Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy, Home Education

The Read Aloud Liturgy

August 23, 2018 by Brandy Vencel

It all started about fourteen years ago. I already had a habit of reading aloud to my toddler, but for some reason I felt like I’d had a life-altering experience the day I was reading Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn’s Teaching the Trivium and arrived at the place where they recommended reading aloud for two hours per day*. As in most every day. My heart swelled a little. I wasn’t sure about all that grammar, logic, and rhetoric stuff, but reading aloud was something I could embrace.

Essentially, they were asking me to do a little more of what we were already doing.

Naturally, one mustn’t read aloud to a toddler for two hours straight. Spreading it out over the day seemed natural enough — a little after breakfast in the morning, then mid-morning, then again after lunch before naptime, then again after dinner before bedtime in the evening.

I wasn’t aware then that I was setting up a family liturgy. (I’m using liturgy here in the vein of James K.A. Smith — a deeply formative habit — a habit that has impacted the culture of our family as a whole, as well as the character of its individual members.)

So here we are. The toddler to whom I was reading aloud all those years ago is now 16-years-old. In fact, my youngest turned 10 yesterday, which is what caused me to ponder the significance of this whole thing. He has been read aloud to almost every day of his entire life. Because he’s the youngest, he was read far fewer picture books and far more chapter books, and he doesn’t seem damaged by that in the least.

I have been asked many times over the years how we manage to read so many books aloud. So far this year, we’re only on number 16, but the books on our list are lengthy (such as Mornings on Horseback, The Odyssey, and The Fellowship of the Ring). The answer is simple: we have developed an almost unbreakable habit. On nights when I have book club, there is a collective groan, and it has nothing to do with missing their mother — they simply regret skipping the evening reading.

My friend Sarah has literally written the book on reading aloud (which I highly recommend!), so it’s doubtful I have anything to add to the conversation. But still, I maintain.

Reading aloud has so far been the big success of our family life. There are many ways I fail as a mother. There are many times I drop the ball. But one thing I’ve been able to do is fill our life with books — with beautiful stories — with an irreplaceable shared experience.

Here’s the deal: it is really easy to over-complicate things. Even things like reading aloud. So I’ll just share what I have not done for lo these many years of reading aloud:

  1. I have not planned meals around the book we’re reading.
  2. I have not planned activities around the book we’re reading.
  3. I have not planned trips, vacations, or tours around the book we’re reading.
  4. I have not planned a perfect list of future reads for years to come.
  5. I have not asked my children questions about the books.
  6. I have not attempted to have discussions about these books. (This is not to say that discussions have never happened.)
  7. I have not had them narrate these books or try to recall them in other ways.
  8. I have not made lessons out of these books.
  9. I have not chosen books because they met certain noble educational goals.
  10. I have not put any pressure on this activity at all! (We read for the pure enjoyment of reading.)

And here are some things I have done:

  1. I have chosen books just because I wanted to read them.
  2. I have chosen books just because I thought my husband would like them.
  3. I have allowed my children to choose books.
  4. I have chosen books that weren’t written for children.
  5. I have done the obligatory voices and accents.
  6. I have continued a book until the end even though at least one child was convinced he didn’t like it. (In my experience, the objectors come around 99% of the time.)
  7. I have read books that were “too hard” for the children.
  8. I have read books that were “too easy” for the children.
  9. I have read more than two hours a day.
  10. I have read less than two hours a day. (When you’ve built a solid habit, keeping track of time is unnecessary.)

Reading aloud isn’t this big, fancy thing. It’s just you, your family, and a book — the book you chose, just because. Decent lighting is also helpful.

Now, if you like planning book feasts, that’s great. I will enjoy viewing your photos of said feast on Instagram! But if you had told me all those years ago that reading aloud required trimmings, I would have been crushed. I was already carrying the load of constant morning sickness — the kind that only leaves when the placenta is delivered, and not a moment sooner. The actual reading part was hard enough in those days.

In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason

I am so glad someone encouraged me to read aloud to my kids early on. I was reminded of this when I was reading In Memoriam, and came across Henrietta Franklin’s memory of Charlotte Mason:

It was she who told me to read aloud daily to my children; and how possible a daily half hour is even in a busy life I proved for over 20 years. (p. 34)

I’m still years away from being able to say we’ve done it for 20 years, but what I can say is that having a habit of reading aloud is what makes it easy to accomplish.

The renshi at our dojo always asks new white belts, “How do you eat an elephant?” Once they look at him in confusion, the other students reply, “One bite at a time!” And then he explains how karate isn’t learned in a day, but rather one day at a time.

If you want to look back on a life of reading aloud — or a life of anything else, really — it is the dailiness that makes the difference.

*Note that it appears Miss Mason’s recommendation was about half an hour per day, not two hours.

Get the (almost) weekly digest!

Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

Powered by ConvertKit

9 Comments

  • Reply Thoughtworthy (Fall Retreat, Free Pep Talk, Fiction Novel, and MORE!) | Afterthoughts August 21, 2019 at 7:18 pm

    […] Reading aloud … it’s one of the great love of my life. ♥ […]

  • Reply The Official 2018 Afterthoughts Read Aloud List | Afterthoughts January 1, 2019 at 8:37 am

    […] Before I share the list … every year I’m asked how we fit in so many books. The simple answer is that we have a habit of reading aloud. The longer answer can be found in my post The Read Aloud Liturgy. […]

  • Reply Kortney Garrison September 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    If you want to look back on a life of reading aloud — or a life of anything else, really — it is the dailiness that makes the difference.

    Love this so much!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 9, 2018 at 10:02 am

      “It is the dailiness that makes the difference.” PREACH, my friend! ♥

  • Reply Thoughtworthy (New Read Alouds, School Habits, Inconveniences, and MORE!) | Afterthoughts August 24, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    […] Speaking of reading aloud, it took the whole summer, but we finally finished The Odyssey! We also finished The Fellowship of the Ring. (We always have at least two read aloud selections going.) We went straight into The Two Towers, of course. I have the young people’s edition of 1493 sitting on my table, but I wan’t ready for another history read, so we grabbed Boys of Blur, which I’ve been meaning to do for about a year. […]

  • Reply Jo August 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

    So when do you do it?
    Over breakfast? Over lunch? Middle of the afternoon? Morning time? Everyone comfy on the sofa? Or round the table? How long do you spend on average in one sitting of reading? Do you have multiple read alouds on the go at the same time?
    What did you do when you had toddlers who chatted loudly over you, or screamed?
    I have many questions about how on earth a mother can read for two hours outloud every day as well children getting work down and going outside and doing some social activities…there aren’t enough hours in the day!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 23, 2018 at 10:37 am

      ♥ Well, I think it’s worth remembering that Henrietta Franklin was only doing half an hour a day — which probably the amount of time Charlotte Mason advised her to do. So here we have where two different thinkers — the Bluedorns and Charlotte Mason — who advise reading aloud, but the difference is amount of time. I think the emphasis should be on the idea that forming a habit of reading aloud together is *good to do* rather than a set amount of time. I DO think doing it two hours per day was formative for *me* in terms of habits, but I would never say someone else *had* to do that, you know? I never did it because I had to; I did it because I wanted to — the idea appealed to me. 🙂

      So let me try to answer your questions. 🙂

      These days, I do not have toddlers, but when I did, we trained them to be quietER. Not quiet. Just normal use-your-inside voice stuff. I never really made anyone listen, but when they were a bit older, they had to choose whether they wanted to be noisy, or stay in the room and listen. If they wanted to be noisy, they were invited to go to the play room or their bedroom or whatever. We also did really short spurts throughout the day, as I described a bit in the post. First grade took me less than two hours to complete all the work, so there was plenty of time left over in the early day, especially since we didn’t really have outside activities to speak of.

      Now we are busier because we have teens. In a typical day, if we do NOT have school lessons, I read a chapter or two aloud right after breakfast. Otherwise, we do Circle Time, which includes reading aloud, but isn’t casual because they DO have to narrate. Anyhow, I read aloud after lunch. That’s about half an hour — sometimes a little longer, sometimes a little shorter. And I read aloud again after dinner — closer to an hour, I’d say. I’ve been doing less these days because it used to be that if we went somewhere — say, out to dinner on a Friday night — I read aloud while my husband drove. But now we are training drivers and so that has fallen by the wayside. That used to provide an extra half hour or more, depending on where we went!

      Let’s see. What else? Oh, YES — I usually have at least two different books going. In the summers, we often have a different book with each meal — breakfast, lunch, and dinner books. There have been other times where I had books going with different groups. So there were the books I read when EVERYONE was present, and the books I read with just children and no husband, or just youngers and no teens (because they were out). It’s changed whenever we needed it to.

      I was just thinking: I think for us reading aloud serves the same purpose that television does for other families. I know plenty of families that sit down for, say, an hour of television together in the evenings. We don’t do that. We own a television, but it’s away in a back room and we rarely turn it on. We sit down for a book instead. I think it makes more sense put in that context — imagine all the time the average family spends on media consumption. Because we don’t have many screens (I don’t even have a cell phone), we can spend that time on books instead.

      • Reply Shanna August 25, 2018 at 8:42 pm

        Oh my goodness! I love that you don’t have a cell phone, like really no cell phone? Sounds dreamy.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel August 26, 2018 at 2:17 pm

          Ha! Yes. My husband has one (a flip phone) and I borrow it when I drive long distances in case my car breaks down, but that’s the extent of it. 🙂

    Leave a Reply