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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Ponderable: Do Bad Readers Affect a Love of Books?

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.

Thoughts on the matter?

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. When I taught kindergarten I definitely didn’t read a book well on my first try. But the second and third time it was a way different reading because I was comfortable with it. Sometimes I would read a book more than once during a given week so I could erase the bad first reading in the kids’ minds.

  2. My immediate musings:

    I think “voice” is only one component of the activity of reading. There is also the giving of one’s attention, the giving of one’s time, the physical closeness, visual things going on within the pages, content, shared experience… I think these are all things that kids long for and would EAT UP regardless of “voice.” They are all things that, by association, would encourage love for the written word.

    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.

    My dad wasn’t a super singer, but I can remember my brother regularly asking to be sung to at night. Why? Time… attention… physical closeness… shared experience.

    Obviously a GOOD reader would have a greater positive influence than a bad reader. But I don’t think a bad reader would have a *negative* impact. It would still be a good impact, perhaps just *less* influential.

    In my opinion, the only type of reader to have a negative impact in a child’s life would be a parent who is a Non-Reader.

    Thanks for the food for thought!
    – AZ

  3. I think yes. Modeling excellent reading skills is a very important part of the development of a reader so if a young child picks up that the reading of the book is difficult/a chore/there’s a sense of embarrassment for the one doing the reading those ideas will be transferred. That’s talking strictly reading skill of course, if the reading sounds as smooth and comfortable as speaking with no pauses, hesitation, etc.

    As far as reading with expression I’m less certain.

    I don’t think it’s an absolute deal breaker if someone reads poorly to a child but I do think it places them at a disadvantage. I tutored adult literacy for five years and these are my conclusions based on that, I had adult students who were poor readers but sometimes their children still became excellent readers, but more often than not books weren’t a part of any their lives.

  4. In my day I’ve observed some pretty mediocre reading by parents, but it didn’t matter a whit because the child was into the book. That is, the kid was totally immersed into the story and wanted to know what is going to happen next. That the parent read in a halting monotone mattered not. I have to respectfully disagree with the librarian who said the parent had to give context. If the text works then angry will be related through the language and words not by the reader. When I read aloud myself I tend to see myself as needing to disappear so that the words, the story, and all are front and center. (This means I’m by and large not one to do special voices unless absolutely necessary to differentiate characters.)

    As long as the kid gets the story, the information, and enjoys that, along with that special bond with the parent nothing else matters.

  5. Well, I’m fascinated by this discussion. And I think that the answer to your question may vary, depending on the situation. I have to agree with Monica and believe that a loving parent reading, snuggled up with a child, is a positive thing even if the parent struggles.

    But when it comes to other situations? I cannot count the number of times I’ve been absent from my classroom & asked the substitute to share the next chapter of our current read-aloud, only to get back and have my 7th graders complain with great indignity that he or she “didn’t do any of the voices.”

    Presentation, I think, matters more in a group situation – school or story time at the library – than it does when it’s a quiet, shared reading with parent & child. While both do much to promote a love of reading, I think these are really different kinds of reading experiences.

  6. I have wondered this myself when I hear adults, especially those who don’t read much themselves, reading aloud in a monotone, or in a voice that sounds hurried or bored. Maybe it’s because I’m a musician, but I hear a message that comes through with tone of voice that can either support or work against the reading of a book.

    I can say from the positive end that I can still hear my mother’s voice reading to me and my sister–her love for the words and the story was palpable, and added to the magic (along with the feeling of closeness/time spent together.) The way that she read poetry, especially, enjoying the words in her mouth and giving full attention to rhythm, cadence, and rhyme certainly affected my understanding and the way I approach poetry as an adult.

  7. Au contraire, as we say in Kalamazoo — many a recorded book has been killed for me by misplaced acting. Just read the damn thing (Stephen Briggs doing all the voices in Terry Pratchett is an exception.) For the record, E.B. White felt the same way; he loathed the Julie Harris recording with all the actressy voices. He’d wanted a housewife from down the road to read it as if she were reading to a child in bed, but not enough firepower for the publishers.

  8. I’m with AZ: the true power is the shared experience and parental attention, the bonding over story. Voice is really just the icing on the cake. I mean, kids love it when they meet up with a great read-alouder, but that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive on a less skilled rendering from a parent. The story will still sing.

