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Powerful Words: The Magic of Reading Aloud (Q&A with Meghan Cox Gurdon)

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A miraculous alchemy occurs when one person reads to another, transforming the simple stuff of a book into powerful fuel for the heart, brain, and imagination. In The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of DistractionMeghan Cox Gurdon discusses the scientific benefits – and joys – of reading aloud. This month, we were lucky enough to talk to Meghan about the importance of reading aloud, something that is a big part of our #ShareAStory campaign, which encourages parents, carers, siblings and friends to read to one another for at least 10 minutes a day. Read on to find out more about how sharing stories with children can make a difference to their outcome; plus it’s fantastically fun for everyone involved!

Q&A WITH MEGHAN COX GURDON
 
The Enchanted Hour provides a fascinating look at how reading aloud makes people smarter, healthier and happier. Can you tell about what inspired you to write about this topic?
As the Wall Street Journal’s children’s book critic, I see thousands of books a year. It’s an honour and a joy, but the trends are not always uplifting, and a few years ago I was feeling quite bleak about the world as it was presenting itself to children. Too many books seemed to want to draw them into deep gloom. At the same time, technology was drawing children away from books (and from each other, and from their families) into the shallow, lonely enthralment of screens. And I thought: Children deserve better than this.
 
“Well,” I then asked myself, “What’s the opposite of all that?  What is the ‘better’ that children deserve?” And my mind flashed immediately to reading aloud, something I’d been doing with my five children since they started arriving twenty-odd years ago. The warmth and closeness, the language and literature, the daily sacrifice of time and the joy we all got from it – that was something good. 
 
So, in the summer of 2015, I wrote a piece for the WSJ entitled “The Great Gift of Reading Aloud,” and it went viral. Tens of thousands of people read it, loved it, and passed it on. The response suggested that many people are thirsting for the love and meaning and connection that reading aloud offers, not only out of nostalgia, but also because it offers an antidote to the ill-defined, tech-associated ennui that ails so many of us. 
 
When I began to explore the brain and behavioural research connected with the topic, I discovered that what I’d suspected was true: Reading aloud really is a kind of magic elixir for the brain, the heart, and the imagination. I thought: This needs to be a book.  And, hurrah, now it is!
 
You carried out a lot of scientific and behavioural research. How did you research your books? And what was the most fascinating bit of information about reading aloud that you came across?
People who work at the cliff-face of clinical research tend to be wonderfully generous with their time and expertise. They want the world to know about their work, and are happy to share their findings with writers like me. I learned so many arresting things: That the language circuits in a new baby’s brain spring to life at the sound of a mother’s voice; that a child’s receptive vocabulary (what he understands) may be as many as 3 years ahead of his expressive vocabulary (what he can say); that a child’s ability to pay calm attention at 4 predicts whether he will graduate from university by the age of 25.
 
Do you have a favourite memory of being read aloud to?
Only in the gauziest way of early recollection: I have trace memories of mother throwing herself into an enthusiastic reading of P.D. Eastman’s The Great Honey Hunt and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. The same goes for Marjorie Flack’s The Story About Ping, which I know my paternal grandmother read to me often. Once I could read independently, though, they stopped reading to me. That was the end of it.
 
Your book discusses how technology is attractive but ultimately distracting with negative effects. What is a simple tip that adults can follow to encourage reluctant children to switch off their screens and turn to a book?   
Join them! There’s no need to be heroic, just set aside a bit of time each day. Turn off the phones, get out the books, and enjoy stories and pictures together
 
Reading aloud is not just for children and your book encourages readers to share stories with adults and the elderly. What are some of the benefits of reading aloud to older readers?
For older people, as for young ones, there’s a brain-kindling aspect, to start: Exciting research at the University of Liverpool, for instance, suggests that reading poetry aloud can help Alzheimer’s sufferers by stimulating their neural pathways. There’s a social aspect: It is a way for people to connect when age or illness makes conversation awkward or impossible, offering a balm for the heart and consolation for lonely.
 
At World Book Day, we celebrate the magic of sharing a story and your book is filled with reading recommendations. Could you tell us your 5 favourite books to read aloud?
Terrible to limit the list to 5, but, since you asked so nicely: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, Just-So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling, Cloud Tea Monkeys, by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig.
 
5 THINGS TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE ENCHANTED HOUR 
 
1) Reading to children can encourage brain development
The early years are a critical time for child development as it is when the brain is adaptable and growing intensely. Research shows that reading out loud with young children stimulates brain development which then builds language and literacy skills.
 
2) Reading out loud supports language development
Reading aloud surrounds children with a rich variety of words and sharing stories creates a ‘learning environment’ that children would not have encountered through just talking. 
 
3) There is a difference between reading books and watching films
You might think having Harry Potter read out loud is similar to watching the films, but Meghan points out that the former is a active experience while the latter is passive.
 
4) Reading together can encourage intimacy and connection
Making it a habit to read together can encourage people to put aside time every day to enjoy each other’s company.
 
5) Get your creative hats on 
The Enchanted Hour discusses how schools are getting creative and using podcasts to engage students. While this approach might not be exactly the same as reading out loud, it keeps young people connected to oral storytelling and can encourage critical thinking.

The Enchanted Hour, published by Little, Brown, is out now.

#WorldBookDay