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Spokane author Sarah Mackenzie touts years of family read-aloud time

Continuing to read aloud as a family – well past children’s early years – opens up far more than academic benefits, says Spokane author Sarah Mackenzie.

Her book, “The Read-Aloud Family,” debuted March 27 to share tips on how families can bond and children gain from regularly hearing literature spoken in the home, even during teen years. Mackenzie’s podcasts on her Read-Aloud Revival website have reached more than 3.5 million downloads.

She home-schools her six children ranging from 4-year-old twins to a 16-year-old. Eight years ago, Mackenzie began a deliberate quest to spend a few minutes at least every other day for family read-aloud time, although her eldest could go it alone. Research convinced her to prioritize it.

“I started reading aloud a lot,” she said. “I saw all these transformations in our relationships, our connections and then their academic improvements.

“I think the reason the podcasts resonate so much is that we parents are all a little stretched for time, and also want to make those deep connections with our kids. It feels at first like another thing to add to the list, but when we find out the big impact reading aloud has, we find that it’s so simple.”

Another advocate of families continuing to read aloud together is Lorna Spear, Spokane Public Schools director of early-learning and interventions.

“It helps us become better readers and more fluent readers when we read out loud,” Spear said. “It gives us practice in using expression when we speak. It helps children learn more about conversations.

“Remember that often kids’ listening and comprehension level are higher than their reading level.”

At first, Mackenzie noticed how her kids at younger ages would act out parts of books during family hikes, and how they would recite lines, although she didn’t think they were listening closely. Reading together also provides a shared experience.

Mackenzie saw the power of read-aloud in how it transformed a family conversation. While reading “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, two of her kids, then ages 6 and 8, started discussing whether a brain was more important than a heart, if forced to choose.

“We were at the part of the book where the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman were debating what they wanted more,” she said. “My oldest being totally a first-born go-getter said, ‘A brain,’ no question. But my second said, ‘A heart, how else do you love?’

“We had this incredible conversation about how you can’t let one override the other. You need to love others and use your intellect.”

Then the Cowardly Lion came up as a character, so family talks debated the role of courage in life.

“I remember thinking, there is no way we’d have a conversation at this level, at this depth, with a 6- and 8-year-old, if not through a book. It’s not something I’d bring up in a dinner conversation.”

Mackenzie is convinced that hearing literature spoken aloud is the best way of exposing children to the grammar and sophisticated language in books. Even good readers tend to skip little connecting words, or skim material, so they don’t get the wholeness of sentences, dialogue and cadence, she said.

“We don’t speak in grammatically correct and sophisticated language patterns,” Mackenzie said. “We speak conversationally. Also on TV, they don’t get exposed to that rich language you find in books.”

Mackenzie offers these top five tips for reading aloud with family:

Keep it short

Mackenzie suggests a goal of 10 minutes every other day for reading aloud with family members. “If we wait for 30-minute chunks of time, most of us don’t have that.” But those 10-minute sessions add up to about 35 minutes a week. It creates a habit along with delight around reading. Mackenzie doesn’t necessarily wait for all her children to be present, still finding short bursts to read aloud even if one or two of the kids happen to be gone.

Let kids do activities

Young people keeping their hands busy by sketching or playing with Legos actually absorb the material better while you read aloud. They’ll also be more likely to listen instead of fidgeting or bugging their siblings, Mackenzie added. “Even my teens are almost always doing something, hand-lettering, crocheting or drawing,” she said.

Share your childhood favorites

If you bring out a book you loved from childhood or teen years, children will see and hear your excitement. “Our delight goes a long way,” Mackenzie said. “It comes through to our kids, whether you think it’s the best choice or not.” An example would be shared joy in discovering and rediscovering “Charlotte’s Web.”

Creating the habit

Mackenzie calls it pegging an activity to something done everyday by fitting in a quick read at the end of a meal or near bedtime. “If you have a hard time fitting in read-aloud time, you can do it during a mealtime,” she said. “I have a friend who does so for a few minutes during breakfast because after that, it’s hard to get it in. You’re taking something you’re doing everyday and adding reading to it just to make it a habit.”

Choosing for multiple ages

Parents can target to the middle of an age range in selecting a book for read-aloud time. Children will still respond to beautiful language. Think about finding an enjoyable book that tells a good story for that love of reading, Mackenzie said. “Reading something enjoyable like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ the older children, even if they’ve read it, will love it still, and they’ll notice different nuances or humor that younger kids don’t get.” Her tip if a family wants to start read-aloud sessions but already has older kids: Plug into the car an audio book of “The Hobbit” or “Hunger Games.” If you get protests or rolled eyes, try saying, “This isn’t for you; it’s for me,” Mackenzie said. “They are kind of captive, and they’ll get caught up in the story.”

Contact the writer:

(509) 459-5439

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