What Makes a Book a Good “Read Aloud”

I have this idea, which is perhaps just my own, that some books should be reserved for kids to read themselves, some books are better read aloud and some books are good both ways.  I don’t know if I can totally express what the difference is.  Certainly it’s a subjective sort of thing.  However, I’m going to try to offer some guidelines.

A good read aloud book:

  • Tells a simple story in rich language. Kids in early elementary school are ready to head Charlotte’s Web, but the vast majority aren’t read to read it yet because the language is too complex.  Some books, like The Jamie and Angus Stories, which I keep recommending as a good first read aloud for younger children, will even be boring by the time kids are able to read them independently.
  • Is enjoyable for the reader too. There’s nothing worse than having to read your kids something that you find trite or predictable.  Good children’s literature, on the level of Cornelia Funke, Kate DiCamillo, EB White, or Beverly Cleary, is just good literature.  End of story.
  • Sometimes deals with emotional issues or mature topics. This isn’t every read aloud, but more than just telling a story in more complex terms, a read aloud can touch on deeper topics for kids by dealing with death, bullying, anger, sadness, or any number of issues that kids may not want to tackle alone or may not be able to really get at unless the book is read aloud and talked about.
  • Or is sometimes very funny. Laughter can be good to share and a way to keep a kid interested in a longer book.  Of course, Roald Dahl is excellent for reading aloud.  Nothing better.

On the other hand, a good book to save for independent reading…

  • Tells a story in simple terms. The term “simple,” when you’re talking about independent reading, is not a put down from me.  It’s a positive quality for new readers to read things in simple terms.  That’s how they build up to reading longer, more complex books.
  • Is graphically intensive. I know some parents have figured out how to do it, but the verbal hoops required to read a comic book aloud make me batty.  Ditto to all those nonfiction books with numerous text boxes and little captions for pictures.  Graphic novels encourage reading.  And the nonfiction books are the kind of book that it’s perfect to sit and pour over once you can actually read the text.
  • Is repetitive. Series books, I’m looking at you.  Again, nothing wrong with them.  Repetitive stories can be high interest and can teach children about plot elements and how to anticipate.  They serve an extremely important function.  Some of them are very detailed and well-written.  However, they should be allowed to serve their function, i.e. encouraging kids to read, by being left for the independent readers.
  • Endorses something parents don’t really like. I think it’s fine to let your kid read fart jokes in Captain Underpants or mischievous behavior.  It’s something else to read it to them.  I’ve written about this before, but I believe strongly that kids should choose their own books to read themselves.  However, if I’m doing the reading, I’m also involved in the choosing.

Of course, I break my own rules sometimes.  The kids have been enjoying the Ivy and Bean series aloud, so I know I’ve ruined those for independent reading.  Drat!  Plus, there’s a certain joy in reading a very short book or a pile of picture books after you finish something like Dragonrider. And the best reward should be reading a book independently once they’ve already heard it.  Every kid should hear Charlotte’s Web as a first grader and reread it as a fifth grader, don’t you think?

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Book a Good “Read Aloud”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly! I’ve had very similar thoughts about what makes a good read aloud and what doesn’t. For instance I didn’t read Island of the Blue Dolphin out loud because I think in order to feel the isolation that Karana feels it is best read by yourself. I don’t know if I’m right, but I’ve always resisted that one as a read aloud. One series we really enjoyed reading aloud is The Great Brain. Lots of laughter and discussions about ethics, etc.

    But I must say that I find Raoul Dahl too weird to read aloud. All my kids had to discover him on their own.

    Anyway, I live across the river from you in No. VA. I like your blog!

  2. Yes! You said what I think and you wrote it better than I think it 🙂

    Some books are just meant to be read aloud, and they are usually the extremely well-written ones. Although sadly, I find myself reading a lot of Jedi Adventure books to my 6yr old b/c they are too hard for him to read yet. They are not as bad as reading Saddle Club stories aloud to your late reader though. That is torture.

  3. This is a great reminder for all parents – about the important difference between reading and listening age! This – as you correctly point out – also means that some books are more suitable for reading aloud, while others are much better to serve as good stimulation for fledgling readers.

    I will retweet this – fantastic advice.

    Read Aloud Dad

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