Homeschooling with Excellence No. 5


Read-Alouds have several functions, among them:

  • To help develop within our children a life-long love of reading.
  • To introduce your child to great literature that is beyond his reading range.
  • To expand your child's vocabulary.
  • To build listening skills.
  • To develop an "ear" for what good oral reading sounds like.
  • To develop oral reading skills. And,
  • To give you and your child a context for sharing mutually significant times together.1

In order to spark discussion, we include questions for read aloud books in our instructor's guides. Don't use these as the basis for "book reports." They are for informal and brain-tickling discussions as a family.

With Read-Alouds, as with the Readers, History & Biographies, your participation can make a world of difference to the amount of benefit your child will gain. So ask questions, talk with your child about what you are reading, share with your child what you think and feel and believe as a result of what you read together. Be an example to your child of how an educated person interacts with a quality piece of literature.

Hint: when you come to a word or passage that seems clearly beyond your child's current comprehension level, explain it "on the fly" — right then, while you're reading. One of our reasons for having you read aloud together is so you can interact and gain from each other's knowledge and experience. Another reason for having you read aloud: to encourage you and your child to read expressively. So fulfill that purpose: read expressively; practice reading with dramatic intonation — a throaty growl or a high-pitched squeal. Use different voices. Make these books "live." Most of all, enjoy the experience of reading.

The vast majority of the Read-Alouds are just great stories. We chose them because your child's life will be enriched by having read them.

Read Alouds are particularly well-suited to getting Dad involved in the educational process! Many fathers find that the Read-Alouds provide an opportunity for them to spend significant and highly enjoyable personal time with their children.

How to Read Aloud

This may seem like a strange subhead. But we have found through the years, however, that many parents limit their children's opportunities by (incorrectly) pre-judging what their children can or cannot handle.

When you read to your children, you will find they can often comprehend far more than you would have ever thought possible.

Here's how we read in our family.

  • We choose a comfortable spot as we enjoy the experience of discovery together. (I myself prefer to lie on my stomach as I read; the kids will sometimes lie on top of me. Sarita prefers reading on a couch.)

  • We begin reading. We read with expressiveness and passion, adopting different tones and/or "voices" when different characters speak. We try to put ourselves into the characters of the people we are reading about. I especially enjoy doing a British accent for British characters, and a Spanish accent for Spaniards, etc.

  • When we come across a word or phrase with which our children are unfamiliar, we will either explain it "on the fly" — right then, while we're reading, as if it were written in the text — or (since sometimes we don't know the meaning of a word) we will look it up. If there is a reference to a place whose location we don't know, we get out our map or globe and find it as well. This "looking it up" is an integral part of the learning experience.

  • If a sentence is too difficult for our children to understand, we either re-interpret it on the fly (as we are reading), or we read the sentence as-is, then go back and explain it. (We have found that our children often understand more than we give them credit for! I have found, through embarrassing experience that I usually need to ask my children if they understand before simply launching into an explanation.)

  • One of our reasons for reading aloud is so we can interact with each other. We try to make the most of this opportunity! We discuss what we read. We use our books as launching pads for delving into tangentially related topics and for further research.

  • We ask questions, talk with our children about what we are reading, and share with them what we think and feel and believe as a result of what we are reading together. We seek to be examples to our children of how educated people interact with quality literature. (Now that our older kids are more and more "on their own," I am thrilled by the way in which they will approach me with questions that disturb them: "Dad, I've been reading in Leviticus 19, and I just don't understand. Why does __________... ?" What a privilege that a habit of open communication and pursuit of truth is continuing long after any necessity has been laid upon them to come to me for help!)

  • We break up long chapters as necessary to stop at suspenseful points when interest is still high. (We attempted to break our read-aloud assignments in this fashion for you.)

  • Most of all, we enjoy the experience of reading.

Note that, in choosing books for inclusion in Sonlight Curriculum, we attempted to avoid books that include scary, boring or offensive passages. However, we know that different families — even as different children within families — have different tolerance levels. What is intellectually challenging to one may be highly offensive to another. What is terrifying to one may be merely strange or mildly humorous to another. And boredom? Sometimes it is not that one should skip a passage, but rather, that the passage requires some words of explanation so the child can understand what it is s/he is listening to. As always, good judgment is in order!

How to Deal With "Bad" Words, Unsavory Characters, and Controversial Topics

What should you, your son or daughter do when you come across a "bad" word — a swear word, for instance, or some other word you wouldn't use and you would prefer not to read? If we had our choice — meaning, if there were quality, powerful literature that did not use such language — we would avoid literature that included these words.

But we have not found such books. So what do we do? If we are reading out loud, we either skip over the word or substitute other exclamatory words that we find acceptable: Rats! or Bummer! or whatever. I'm sure you have substitutes that are acceptable in your family.