    I’m a lot more worried about book choice, actually. Especially when TV tie-ins and other dull fare end up being the only books kids are exposed to…

  9. I think the reading matters, it’s why some people go to my storytime versus my colleagues. But I also wonder if, in part, the listener matters. If you have a kid with a vivid imagination, then they’ll get the smarminess of the pigeon no matter how it’s read. An unengaged child and a terrible reader would be the worst kind of combo, but I think there is hope for any other mix of reader/listener.

  10. Helen Stein says:

    I have been a classroom teacher and school librarian for 24 years. This summer I had a wonderful opportunity. I team taught with two other teachers and we worked with a small group of ESL parents for 4 weeks, helping them to learn English. Reading helps poor readers get better. If the parents are to improve in fluency and reading with expression, they need to practice. As was brought up, we don’t want to scare parents into not reading. On the other hand, I think that having parents attend read alouds at libraries, bookstores, etc.. with their children can give them some ideas about fun/interesting ways to interact with a book.
    Hopefully, children will have opportunities to hear many different readers, just as they hear a variety of speakers. There have been studies that underscore the importance of having books in children’s homes. I agree with those who wrote about the special memories that are engendered from the act of a parent reading to a child. This is precious and although I am not a big gambler, I would bet that these experiences, regardless of the reader’s performance level, are highly influential on children’s feelings about books and reading. My 2 cents.

  11. Nay, nay, a thousand times nay! Does it sound corny for me to say that I think a parent’s voice is one of the most wonderful sounds in the world to a child? I have to heartily agree with AZ above and say that any time a parent is devoting time to read with their child, it’s going to enhance a love of reading.

    I do think presentation is probably more important in a group setting where you’re trying to keep the attention of a bunch of kids at once. But even then, if the reader is a parent, grandparent, or some other beloved adult, I think the kids are more likely to be tuned in just from their love for that adult.

    However, I wonder if offering parents classes or training on reading aloud might make reluctant parents more comfortable with reading aloud, which might lead to them reading aloud more often. And that could definitely affect a child’s love of reading.

  12. I remember being more distracted/put-off by the people who were trying too hard (i.e. reaching for voices/accents they couldn’t execute or were just plain goofy without reason) than by people who spoke in a monotone/just read.

    I agree with those who’ve commented before me; I think the physical proximity and “stolen moment” of reading together can transcend any inferior reading skills on the part of the adult. My parents were never flashy readers but I learned to love reading because my parents sat down and read with me when they could have done ten other things instead. They demonstrated a love of reading and I inherited it. It was their attitude, not their delivery, that inspired me. Perhaps that’s what you mean by “poor reader”? As in, “Your teacher said I should read to you, so here we go…” In that case, yes, I do believe that might be harmful. Back in library school, I read articles that drew that conclusion.

    In her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty says, “”Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” I think, as others have said, that children’s readiness to engage with stories can forgive many imperfections on the part of the storyteller (in this case, an adult reader).

  13. 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:

    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:

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

  14. Heather says:

    I think whether the reader is a “good” reader is less important than whether they are interested and engaged in the reading. My mother was completely and totally tone deaf but loved to sing and did so frequently. All of my sisters and I exhibit a fair amount of musical ability, singing in choirs and playing musical instruments. We clearly didn’t learn musical skills from my mother but definitely learned to love music and picked up skills elsewhere, because we were interested enough to seek them. I suspect reading may work in a similar fashion. Parents don’t have to be amazing readers to pass on a love of reading, if the experience of reading together is enjoyable. And children who love reading are more likely to invest time and effort in gaining the skills to become good readers.

  15. Karen Gray Ruelle says:

    I’m also with AZ on this one, even though I find it painful, myself, to listen to those aforementioned bad-type readers. It’s the whole closeness, attention, etc., thing that saves the day. And even simply valuing the reading of a book (or showing that by reading it aloud, no matter how poorly) will teach children that reading books is important. Of course it’s so much better when the reader is good, but surely kids will hear others read books aloud as well, and think how exciting it will be for them when they discover the GOOD readers! Interesting question, nonetheless.

  16. It might also be that the bad readers are just a tad self-conscious about reading aloud in a public place with all the distractions and eavesdropping librarians;-)

    I also say bravo to the brave English language learner willing to lay themselves out like that for the love of a child.

