Raising Readers: Teaching Children to Read With Expression

Apr 7, 2014

Did you think this series had gone the way of all the earth, never to return to this blog? The seven-month break was entirely unintentional and unplanned. In fact, I've drafted several posts over the last few months but just never finished them. That's kind of how my life feels right now: a million projects (or books) half-started.

Anyway, I'm recommitting myself to this series because it is something I'm very passionate about. And from now on, you can count on a Raising Readers post on the first Monday of every month (unless I'm having a baby). How's that for commitment?

Anyway, I've said before that these are very much in-the-trenches types of posts . . . just my own observations and experiments with my kids as we navigate the wonderful world of reading.

And so today, I'm going to share some of the tips I've discovered to encourage Aaron to read with more expression.

Aaron reads quite a bit, but I've noticed that as his speed has increased, his reading has become more of a mumbled mutter than an enjoyable narration. I think this is only natural as he goes from reading aloud the majority of the time to reading silently in his head. Reading aloud is slowing him down, and I am fine letting him test his reading wings and take off on a faster path.

However . . . reading aloud is still a vital and practical skill. Aaron often reads to Maxwell and Bradley, and it has been getting harder and harder for them to hear the mumbled mutter.

So I've been encouraging Aaron to try reading with a little more excitement and passion. Here are a few of the things we've successfully tried:

Explain punctuation. That's a given, right? But you'd be surprised how much it helps to point out an exclamation point and say something like, "Oh, look at that! He must be excited about going on a field trip." Or give a gentle reminder, "Pause at the period." A few months ago, Aaron figured out what an ellipsis was (I don't think I ever sat down and explained it to him), and now he lets his voice trail off when he comes to one.

"Read it so I'll be interested." I thought Aaron would balk when I first made this suggestion. But he didn't. Instead he rose to the occasion. Just reminding him he had an audience made him increase the volume of his voice and slow down just a little. I have to admit I didn't think it would work, but sometimes improvement can be made just by drawing attention to the thing that needs improving.

Try reading a book with limited text. We recently discovered a delightful book called Moo! by David LaRochelle. The whole story is told with only one word (moo) used multiple times and to connote multiple emotions and expressions: a question, uh-oh, joy, panic, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, and blame. A book like this is great for a reader who is somewhat reluctant to read with expression. Why? Because it's pretty boring to read the same word over and over again in the same flat voice. The fun comes in trying to make "moo" sound like different words and phrases. I've also found that the Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems are great choices if you're looking to simplify the text without simplifying the emotions.

Give a second chance. Occasionally, I will stop Aaron mid-page, and ask, "Do you think that's really how Frog asked that question? Why don't you try it again?" Obviously, I don't do this too often (like, twice in a 15-20 minute time frame), or Aaron would probably start crying, "Stop interrupting me!" But he will tolerate, and even enjoy, a couple of second chances.

Read something with a repeated refrain. Aaron checked out Inside a Barn in the Country from school (a take on This is the House That Jack Built), and I was amazed with how relaxed and confident he sounded while reading it. His voice was actually lilting. As the text built on itself and repeated the same phrases, he began to read more expressively instead of falling into a boring monotone.

Encourage them to help YOU. When you're reading aloud, make sure to encourage participation. We recently read Warning: Do Not Open This Book, which is full of opportunities for the reader to interact with the story. As children yell instructions or whisper warnings or giggle hysterically, they are actually beginning to develop their earliest read-aloud skills.

Read the story first. Then have him read it. This is probably one of the best things I've done to help Aaron read expressively. If he can get a general feeling for the story first, it helps when he takes a turn reading it. He's not distracted trying to figure out what's going on, so he can focus more on enjoying the words. I admit, lately he's been doing so much reading that I usually don't have a chance to read it aloud to him first. But I was reminded of how valuable this is when Bradley asked Aaron to read The Three Little Gators to him a few days ago. I paused to listen, and I was shocked to hear the mean and gruff words of the boar followed by the sassy and stubborn three little gators as they shouted, "Bad choice!" Was this really my Aaron reading this book? Then I remembered that I had read it aloud the day before. That had made all the difference.

Model expressive reading. Okay, this is almost the same as the one above, but it bears repeating. Really the only way for a child to learn to read expressively is to hear it modeled on a consistent basis. You'd be surprised how many adults read in the mumbled mutter style. Or maybe you wouldn't. At any rate, the more you read to your child (regardless of whether or not they'll be reading the same material you just read) and vary the pitch and accents and emotions, the more they build up their personal database of good examples.

What things have you done to encourage children to read with greater expression?

For more ideas about how to raise readers, click here to see previous posts.


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