Ponderable: Do Bad Readers Affect a Love of Books?

Chiming in to Fuse #8 Production blog today. Just had to add my two cent’s worth about audiobooks to the questions raised in Betsy Bird’s post below:

Say you’re a children’s librarian.  Your office is directly connected to the picture book room and due to the layout of the space the walls of your space do not reach the ceiling.  This means that anyone in the attached room can be heard with crystal clear clarity.  Maybe that’s not so great when you’re eating your ham sandwich for lunch and can hear five five-year-olds running hell-for-leather around the space while their parents gab, but generally it’s charming.  Particularly when you get to overhear parents reading to their children.  One day you might hear a stirring rendition of The Lonely Doll. The next, you’re getting ideas for storytime due to how a British dad reads The Terrible Plop.

But what if the parental reader is an awful reader?  This is often the case, after all.  Sometimes, for whatever reason, a parent isn’t particularly good at reading a book aloud.  This might be because they are unaccustomed to the activity, or it could be because English is not their first language.  Maybe they’re embarrassed to be heard giving voice to a smarmy pigeon or a truculent pig.  Or perhaps they always speak in a monotone anyway, and reading a book is never going to be any different.

Whatever the case, it got me to thinking.  We all know that it is incredibly important for parents to read to their children from a very young age.  With that in mind, what I’m about to ask is akin to near treason in the children’s librarian world.  Still, it’s something that has been floating about in my brain.  I had a chance to hash it out with another librarian recently, and I feel no closer to an answer.  Maybe you have an idea about the following then:

When a poor reader reads aloud to a child, can that person do more harm than good in instilling a love of reading?

My instinct is to say no, of course not.  A great book can survive even the worst reading.  But if a bad reader has been reading poorly to a child from day one, does that mean that the kid is ruined for books from Day One onwards?  I shouldn’t think so, but I wonder if any studies have been done on the subject.  I suppose not since defining a “good” reader sounds like a fairly subjective supposition to start from.  Still, have studies been done about reading with a single tone versus reading to children with a tone that jumps and jives?  Should there be such studies?  What could possibly be done if such a study took place anyway?  Would parents suddenly be inclined to “train” to learn how to read aloud to their children?  Does such a state of affairs already exist?  And, if not, wouldn’t the person who taps into parental fears and insecurities make a tidy bundle if they advertised classes meant to teach parents how to read to their kids “the right way”?

The librarian I mentioned all this too argued that if a parent reads poorly and doesn’t give any context to the reading (saying something angrily when a character is angry, for example) then they aren’t teaching their children properly and the kid loses out.  I dunno.  Sort of sounds right.

Your thoughts on the matter?

and about this bit in a comment on the post:

I believe *adults* are more apt to be influenced by a person’s voice. We recently borrowed an audio book from the library that I absolutely refused to listen to because of the reader’s voice (it was a recent newbery too!) I had to blast other noise over top of it whenever the kids listened to it in the other room, it was so awful. But that’s the thing… the kids listened to it. Constantly. They love story, regardless of voice.

What do you think? Here’s what I replied…

What a great discussion! The mention of audiobooks caught my eye, as this is a topic dear to my heart. I totally agree that the human connection to story trumps a less-than-stellar reading during an adult-to-child interaction. But what about the connection to story for kids in this age of digital literature? I’ve served on audiobook evaluation committees and review audiobooks, and have pondered the ability of a poor narrator to effectively kill a book, no matter a Newbery winner or a celebrity narrator – something I call the “Brad Pitt Effect” here: http://audiobooker.booklistonline.com/2008/11/26/the-art-science-of-recommendations-the-brad-pitt-factor/

More worrisome is the difference between digital devices that provide text-to-talk (a human supplying the audio) and those that supply text-to-speech (a computer program synthesizing speech). What about parents who hand off their Kindle to kids thinking that text-to-speech is good enough substitute for a human voice reading to a child – here are my thoughts: http://audiobooker.booklistonline.com/2010/08/28/kindle-3-text-to-speech-vs-audiobook/.

Or am I opening up a whole nother ponderable can of worms??

Discuss amongst yourselves 😉



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

2 Comments on "Ponderable: Do Bad Readers Affect a Love of Books?"

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  1. tribalgirl234@gmail.com' Angela Reynolds says:

    This is why I love storytime, and why I insist on parents attending storytime, not leaving their little dears while they go off to chat– the parents are learning as much from the trained librarian as the children are– they hear good readings of books, hopefully this modeling rubs off and they try some of that at home. I have developed a training session for parents and child care providers on how to read well to children because we all know it does not always happen naturally. Great discussion!

  2. glemay@wfsd.k12.ny.us' Gary says:

    As a teacher I see this often. When read in an energetic to, students will love the story; however, when the reading is monotoned and dry, the students lose interest quickly.

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