Establishing a habit of reading an important aspect of a Charlotte Mason education (particularly in the early years when children are unable to read fluently for themselves). We know that reading aloud helps with language, cognitive and social-emotional development. But it can feel nearly impossible among newborn babies, restless toddlers, and piles of dirty laundry. The goal of this post is to help inspire families to prioritize reading aloud by providing tips and ideas on how to intentionally weave reading aloud into the fabric of our family culture.
Establish A Time
This might seem glaringly obvious because it's fairly widely accepted that children thrive on routine, but creating a consistent time that family read alouds occur helps to calm the chaos that comes as with the territory of raising little humans. Some examples of the times that are easy to consistently incorporate read alouds are: before or after nap time, before bedtime, during mealtime or snack time, while taking a bath; with older kids you can do read aloud once the baby/toddler is napping or in independent playtime - the options are limitless!
When scheduling read alouds, it may be helpful to think of reading aloud as an anchor to various points in the day - it can be a helpful way to transition from one activity to the next. For instance, insert a read aloud session in between snacktime and playing outside; or, after a nature walk, right before formal lessons. Strategically using read aloud opportunities in this way means that you can start with multiple shorter read aloud sessions with the goal of fostering the habit of full attention. Putting a schedule down on paper is a great way to get a visual of where there are read aloud opportunities, because it will look different for each family.
If the normal read aloud routine ever starts to feels stale, try taking the read aloud outside on a blanket in nice weather, or in a different room when the children are allowed to play quietly with some sort of toy like Legos, Magnatiles, etc. But keep the time consistent, if possible! Reading aloud doesn't have to look like everyone sitting still on the couch. There's so much flexibility and freedom in choosing how and when to read aloud, and the execution will vary from family to family.
Quality Over Quantity
Charlotte Mason believed in giving children the best books available. She states, "One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books"¹ Therefore, it stands to reason that it's better to read a few pages of high quality literature than to read mounds of twaddle. Mason plainly states, "It is not important that many books should be read; but it is important that only good books should be read."²
She goes on to say if you “give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information”³ Additionally, choosing quality books helps children acquire a taste for more difficult content, language, and ideas (all of which is typical of a Charlotte Mason education). When we choose to believe that our children are not capable of engaging with a difficult book and choose to hand them twaddle instead, we should ask ourselves if we're in danger of despising them. As parents, we have the privilege to help set the affections of our children, and this includes instilling a love of living books.
While audio books were not available during Charlotte Mason's lifetime, they are a luxury that we can use in our own homes with discretion. If there's a particularly difficult book, or a book that a child is having a hard time getting into, sometimes an audiobook can be a saving grace. This isn't to say that families should rely wholly on the use of audiobooks. For instance, one of the drawbacks of using audiobooks is not seeing the printed words as it's being read. However, this can be remedied if the child is required to follow along using a physical copy.
While we should be leery of replacing all read alouds with an audiobook version, there are certainly times where it just makes sense. For instance, when in the car or working on a handicraft, relying on an audio book gives the parent a level of freedom and flexibility that is unavailable when reading aloud from a physical book. Also, as mentioned earlier, audiobooks are especially beneficial for higher level books that may otherwise be overtaxing. The bottom line is: audiobooks are a modern luxury and we should incorporate them strategically and with discernment. Between Audible, Hoopla, Librivox, and countless others, there are plenty of options for the vast majority of the living books.
When to use audiobooks will vary from family to family, but in our home, we typically use them in the car, or during rest time/bedtime, while doing household duties (such as folding laundry), or even a bath or independent playtime. Don't be afraid to get creative when leveraging audiobooks!
Tricky Toddler Tips
One of the hardest things about establishing a read aloud routine can be the wide spread of ages - especially when there's a toddler involved! While it certainly isn't easy, there are some habits that can be established to help a tricky toddler cooperate (and even thrive!) during read aloud time. The first (and probably easiest) tip is to start from birth. This likely goes without saying, but it's important to read to your baby! If you have a slightly older toddler, start with 5 minutes - or even two minutes and establish a rhythm of sitting together and looking at books.
If your toddler is particularly disinterested in sitting and reading books in your lap, another strategy is to incorporate blanket time during your read alouds. Blanket time is a designated time in which your toddler has practiced/been trained to stay within the confines of a blanket on the floor while playing quietly with toys. This habit should be worked on separately from read aloud time and should start with 1-2 minutes and build incrementally. From there, slowly work up to 15-30 minutes. It should be noted that the training for blanket time should take place outside of the read aloud time - i.e., don't expect your toddler to play quietly on a blanket for 10 minutes when he/she hasn't been trained to do so.
Another strategy that works well with toddlers is to talk about/point to the pictures instead of reading the text word for word. Sometimes this sort of active engagement helps equate looking at books with a joy-filled experience. Most importantly, be patient. Learning to love reading is not something that will happen overnight, but rather it can sometimes take months or years of consistent expectations and slow growth.
Letting toddlers work on an activity such as coloring or stickers can be helpful in giving even 5-10 minutes of read aloud time with older kiddos. Or if reading a longer book geared toward older kids, providing a stack of picture books for the toddler to look through quietly has worked well for our family; however, sometimes saving longer/more challenging read alouds for times when the toddler is asleep may be the best option. Staggering bedtimes is invaluable here - put the baby/toddler to bed, and then read the chapter book. Reading while the toddler is in a high chair during snack time is particularly helpful as well.
The important thing is to stay consistent. A baby or toddler won't obtain a habit of listening during a read aloud unless the habit of reading aloud is a consistent part of the home's daily rhythm! Meaning, even if you fall off the train for reason XYZ, do your best to get back into the habit of reading aloud as soon as is possible.
Charlotte Mason's PNEU schools' motto was, "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." The idea of atmosphere is present regardless of age and context. And in the case of reading aloud, the truth is - the truth is, atmosphere starts with our own attitude and how much value we place on reading aloud to our children. Part of the atmosphere of being a family who enjoys read alouds is that we actually value reading aloud. Ideally, we make every effort to establish a joy-filled atmosphere when reading aloud. This is particularly relevant during formal lessons when a child might be less than thrilled with a particular reading selection. This helps teach kids that just because a book is hard, it doesn't mean that it is bad. For instance, we're currently reading through John Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress as one of our school books and I'm amazed at how much my boys (ages 5.5 and 6.6) are getting out of this book! Trusting our children are capable of enjoying "hard" books is critical.
At the end of the day, establishing a read aloud culture in the home is a marathon, not a sprint. As parents, it's helpful to remember that we're playing the long game. But we can't expect our children to have a habit of listening to read alouds if we aren't putting in the effort to cultivate this particular habit. Think of it like lifting weights. We wouldn't immediately try to bench 200 pounds our first time at the gym. Instead, we'd gradually build up to the desired weight. So it is with reading aloud. We begin small, and overtime, our children's tolerance to sit, attend and comprehend grows as we increase the length and difficulty of books. The fruit from creating a habit of reading aloud takes intentionality, but it's a lifelong habit that's well-worth the effort!
¹ Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 280.
² Charlotte Maon, Formation of Character, p. 523.
³ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 174.