What about bad concepts — when a book talks about witches or ghosts, evolution or some such thing? Again, you'll have to come up with your own solution, but in our family we confront these issues head-on — we talk about them. We don't ignore them (by skirting around them, avoiding ever reading such materials, or by reading right through them and making no comment). We don't make light of them, by mocking these things or pretending people who pursue them are imbeciles. At the same time, we do not over-emphasize things that concern or offend us. We comment on them, briefly ("It says Saul went to consult with a medium. What is a medium?" ("Someone who talks to spirits.") "Are mediums real?" ("Yes.") "What does God say about getting involved in things like that?" ("We should have nothing to do with it.") "Why is that?" ("Because He wants us to trust Him and to turn to Him for the information we need...") "So was Saul doing the right thing when he went to the witch of Endor?" ("No.")) ...then we move on.

We believe that people over-emphasize evil when, for instance, because of a single picture or a paragraph of text about a witch, they refuse to read an otherwise outstanding book. We believe that the emphasis is wrong when a parent or child says, "Uh-oh! This book has a dirty word in it! I'm not going to read it!" — When the rest of the book challenges us, informs us, and causes us to think.

To refuse to read a story because it includes an obviously evil character (not "an obviously evil hero" but "an obviously evil character"): this teaches our children that we do not believe God when He tells us that "greater is He who is in [us] than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).

Our purpose in training our children is to raise them up with the purpose of destroying evil — and to instill in them the hope and confidence that they can destroy evil — with reliance on the power of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Finally: what about "bad" pictures — when the Usborne Book of World History, for instance, shows naked women or men?

Again, we try not to over-emphasize the problem. (It seems to us, more parents over-emphasize this issue than under-emphasize it!)

The fact is, in none of the books that we carry do any of the artists or authors use nudity (for instance) to titillate or seduce their audience. The pictures of naked people in the Usborne books are simply realistic portrayals of the way people really (did) live. Should we pretend people didn't (or don't) live this way? We think not. Yes, we will tell our kids that we don't live that way; and we will explain why. But we believe there is no need for us to feel ashamed that other people have lived differently than us.

I believe a story from one of our Major Non-Western Civilizations program biographies is useful here.

John Dekker, a western missionary, describes an early missionary outreach he helped organize among the Danis, the people he and his wife had just recently evangelized. At the time this story occurred, the Dani men wore nothing but penis-gourds; the women wore strings around their waists and no further covering either top or bottom.

Clearly, neither the men nor women were well-dressed by Western standards!

The Dekkers had never made an issue of the Danis' clothing, but the Dani missionaries were scandalized when, on their first missionary trip to a neighboring tribe, they discovered that the men in the tribe didn't wear penis-gourds! Unbeknownst to the Dekkers, upon their return to their own people, these newcomer missionaries told their fellow Christians, "You would not believe how backward those savages are! Why, they run around naked. They don't even wear penis-gourds!"

Several days later, as he helped the Danis load up for their second missionary trip to the new tribe, Dekker noticed the Danis collecting piles of penis-gourds. "What are these for?" he asked.

"Don't tell us you didn't notice!" replied the scandalized missionaries. "The people we are evangelizing are naked. We need to give them some clothes!"

Dekker was both amused and dismayed. Could these new missionaries' concern for cultural niceties hinder their ability to evangelize? He suggested to the Dani missionaries that there were higher-priority issues to be dealt with than whether or not their neighbors wore penis-gourds.

May I suggest that, as you consider what to do about pictures of naked men and women in the Usborne books, you think about and discuss some of these higher-priority issues with your son or daughter, as well?

Consider — and discuss with your son or daughter — how a missionary should respond (or should have responded) when seeking to evangelize people such as those illustrated in the Usborne books. What should the Dani missionaries have done when evangelizing their "naked" neighbors? What is good and what is not-so-good (or even bad) about being naked? Why are we embarrassed or offended by nakedness?

Closer to home, and of far greater immediate and practical significance to your son or daughter: how should your son or daughter respond when one of his friends uses a "dirty" word? To what degree should one tolerate the misdeeds of one's companions in order to influence them with the gospel, and at what point should one risk the loss of relationship for the sake of "taking a stand"? What is the best (most gracious, winsome) way to "take a stand"? How is it possible that Jesus became known as a "friend of sinners" — yet He lived a holy life?

— Obviously, I have provided enough questions to last you ten discussions. These are not easy questions that can be answered in a period of two minutes. You and your son or daughter will probably have to return to these matters time and time again.

My point is, don't create a problem out of bad words, wicked concepts, etc., by over-emphasizing them. At the same time, if you find your child has an inordinate fascination with these things, or falls into the temptation of using foul language or pursuing an unChristian worldview, it would behoove you to discuss these things with him. Again, don't over-react, but don't ignore the potential problem, either. In all, emphasize the good: the bigger purpose for which God placed us here on earth. He has made us to be His stewards, co-laborers for His kingdom. We should do nothing for our own selfish or wicked ends; we should pursue His purposes.

1 When we say "mutually significant times," we mean exactly that. Some Read-Alouds will stir up deep emotional responses within you. You will be almost incapable of moving forward, and your child will sit beside you: "What's wrong, Mom (Dad)? Why are you crying? Why don't you keep on reading?" Sarita often gives me books to read to our children that she knows will make me cry. I figure it is a good thing for my children to see their Daddy crying: for them to know it is okay for a man to weep, for them (and me, too) to struggle with their inability to understand as deeply as their Father and Mother do, to help them come to the same depth of experience and feeling that we desire they will someday have on their own... Back