “rolling,” we seem almost powerless to stop it, whereas in reading, this is more easily accomplished.
I hope you are reading aloud with your children. If you are, continue, even after they can read for themselves. If you are not, I hope you will consider trying to introduce this into your family life. I believe it will not only enrich your family life, but also help your children as they grow in their understanding of the written and spoken word, and ultimately in the Word of God.
¹ Schaeffer, Edith, Hidden Art, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971, 149.
² Healy, Jane, Endangered Minds, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990, 192.