453. Reading to Children

As a child, I always enjoyed being read to, and as a teacher, I always enjoyed reading to children. In one of the classes in which I volunteer, Jerry Friedman, the father of one of the children, comes in every Friday to read a chapter or two of The Hobbit to the class. He reads dramatically. When he reads dialogue, he really hams it up. And the children and I are spellbound. For twenty minutes or so, we are all in Middle Earth.
Not all of the children appear equally spellbound all the time. Some look at each other from time to time, and don’t look as if they’re listening to Jerry. But when he gets to an exciting episode, they know, and they turn toward him, so they must be listening a little. So far, I haven’t seen Jerry turn toward the few who don’t seem to be totally spellbound and say to them, in effect, “Be
spellbound!” He enjoys what he’s reading, and knows that most of the children (and I) enjoy it, too. If some children don’t stay focussed, that’s okay.
That isn’t the way the rest of the day goes, but neither is it recess; Jerry’s reading of The Hobbit is part of the planned curriculum. There won’t be a test when he’s done, to see whether children understand the plot, remember the details, appreciate the character development, and so on. But children see a book coming alive in the classroom, and all the children – even the ones who don’t appear spellbound – will remember the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves.
Some children may have seen the Rankin/Bass cartoon based on the book. Some may see it later. And television, the relatively cool medium that provides visual images for children instead of letting children imagine their own, can undo some of the good that’s done by Jerry’s reading. The voice Jerry uses for Smaug, the dragon, is not the voice of Richard Boone, who does Smaug’s voice in the movie. Children tend to accept television as a kind of reality, so some may hear Jerry’s voices as impersonations of the “real” Smaug, Bilbo, Gandalf, etc.
I know that teachers usually do have to find ways to capture and hold children’s attention; they can’t read children The Hobbit all day, and even if they could, children wouldn’t stay captured by it all day, every day. And there are lots of less interesting things children have to do in school. Parts of the curriculum may be fascinating, but there are children who are hard to fascinate.
I’ve heard that reading aloud to people is always age-appropriate – that people don’t outgrow the enjoyment of being read to. I know I haven’t. But for many parents, it’s difficult to set up a read-aloud time at home. There’s too much other stuff going on, and anyway, television is a fierce competitor. Too bad. But I’m glad there are Jerry Friedmans around to compensate a little.

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