How to select a chapter book to read aloud

Learning to love reading

Photo from Read Across America
Some of my most memorable experiences as a child in school were our regular story sessions. When I was around 10 years old my teacher, Ms A, would read to us a chapter every day from books by New Zealand author Maurice Gee. First she read Under the Mountain, then we moved on to The Half-Men of O and its sequels The Priests of Ferris and Motherstone, followed by Roald Dahl's autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo. Every afternoon, when we started to feel drowsy and lazy, we would sprawl on the carpet in front of her chair and listen to her read. When she stopped, we would always beg for more, just a little bit more.

As a teacher now I love that moment when I take out whatever our latest serial read is in front of the class and they instantly go into listening mode: bodies relaxing, minds drifting as they imagine themselves in the story, picturing other worlds and other lives.

My two children have outgrown the desire to be read to, but they treasure books that they can open up and immerse themselves in. They have learned to embrace the story and let their imaginations go. Listening to serial novels aids in listening comprehension and general listening skills, and with the use of good questioning and facilitating conversation, children learn to think beyond the story itself and question and expand on ideas, developing creativity and critical thinking.

Children can be ready for serial novels from as young as five. Any earlier and it becomes harder to recall the past events and you can spend a lot of time recalling and recapping! Roald Dahl is always a favourite for readalouds with young children: The BFG is a guaranteed win. Some of Dahl's stories are surprisingly mean-spirited when you read them as an adult, so bear this in mind with emotionally sensitive children. Reading The Twits or The Witches might be too much for them.

If you're looking for a good serial read for home, here's a few tips:

  • Look for a protagonist that your listeners will identify with: around the same age especially. Children's books usually have a main character that will reflect the age of their expected readers.
  • Check that the plot is relateable to your child; that is, the problems the main character is dealing with are relevant and interesting to them. If the book delves into fantasy or sci-fi, the problems may seem to fall outside what's relevant to them, but the ways in which the characters approach the problems should feel real to the listeners. 
  • Look at the vocabulary: if you think you'll spend more time explaining the meanings of the words in the book, and they're not going to be obvious from context, it's probably meant for an older reader.
  • Check online for a synopsis to make sure the action will not be too intense or too dark for a young listener. You know your child best in this situation.
  • Look at the length of the chapters or segments. Your child's ability to concentrate increases as they get higher. Even when they're fully engrossed in a story, they will get fidgety if they are sitting too long. Look for places you can break the story up.
  • Look at the themes of the story. If there is something in particular you would like to focus on with your child (e.g. friendship, loyalty, family), seek out stories that have these themes. Focus on the positive, not the negative.
  • Think about ways you can discuss the story with your child. You don't have to turn it into a formal debate! But you can pick out interesting talking points and bring them up any time: "I thought X made a bad choice when he stole that money. What do you think? What else could he have done instead?"
Choosing books to read aloud with gifted children can be more challenging, because they might identify socially and emotionally with a protagonist the same age as them, but find the writing or plot are too simple. I would go for more complex books with slightly older main characters, provided the protagonist is still dealing with problems that are relateable. My nine-year-old son really enjoyed action-driven dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games and The Knife of Never Letting Go, but we did give him a lot of support to understand how unrealistic the stories and situations were, so he didn't get bogged down in the dystopian side of it.

The biggest tip: get excited! Enjoy reading the book as much as your child enjoys listening to it. You can exclaim together over the things that happen in the story, be shocked and amazed and horrified. You are the best role model for your child, and demonstrating a love of reading in this way will cement their own. 

A few suggestions

Some classics include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and its sequels if they love it enough), Charlotte's Web, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (the next books might start getting scary depending on the age group), Matilda by Roald Dahl, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, Stuart Little, and The Tale of Despereaux.

In the more modern arena, there's A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, Coraline by Neil Gaiman (this one can be a bit dark; do read it before your kids do!), My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

For older children (because they like to be read to also!), try The Lightning Thief (from the Percy Jackson series), Holes by Louis Sachar, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.


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