Seven Secrets from Voice-Over Actors, Teachers and Literacy Experts
Early in my time volunteering with BookPALS (Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools), I picked up my first valuable lesson on what not to do when reading to kids. On that fresh, September morning, my read-aloud selection for the 20 eager third graders gathered before me at Paseo del Rey Elementary in Playa del Rey was an educational but – in my opinion, lackluster – storybook on French pointillist painters.
I began reading, but was soon interrupted by a tiny tug at my sleeve. “Excuse me, Miss Thea,” whispered a polite little girl. “May I ask a question?” She gazed up at me with earnest eyes, then said: “Will this book never end?”
Despite my embarrassment, I burst out laughing and admitted that I felt the same way.
“If you read something to kids that isn’t genuine for you (even if it’s good), children often won’t engage,” says Robin Roy, Los Angeles BookPALS coordinator for the nonprofit SAG-AFTRA Foundation. “So always try to marry your book selection to your personal style.”
Since that early blunder, I do my best to make sure the kids I have the privilege of reading to are not forced to suffer. My go-to books lately have starred a hero or anti-hero I can relate to, such as the sarcastic pigeon in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” by Mo Willems.
Why You Want to Read Like a Rock Star
Each time you crack open a book with children, you spark creativity, bolster self-confidence and encourage curiosity. Research shows that one of the best predictors of children’s reading success is being read to.
“Reading to your kids really does prep their brains for exactly what they need to do to succeed in school, such as having a good vocabulary and scoring well on standardized tests,” says Julie S. Rodriguez, vice president of literacy services for nonprofit advocacy organization Reading Is Fundamental. “When your kids are not struggling with reading in school, it lessens stress on the family.”
Reading to kids allows you to explore exotic lands and discover new information on topics that fascinate you, but it goes beyond that. “Reading with your child establishes a sense of comfort and trust between you,” says voiceover and film actor/director Lidia Porto, a BookPAL with a recurring role as the babysitter in the Golden Globe-winning television series “Jane the Virgin.”
“Even during his teen years, when my son needed to be independent in most areas of his life, reading was his sanctuary place where the two of us could always come together and share something wonderful,” continues Porto. “Reading is still a consistent touchstone for us.”
You don’t need to be a performer, or even have a pleasant voice, to get children excited about the adventure of reading. The following tips will have kids hanging on your every (OK, almost every) word.
- Pick a great book.
It seems obvious, but most people don’t realize that fabulously written and illustrated storybooks will do 80 percent of the heavy lifting for you. Give Terry Border’s “Peanut Butter & Cupcake” a test run with your child if you want to experience how a great picture book naturally turns its narrator into a rock star.
Colombian-born Porto has a soft spot for books that describe the rich adventures of kids in other cultures, including “Biblioburro: A True Story From Colombia” by Jeanette Winter. But she also points out that kid-approved books tend to be funny or action-rich. Or they have zippy sound effects like “Zin! Zin! Zin! a Violin” by Lloyd Moss.
Your local librarian can steer you toward great kid-friendly titles that match your own interests.
- Preview it.
Enchanting readers share a secret practice. They usually read through the text once in private, improvising character voices and funny sound effects, before they read it aloud in public.
But don’t sweat it. “It does help to read the book ahead of time, but if it’s your first time, wing it, do your best, and try not to draw the kids’ attention to it too much,” advises Porto. “It will go better the second and third time around!”
- Propose a challenge.
Rivet young, distracted readers by deputizing them as official page-turners.
Or boost involvement by giving kids a mission to spot a drawing detail or a certain vocabulary word in the text you are about to read: “Look for the spotted caterpillars hidden in this story. And when we finish, I’ll ask who saw them.”
Porto often encourages kids to chime in and help her read repeated phrases a book might contain. “It’s so much fun to have a live chorus, although a little risky, since they can get too excited,” she says.
- Let your guard down.
Give yourself permission to make an utter fool of yourself.
“Try using preposterous accents and voices for each character,” Roy advises. “Borrow indiscriminately and shamelessly from everywhere to mimic different voices. Kids don’t care how perfect the voices are, only that they are different and distinct, bringing the characters to life. J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger is a goody-goody, so perhaps try doing her voice a little prissy. Draco Malfoy lords it over everyone, so perhaps he drawls.”
Watch actress Roy voice the kind of goofy picture book voices kids go gaga over here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6SwAXBvU6Y.
- Perpetually change it up.
Porto suggests playing with pitch and pace. Try high voices. Make one character speak as if they’d just downed eight espressos. Look for sleepy times of day in a story and narrate those in lower, slower voices.
Vary volume to heighten drama, being loud one minute and whispering the next. “Whispering can make the most malevolent characters even more malevolent,” says Roy.
Occasionally pause at an opportune moment to establish eye contact with your audience for dramatic effect. “A few good surprises like this can go a long way to better behavior in the future,” says Porto. “They won’t want to miss the fun!”
- Pose questions.
Asking something as simple as, “What did you think of the book?” could get you even better acquainted with your kid’s wonderfully unique take on things. Before you turn a certain page, encourage predicative thinking by asking questions such as: “What will be on the other side of the magic wardrobe?”
- Be patient.
There will be days when your child isn’t riveted. That’s totally normal. Don’t see it as a reflection on your wonderful storytelling ability.
“All kids occasionally get distracted – for a good reason. They’ve made an association while you were reading and are pursuing it,” says Roy. “When pausing and whispering and slowing down aren’t enough, it’s OK to let ’em color or draw or doodle – or braid their hair – to let their restless minds refocus on your story.”
No-Cost SoCal Reading Resources
BookPALS: Every month SAG-AFTRA Foundation BookPALS read to more than 60,000 children in Title I public schools, hospitals, libraries and social service agencies. If you are a teacher or principal who would like to request a BookPAL for your Los Angeles classroom, or a performer who would like to become a BookPAL, visit www.sagaftra.foundation/childrens-literacy.
Storyline: The SAG-AFTRA Foundation also records well-known actors reading children’s books and makes dynamic videos so that children around the world can be read to for free at www.storylineonline.net. It’s also a great place for parents to observe and learn from captivating story readers who happen to be celebrities. Don’t miss James Earl Jones, Mindy Sterling and Barbara Bain.
RIF: Reading is Fundamental of Southern California promotes literacy and motivates children to read by providing new books at no cost to underserved children all around Los Angeles. For more information contact 877 RIF-READ or www.rifsocal.org.
Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D. is a freelance writer, artist and literacy volunteer.