    When I worked in a K-8 school and did a ton of reading aloud, I was totally hammy, some might even say over-the-top, but I could be subtle too. I think the key was being totally engaged in the text. And, as someone pointed out earlier, that is definitely a learned skill. If I was having a bad day at school and my mojo wasn’t there, I would say that I was a bad reader sometimes. It always tickled me when a first or second grader would ask for the book I had read aloud. I would find her (it was usually a girl) sitting on my stool with her friends
    on the floor, and she would be reading the story pretty close to the way I did. I was less tickled when a parent conveyed her daughter’s admonition, “No! You’re not reading it right. You’re not reading it the way Mrs. Kahn read it!” Yikes, I figured that went over about as well as my sons’ laments whenever my husband tried to help them with their math homework, “That’s not the way my math teacher showed us!”

    Bottom line for me: one on one, parent child, there is no such thing as a bad reader. Group reading is a different animal. I don’t think it matters much whether we do voices or a straight narration, as long as we are engaged with the text.

    Brenda’s two cents.

  17. Ohhhhh. When I read this blog title on Twitter I immediately thought of readers in the sense of easy readers. Then I immediately felt guilty because I do buy those terrible Spider-Man/Batman/Toy Story 3/Transformers/Star Wars easy readers because the chidlers love them and ask for them and I can hook the library haters with them during tours and visits (see how defensive I’m getting?)

    But in answer to your *real* question, I’m on the parental connection bandwagon like many others. Sure, it’s nice if your parent can differntiate between George and Martha, but it’s certainly not essential. I actually hope that no one ever studies this because the last thing parents need is something else to worry about.

    On an unrelated note, it’s interesting that Spider-Man is hyphenated but Batman is not…

  18. I suspect that the reader’s attitude toward the reading matters more than the tone. If the monotone results because reading is something the adult doesn’t want to do, or if it’s something the adult intends to force on the child and then cross off the to-do list for the day, then yes, I’d be concerned. But I’d be less so if the parent treats reading as an enjoyable activity and just lacks some theatrical skills or comfort. (The customers I overhear reading the clunky texts of the Barbie and superhero eight-by-eights their kids pick deserve medals. And better books.)

  19. Paul W. Hankins says:

    I think the share is so very important here. The reading place, the lap space. I remember that my mother was not the best of cooks, but this did not keep me from wanting to be in the kitchen. Nor did this kill my love for food. . .or eating. I explored this idea with my English 11 students this year with our One Book: Four Hands project wherein the older students found a reading partner with whom they would share a number of award-winning and fun picture books. Some of these students did not see themselves as reading mentors, but with some rehearsal time, they were able to navigate the book themselves before sharing with the younger reader.

  20. I’m currently getting my Masters in Reading and Language Arts with a Reading Specialist endorsement, so the act the reading aloud to children comes up frequently. I don’t think if our conversation has gone in this direction, although I think this is a good topic to discuss!

    When we discuss the importance of reading aloud to children, we of course bring up what others have said in the comments like the actual act, the closeness it provides, the model, etc. I know children love the voices and sometimes pay attention to inflection in voice. Hopefully, despite “poor” reading, they’ll still love reading simply because it’s been modeled starting at an early age.

    Our bigger discussion revolves around developing a child’ phonemic awareness and ability to identify sight words and so on. I’d have to believe that even if a parent is the best reader because of ELL issues, that the child will grasp at least some of the English language. If a parent’s (or teacher’s) big issue is being monotone, but they are reading the book correctly, will still be expanding their child’s vocabulary and phonemic awareness through this act of reading. And again, this whole act is still a bonding moment between parent and child.

    I’m going to email this post to one of my professors and see what her thoughts are :) I really like this discussion and think it’s worthy of a bigger discussion. Maybe someone should look into researching this, if it hasn’t been done already!

  21. No. The enjoyment of a reading aloud session is in the ear of the listener. I don’t think a poor reader would lessen the joy of reading for a listener. There are many other elements in that reading session and other elements that lessen the impact of a droning monotone voice.

    Just taking the time to read and be together and perhaps talk about the story afterwards are other moments during a reading session that are priceless.

  22. Regarding tidy bundles of money: You’re in NYC. Have you watched Rosie Pope? You could definately make $ doing one-hour personalized “reading to your child” sessions with new, nervous, want to do it right parents.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      More! Must have more comments! These are incredibly well thought out. More I say!

      And yep, I have seen Rosie Pope, Liz. You’re right about those sessions. By the way, is it just me or is the show more fun if you pretend that her assistants are just figments of her imagination?

