Reading Aloud, Naturally

Here's how to make the simplest stories jump right off the page

It was one of those cozy family scenes you dream about: My daughters and I were housebound by a freak storm that had turned the entire world into one big skating rink. Rather than brave the elements, we lit a fire in the hearth, prepared hot chocolate, and snuggled in to enjoy a long, lazy afternoon.

"Okay, what book do you want me to read first?" I ventured. Well, you'd think I had just asked whether they'd rather have broccoli or lima beans for dessert. "I want a video," insisted my three-year-old Brittany. And much to my chagrin, her five-year-old sister backed her up. "Tapes are better. They're more exciting."

More exciting than shipwrecks and tree houses? More enchanting than yellow teddy bears that float to the sky on the ends of balloon strings? Come on! I thought back to my own childhood, when my mother's voice would breathe life into the simplest stories, weaving emotion in and out of the printed words until tears filled my eyes or the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

Clearly, times have changed. But then, my mother didn't have to compete with the Internet, television, videocassettes, and a theater complex with three new blockbusters for kids. How, I began to wonder, can a parent hope to claim a child's attention with nothing more than a plain, old-fashioned storybook?

"Easy," says professional storyteller Norma Livo. "Parents can weave their own brand of magic with books just by hamming it up, taking their time, and making the most of the techniques that storytellers have been using for centuries to delight audiences of all ages."

In fact, children's books contain many of the same elements that draw kids to movies and TV--action, drama, rhythm, and dialogue--but it's up to the person reading the story to bring it to life. Parents already do this, often without realizing it, when they recite nursery rhymes in that singsong voice that's appropriate for simple, rhythmic poetry. But when it comes to more sophisticated books, they may get so absorbed in the story themselves that they simply read straight through; or maybe when they're tired, or they've been reading the same book night after night, their energy flags.

If you're finding that story time isn't quite the pleasure that you want it to be, relax. Here are some tricks of the trade from professional storytellers that will show you how to infuse more drama into the telling. If you're already an avid story reader, maybe you'll pick up a pointer or two to enhance the experience. But if you're uncomfortable about your reading-aloud skills, these suggestions will provide some of the technical know-how to help you work out the kinks. Remember: kids are an extremely eager--and forgiving--audience. If you have fun, they'll have fun, and that's what counts. That, and knowing that in addition to giving your children more chances to be cuddled by Mom or Dad, you'll be introducing them to a limitless world of exciting characters, places and ideas.


1. Pace Yourself

One mistake many parents make when reading aloud is to go either too fast or too slow. In both cases, the result is the same: You lose your listener. Reading at breakneck speed will overload a child and make her tune out halfway through, but maintaining a snail's pace will put her to sleep. The trick is to vary your pace according to the demands of the story.

"Many children's books are paced like a ball rolling down a hill," explains Lois Duncan, a popular author of books for young readers. "They begin slowly, with the introduction of the hero, a statement of his goals, and a blueprint of the obstacles standing in his way. They gain speed each time the hero has to surmount another obstacle, and the pace gets faster and faster as it nears the end of the journey." In "The Three Little Pigs," for example, the story begins on a leisurely note, as the personalities of the pigs are established. The action accelerates as they confront the obstacles to their survival--the flimsiness of the straw house, the brittleness of the stick house, and the cleverness of the wolf--and by the time the story reaches its climax, it (and the reader) races along at top speed as the wolf zooms down the chimney and splashes into the soup kettle.

But even in books that play out in a steady march forward, there are ways to vary the pacing. Slowing down and speaking deliberately at just the right moment, for example, builds excitement as effectively as surging ahead, especially during portions where tension is already thick. The first part of the following sentence, for example, could be read quite slowly, with the final portion getting faster and faster: "The lion crept closer...and the boy...and it raced forward, growling and baring its teeth!"


2. The Volume Button

While much of a story should be told in a normal tone of voice, there are many occasions that call for raising or lowering the decibel level. Luckily, authors often supply the reader with words that serve as stage directions for when and how to do this. "Get out of here!" yelled the old man to the boy. "I don't want to go to school," the child whispered to his teddy. Ignoring these vocal cues will result in a monotone presentation, which has a tranquilizing effect on any audience, so follow the lead of the writer. Raise your voice when the old man shouts; lower it to talk to the teddy bear.

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