Read-Alouds with High Schoolers: Now What?

When my kids were all little, we did everything together. It was a good day if I could go to the bathroom alone. We traveled as a pack. We had family movie night. We played family games. We did all of our school reading together, for hours.

Now I have a high school freshman, two middle schoolers, and a first grader. There are movies appropriate for my oldest for which my youngest is in no way ready. My youngest still needs Winnie the Pooh and Ferdinand the Bull and play dough.

It has been a difficult transition for me. I watch friends and acquaintances struggle to transition into this phase of home schooling, and they all struggle with it. I don’t want to give up now, just because it’s hard. I want my freshman to be able to read a hard book on genocide without exposing my seven year-old to the details. I want to be able to enjoy Beatrix Potter with my youngest without the oldest one(s) rolling their eyes and saying, “’Two Bad Mice’ again?” (To be fair, reading Beatrix Potter brings my older children out of the woodwork. Everyone loves Samuel Whiskers around here.)

I don’t have a fool-proof method, but here are the baby steps we are taking to make it work at our house.

I teach my children to be able to work alone. It takes work on my part to teach them to be a little more independent, but I believe there’s a payoff. Right now, working alone might mean 10 minutes of math for my first grader, or an hour for my sixth grader. They know where I am in the house, but they know I expect them to try it on their own first. While they work alone, I have time to make a phone call or go over another child’s writing assignment with him one-on-one. All four of them are able to read for stretches of time alone, the youngest perhaps using her CD player for an audio book. But everyone is able to do some of their work on their own.
the result of a recent independent cooking project…

As my kids get bigger, I ask them to do more work on their own. I begin by assigning them novels, to read a chapter or two at a time, and I require brief narrations to make sure the books are at the right level. Little by little, I increase the levels of the books, moving from novels to biographies. I throw in non-fiction for information. All along, the kids do oral or written narrations (though not daily) so I can see where they are and what interests them the most. When Jonah (14) sees his brother (12) reading a book he read a few years back, he gets excited, and I overhear them talking about it. It’s like a booster shot, only with a book.

Because we study history through literature, the books we read for history are critical to our curriculum.  I spend a lot of time pouring over book lists for age-appropriate books on history.  I often look for a book my high schooler can read alone, one my middle schoolers can read independently, and then a picture book I read to everyone. Often the picture book is just the right appetizer for the longer books my other kids read.  Sometimes there just isn’t a picture book on a subject (The Illustrated Guide to the Armenian Genocide, anyone?) and my youngest will listen in as I read the chapter book aloud.

I still read aloud to my high schooler. My ninth-grader loves a read-aloud as much as the next person. Reading a book together as a family is different from reading it alone. For one thing, when we hear a story together, we laugh at the same jokes at the same time. A good story rattles around in our heads and we talk about it together at dinner or in the car. Letting my ninth-grader off the hook for all of that would really make him miss out. So every school day, he is present for our Bible reading and our current read-aloud novel and a brief discussion/narration time. When we do picture study or composer study or a nature walk, he is expected to come along and experience the same material at his own level. Then he is excused to work on physics or pre-calculus or Latin on his own.

Every time I think I’ve figured this parenting thing out, my children grow out of the phase we’re in and hit me with something entirely new. I want to make the most of the time we have, and that means continuing to build a family lexicon of shared stories. It doesn’t make up all of our reading diet. Everyone has their own favorites, but what we read together is the main course.

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