  23. I just wrote about teaching children to read silent in their minds with expression on my blog. I believe learning to read with expression and character voices helps readers to hear the many story voices in their heads. Hearing the story as if it’s alive goes hand in hand with visualization. Voice & visuals weave together to bring the reader closer to the text (connections), which enhances the ability to comprehend. That being said -I believe that when parents read aloud to their children, (whether the reading is good, bad, or ugly) they are not just modeling reading skills, but the value of reading. They are saying to the child that they believe reading is important. Hopefully, the child will hear books read aloud with expression by teachers and librarians. In this they will hear the modeling for expressive reading. If young children begin to connect that the words on the page mean something, and are important, then the parent has done made a difference. I am more concerned about the child who never sees a book before they enter kindergarten.

  24. Definitely think parental desire to share a moment and a book with a child triumphs over reading aloud skills, though I am also sure a kid will pick up if this is merely a parent fulfilling a sense of obligation rather than true motivation and, as with all things, this can weaken the experience. However, I do think it is a little different in say the library context, in which I have worked, were I have definitely overheard kids commenting on narration and how it affected their enjoyment.

  25. I just looked back at my comment and noticed typos… Ugh. Sorry about those! :/

  26. I’m going to say only if the reader is, like, mispronouncing words or offering think-aloud judgements (i.e. “this story is awful!”) or some other intentional or unintentional major infraction. Even the most monotone, choppy reading allows listeners to imagine. Could one argue that an over-embellished reading cuts short on the listeners imagination – demanding that a character’s voice sound a certain way?

    I am in no way trying to defend poor read-alouders. But I do think a book read aloud is more of an even team effort by the reader and listener, so a poor reading is only fractionally damaging at worst.

  27. I often hear parents and caregivers reading aloud to their children, and at times I want to jump in, but I take a step back and I applaud anyone for reading to their children! I will agree that while English may not be the first language, (or English spoken with an accent) reading come off a bit monotonic resulting in a loss of interest for the listener. Like a lot of the comments, I’m also not trying to defend (poor) read-alouders, but this can also be beneficial because in the mind of the reader, they’re giving their child(ren) the most valuable experience: READING. Personally, I’ve learned different techniques of reading aloud — when doing story times for instance, and some may disagree, reading aloud and doing “voices” is dependent upon my audience (age, development, etc.).

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

    No. I think the very worst they can do is make the child appreciate better reading by others. But then, reading aloud is my *very* favorite thing to do with kids.

  29. I think the act of sharing a book together and the one-on-one interaction trumps less effective reading aloud techniques. Children crave special time with their parents; if the reading is not a great performance, it won’t negate the experience. Th It’s great to have, but it won’t necessarily ruin the experience.

  30. My dad did not exactly REFUSE to read to us, but he attempted to get us to not ask him to read to us by reading all the front matter – the CIP info, the publisher’s address, etc.

    I think we can say he was a TERRIBLE reader. On the other hand, I became an EXCELLENT cataloger. And not a bad reader, all things considered.

  31. I’ve only skimmed the other comments, so I’m sorry if this is repetitive. But I think the main benefits of parents reading to their kids are in getting kids to like books, because liking books is an important step to learning to read. So as long as the kids like the time they spend with their parents reading–even if the reading itself isn’t so grand–there’s a benefit.

    First of all, the non-reading-related benefit of spending time with kids not in front of a screen is something on its own.

    Then, kids who like when their parents read to them will seek out more reading, and also move on to looking at, and eventually reading books to themselves.

    I think teachers can iron out a lot of bad grammar, decoding, and other technical reading mistakes if they get children who want to read.

    Just my two cents!

  32. Sure, in an ideal world all parents would read fluently, have great pacing and inflection. Alas, that’s not always the case. It’s more than just the reading though. It’s the time that the child is spending with their parent, looking at print hopefully snuggled up in their lap. I’d much rather have a parent read badly than not at all.

  33. Murder Bird says:

    When I was little, my dad would try to make reading the same book over and over to me and my sister more interesting for himself by making up voices for the characters… and we would freak out! Something about hearing a different voice coming out of our dad felt really weird and confusing, and we always made him stop – even though (or because!) he was really good at it!

    So for us, having a parent who was a really good reader… made us super uncomfortable about having him read to us! We just wanted to hear what was on the page, and not all the different voices, expressions, etc. And so I don’t think a parent who’s a ‘bad’ reader will affect their child’s love of reading – as long as they do read together.


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