Dos and Don'ts of Reading Aloud

From The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

Writing begins long before the marriage of pencils and paper. It begins with sounds, that is to say with words and simple clusters of words that are taken in by small children until they find themselves living in a world of vocables. If that world is rich and exciting, the transition to handling it in a new medium - writing - is much smoother. The first and conceivably the most important instructor in composition is the teacher, parent or older sibling who reads aloud to the small child.

- Clifton Fadiman, from Empty Pages: A Search for Writing Competence in School and Society


  • Begin reading to children as soon as possible. The younger you start them, the better.
  • Use Mother Goose rhymes and songs to stimulate the infant's language and listening. Simple but boldly colored picture books arouse children's curiosity and visual sense.
  • Read as often as you and the child (or class) have time for.
  • Try to set aside at least one traditional time each day for a story. In my home, favorite story times are before going to bed and before leaving for school.
  • Remember that the art of listening is an acquired one. It must be taught and cultivated gradually - it doesn't happen overnight.
  • Picture books can be read easily to a family of children widely separated by age. Novels, however, pose a problem. If there are more than two years between children, each child would benefit greatly if you read to him or her individually. This requires more effort on the part of the parents but it will reap rewards in direct proportion to the effort expended. You will reinforce the specialness of each child.
  • Start with picture books and build to storybooks and novels.
  • Vary the length and subject matter of your readings.
  • Follow through with your reading. If you start a book, it is your responsibility to continue it - unless it turns out to be a bad book. Don't leave the child or class hanging for three or four days between chapters and expect their interest to be sustained.
  • Occasionally read above the children's intellectual level and challenge their minds.
  • Avoid long descriptive passages until the child's imagination and attention span are capable of handling them. There is nothing wrong with shortening or eliminating them. Prereading helps to locate such passages and they can them be marked with a pencil in the margin.
  • If your chapters are long or if you don't have enough time each day to finish an entire chapter, find a suspenseful spot at which to stop. Leave the audience hanging; they'll be counting the minutes until the next reading.
  • Allow your listeners a few minutes to settle down and adjust their feet and minds to the story. If it's a novel, you might begin by asking if anyone remembers what happened when you left off yesterday. Mood is an important factor in listening. An authoritarian "Now stop that and settle down! Sit up straight. Pay attention!" is not conducive to a receptive audience.
  • If you are reading a picture book, make sure the children can see the pictures easily.
  • Remember that even sixth-graders love a good picture book now and then.
  • Allow time for discussions after reading a story. Thoughts, hopes, fears and discoveries are aroused by a book. Allow them to surface and help the child deal with them through verbal, written or artistic expression if the child is so inclined. Do not turn discussions into quizzes or insist upon prying story interpretations from the child.
  • Remember that reading aloud comes naturally to very few people. To do it successfully and with ease you must practice.
  • Use plenty of expression when reading. If possible, change your tone of voice to fit the dialogue.
  • Adjust your pace to fit the story. During a suspenseful part, slow down, draw your words out, bring your listeners to the edge of their chairs.
  • The most common mistake in reading aloud - whether the reader is a 7-year-old or a 40-year-old - is reading too fast. Read slowly enough for the child to build mental pictures of what he just heard you read. Slow down enough for the children to see the pictures in the book without feeling hurried. Reading quickly allows no time for the reader to use vocal expressions.
  • Preview the book by reading it to yourself ahead of time. Such advance reading allows you to spot material you may with to shorten, eliminate or elaborate on.
  • Bring the author to life, as well as the book. Either before or during the reading, tell your audience something about the author. Let them know that books are written by people, not machines.
  • Add a third dimension to the book whenever possible. For example: Have a bowl of blueberries ready to be eaten during or after the reading of Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal; bring a harmonica and a lemon to class before reading McCloskey's Lentil; buy a small plastic cowboy and Indian for when you read The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks.
  • When children are old enough to distinguish between library books and your own, start reading with a pencil in hand. When you and your child encounter a passage worth remembering, put a small mark - maybe a star - in the margin. Readers should interact with books and one way is to acknowledge beautiful writing.
  • Reluctant readers or unusually active children frequently find it difficult to just sit and listen. Paper, crayons and pencils allow them to keep their hands busy while listening.
  • Fathers should make an extra effort to read to their children. Because 98 percent of primary-school teachers are women, young boys often associate reading with women and schoolwork. And just as unfortunately, too many fathers prefer to be seen playing catch in the driveway with their sons than taking them to the library. It is not by chance that most of the students in remedial reading classes are boys. A father's early involvement with books and reading can do much to elevate books to at least the same status as baseball gloves and hockey sticks in a boy's estimation.
  • Regulate the amount of time your children spend in front of the television. Excessive television viewing is habit-forming and damaging to a child's development.
  • Arrange for time each day - in the classroom or in the home - for the child to ready by himself ( even if "read" only means turning pages and looking at pictures). All your read-aloud motivation goes for naught if the time is not available to put it into practice.
  • Lead by example. Make sure your children see you reading for pleasure other than at read-aloud times. Share with them your enthusiasm for whatever you are reading.


  • Don't read stories that you don't enjoy yourself. Your dislike will show in the reading, and that defeats your purpose.
  • Don't continue reading a book once it is obvious that it was a poor choice. Admit the mistake and choose another. Make sure, however, that you've given the book a fair chance to get rolling; some start slower than others. (You can avoid the problem by prereading the book yourself.)
  • Consider the intellectual, social and emotional level of your audience in making a read-aloud selection. Challenge them, but do not overwhelm them.
  • Don't read above a child's emotional level.
  • Don't select a book that many of the children already have heard or seen on television. Once a novel's plot is known, much of the interest is lost. You can, however, read a book ahead of its appearance on television or at the movies. Afterwords, encourage the children to see the movie. It's a good way for them to see how much more can be portrayed in print than on the screen.
  • Don't be fooled by awards. Just because a book won an award doesn't guarantee that it will make a good read-aloud. In most cases, a book award is given for the quality of the writing, not for its read-aloud qualities.
  • Don't start a reading if you are not going to have enough time to do it justice. Having to stop after one or two pages only serves to frustrate, rather than stimulate, the child's interest in reading.
  • Don't get too comfortable while reading. A reclining position is bound to bring on drowsiness, and a slouching position produces similar effects because the lungs can't easily fill to capacity.
  • Don't be unnerved by questions during the reading, particularly from very young children. Answer their questions patiently. Don't put them off. Don't rush your answers. There is no time limit for reading a book but there is a time limit on a child's inquisitiveness. Foster that curiosity with patient answers - then resume your reading.
  • Don't impose interpretations of a story upon your audience. A story can be just plain enjoyable, no reason necessary. But encourage conversation about the reading. Only seven minutes out of 150 instructional minutes in the school day are spent on discussions between teacher and students.
  • Don't confuse quantity with quality. Reading to your child for 10 minutes, given your full attention and enthusiasm, may very well last longer in the child's mind than two hours of solitary television viewing.
  • Don't use the book as a threat - "If you don't pick up your room, no story tonight!" As soon as the child sees that you've turned the book into a weapon, they'll change their attitude about books from positive to negative.
  • Don't try to compete with television. If you say, "Which do you want, a story of TV?" they will usually choose the latter. That is like saying to a 9-year-old, "Which do you want, vegetables or a donut?" Since you are the adult, you choose. "The television goes off at eight-thirty in this house. If you want a story before bed, that's fine. If not, that's fine, too. But no television after eight-thirty." But don't let books appear to be responsible for depriving the children of viewing time.