Reading chapter books aloud: When, Why, and What

You go from board books, to simple picture books, to more complicated picture books, and then finally to chapter books. Or that’s what most families tend to do.

But this path isn’t a straight one – kids often like to read the simplest books at older ages, and younger children can often handle a chapter-book read aloud long before parents expect they can — especially if you choose one of the best read aloud books! 

So when should you start reading longer chapter books to young children, and what books might you start with?

Of course the decision is dependent upon the child.

Some have a harder time listening to a story without pictures to look at, and some are willing to listen at very early ages. But if the plot is compelling and you time it right – if they are eating a meal, or coloring, or resting after a long afternoon outside, or just in a quieter mood – 4-year olds might get almost as engrossed as any older children who are listening.

And if not, younger ones might pick up enough of the story to stay engaged in order to be part of this “big kid” book time. Meanwhile, they will be building their listening skills and setting themselves up for the next chapter book the family reads together. 

In general, when you read aloud more challenging chapter books that the children listening can’t read (or easily read) on their own, you are helping them build all kinds of reading-related skills.

Why is this kind of reading important?

  • It usually means you’re exposing them to more complex ideas and vocabulary, and letting them hear and think about the kind of academic language (e.g., figurative and idiomatic words or phrases, complex sentences) they will have to read on their own in the years to come (this is giving attention to building Vocabulary & Knowledge skills, one of the three “buckets”of skills all strong readers need). They also may get a chance to practice using vocabulary that they hear in the books — words that are not part of the everyday language they normally use.
  • You are encouraging them to strengthen their Awareness & Regulation skills when they are listening to you read without pictures to look at because they have to ignore any distractions that are going on around them, controlling their minds and bodies. They also build these skills when they wait for a turn to ask questions or when they take part in story conversations that go back and forth.
  • You are helping them practice creating a movie in their minds as they listen because there are no pictures to support them. Making these mental images is important to reading comprehension. Children who struggle with this image-making often struggle to read, so practice makes sense.

With all that in mind, what good books are out there?

Surely you remember some books you read when you were younger that you want to share with your children, but we recently solicited favorite chapter books to read aloud from a group of parents and educators, and got a number of great titles to share (with Amazon links to tell you more about them).

These are mostly old favorites, but there could be a new title in there you haven’t thought of, or you might want to look into reading other books in the series/by the author listed. (Remember that some kids can’t handle too much suspense so be aware of those suggestions that might be too scary for your little ones.)

Three things to note: First, we specifically told them not to include Harry Potter books. That’s because it’s an obvious one and we wanted them to branch out a bit to provide a bigger title list to share. But don’t forget Harry 🙂

And second, while this wasn’t intentional, there are no non-fiction books here. Maybe that’s because of the appeal of relaxing with a good story? We’re not sure, but when we put this same request to librarians later in the year, we’ll be sure to include a request for non-fiction titles, too. 

Finally, you might try having others do the chapter-book reading — older siblings (see photo above!), babysitters, grandparents or others that the child looks up to. That could be a great way to help get your child in the habit of doing focused listening to a book without pictures on occasion.

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