I’m sure you’ve all heard that one of the merits of reading aloud to children is vocabulary enrichment. The argument goes that the vocabulary in books, even picture books, is more varied and sophisticated than our typical daily speech patterns. (If you doubt this, pay attention the next time you’re reading a picture book and note how many words are included that you otherwise wouldn’t say in a normal day. You may be surprised.) While increasing children’s vocabulary is a nice side-effect of reading aloud, there’s a different kind of vocabulary building that I think is just as important.
You see, if we hadn’t read certain books aloud, our stock of inside family jokes would be greatly diminished. My daughter would never talk about taking a bath in apple juice, would never refer to food as being yummy scrummy, and would certainly never sniffle and say, “snurp” then break out in peals of laughter. Reading together as parents and children has innumerable benefits, but surely one of them is building a common vocabulary within a family.
Yes, my daughter has undoubtedly learned the definitions of lots of words while she sits in my lap and listens to our favorite books, and I’m thankful for that. But our family culture has also been built as we turn pages, and somehow that seems at least as important. We have all read the same books, and because of that we can draw on a common vocabulary, so to speak. We know the same jokes, we love the same characters, we use the same funny little phrases that we’ve read time and time again. In a sense, reading aloud gives us an opportunity to partially define what it means to belong in our family.
The books we read together shape our particular family culture, and I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that it’s helped build our sense of family unity. When one of us uses a phrase from a book we all love, it’s a way to connect, a way to make someone smile, a way to help us relive those cozy moments where we’re all sitting on the couch with a stack of library books off to the side. It helps us remember that we’re a family and that we belong together. And because of that, I hope that we never stop family read alouds – no matter how old our children get!