children • education • parents
relationships • marriage • the elderly


Stories Will Save Our Souls, Part 6: Reading Aloud Teaches Attentive Listening

July 25, 2018 by

There are few things in this world more sacred and life-preserving than books. I believe that stories can indeed save our souls, and in this series I will explain why it is important to share them with others, especially children. Countless people have told me that being read to by a parent or friend was one of their happiest childhood memories. Every child deserves happiness, so what are the details of making this work in reality?

Stories open up an imaginative world unparalleled by any digital medium, and have the ability to teach moral values, ward off evil vices, and ultimately carry an element of humanity this real world cannot match. This blog post is part 6 in a series.

I squeeze into the narrow seat and force my bag between my feet. The train lurches forward. The scent of rubber, the taste of adventure, the occasional bump on the arm from a swaying fellow traveler – I raise my eyes and look down the length of the carriage. The silence is almost eerie. No human voices, no lively conversation, just the mechanical sounds and smells of machines.

Earlier, the bus to the train station had been the same. Only I’d asked a few questions of my seat mate, and received the usual signs of inattention – the involuntary dart of the eyes toward an unseen clock, the stealthy hand movement toward a pocket, the caressing of a phone. I could see the almost visible concentration of the will to refocus on my attempted conversation – the eyes forced upward to meet my own, the hand replaced firmly on the armrest, and the phone turned face down with the screen light escaping around the edges.

Listening to each other has become increasingly difficult.

Perhaps there is no real need to listen anymore. Texting is a convenient, silent way to converse, easily done during funerals, birthday parties, or while enjoying an intimate candlelit dinner. The ears and the tongue are now superfluous – all you need is some similarly quiet company. Reminds me of a cemetery.

The wisdom to speak, to respond, is a seed first planted in those who know how to listen.

We are silent, but in the great deafening silence we are unable to listen. It is time to stumble out of our bewilderment and seek the vibrancy of a very-much-alive, passionate world. We can return from the graveyard and take comfort in knowing that we need not be locked in this state of silent bewitchment forever; we can emerge to embrace all sensory communication.

The wisdom to speak, the wisdom to respond, is a seed first planted in those who know how to listen. The seed can be nourished into life, just as easily as the drought of technology withers it.

Choose a time each day, gather your family or a few young friends around you, and read them a story. Aloud. This is what teaches listening. People who hear stories become good listeners. Goethe pointed out, “A person hears only what they understand.” So, start with literature your audience can follow. A well-read well-heard story will capture a child’s mind so entirely that other external distractions fade away.

When I read to my children I feel like a marionettist. Each of my listeners is linked to my voice by an invisible string. Just as I can feel inattention – the slackening of the string – so too can I feel the taut pull that hangs upon every sentence. This spellbound attention is palpable. Neither ringing phones nor force majeure can break the cord that bonds word and imagination. A good story read with a clear voice will overcome all obstacles of distraction.

Reading a book alone in a favorite armchair is a wonderful thing, but reading aloud together – often – creates a bond of camaraderie that will be remembered. It does take some practice. Do not lose heart if some are inattentive at first. Read anyway. Our youngest doesn’t understand everything, but he loves the exciting bits and begins edging out of the room when things get a little too scary. Don’t bore your children with overly complicated themes, but don’t underestimate them either. Over time our children have devoured richer fare than I thought possible.

Sometimes I can hardly read for laughter. Other times sadness makes it difficult to read clearly. The invisible string from reader to listener vibrates with the emotion. The heart is stretched, the ordeal or action is felt as true emotion, and the story becomes our own.

kids listening to a storyAuthor's kids listening to a story

I read during mealtimes (Yes, embrace all five senses; just don’t tell your librarian that food and books do mix!). People pay closer attention to what they hear when they are eating. There are moments when every fork is suspended in midair, lasagna-laden, open mouth waiting. There are times the candles have burned low, the teapot is empty, and bedtime has come and gone. There are times my rasping voice cannot continue, and the chorus of “Read on, read on,” drowns out all parental directives.

But I am on a train now, and the continued bumping of my tattooed neighbor brings me back to earth as the train sways around a bend. He turns off his device and we make brief eye contact. He has no doubt sized up my simple dress and solid shoes. I in turn have seen his broken nose and muscular legs. We both speak at once, “So, what do you do?”

I don’t know what I tell him, but he has me hanging on every word. He is a kickboxer going to a high-stakes fight. He hopes to win often enough to get out before the sport destroys him; he’s probably broken every bone in his body at least once. He has dreams of a home and a family.

His story captivates me until his stop. We say goodbye like old friends.

Reading aloud is not only for a cozy time in the family, for intellectually invigorating discussions in a book group, or for an educational course to enhance cognitive skills. There is more at stake. A good listener earns more respect than a good talker. By reading aloud we are preparing the next generation to listen with the same intensity as they do to a well-read story. After all, we should not make our mark in the graveyard but, while we are alive and able, in our vibrant, animated world.

Read other posts in this series here.


About the author

Dori Moody holding a cat

Dori Moody

Dori Moody lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in Australia. She and her husband, Henry, nurture four children, one cat, and...

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  • My mother is 92 and we spend a lot of time together. The thing that she likes best is when I read to her. We have gone through dozens of books, now it is mainly 7th and 8th grade level, books with not too many characters. She loves it and so do I. I think it is a wonderful way of spending time together.

    Ida Neal