How To Encourage Your Child to Read the Classics


The odds are frankly stacked against your child reading the classics. This generation has instant gratification at their fingertips - whether they want to watch a movie, listen to the latest song, or hang with friends - by swiping across a smartphone. Modern writers are aware that if they don’t grab the attention of their child readers in the first 5 pages, they’ve lost them. Classics have long paragraphs of description and plots that unfold gently. Can we encourage a child, used to a fast-paced story, to read a classic?  

It can be done. 

First, however, a parent has to understand why it’s important for children to read the classics. Classics, by definition, endure the test of time. Their stories are so strong and well written that they resonate with modern readers. A classic for adults like Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice' and Arthur Conan Doyle’s 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' are examples of how these stories stand up to innumerable reinterpretations in books, television, and movies. The deterrents to reading the classic - the slow unfolding of the plot, the play of language, the usage of ‘big’ words that are no longer used in common parlance - become the reason for reading the book once the initial mindset hurdle has been crossed. Classics are ‘gateway books’: if one has not been exposed to reading classics as a child one may feel diffidence and a lack of confidence in the ability to read ‘heavy’ books as an adult. 

I stumbled upon the unabridged version of 'Pinocchio' written by Italian author Carlo Collodi and it was a revelation. It was not the sanitized picture book version or the animated Disney movie that I had been exposed to as a child but a novel about a flawed character, who redeems himself by the end of the book. I couldn’t put the book down. Sure in the knowledge that this was a must-read classic for my ten-year-old son, I recommended that he read it. He started the book but found the pace slow and characters too naughty. 

But it’s such a good book! I thought. He should read it.

In desperation, I picked it as our next read aloud even though my son was not happy with my choice of book. I persisted. Night after night we read about Pinocchio and his adventures. My son would cover his face in disbelief at the trouble that Pinocchio could get into. We rejoiced in Pinocchio's victories and despaired when he succumbed to weakness again and again. When we finally turned the last page of the book, we both heaved a sigh of satisfaction. My son was quiet. He looked at me and said, “That was a good book.” 

That's how I get my child to 'read' the classics. And this works for several reasons. The brain works as hard when listening to a book. Reading aloud is like listening to a live audiobook and children get all the benefits of having read the book themselves. We have now been regularly peppering our read-aloud sessions with classics ranging from 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes', 'The Hobbit'', and even the children’s version of 'Homer's Iliad'. Increasingly I find that in his impatience to move ahead in the book, my son will read the book on his own fuelled by my pretend chagrin. 

Here then are my top 6 tips for reading the classics aloud- 

  1. Savor the vocabulary - one of the biggest pluses to reading classics is that it builds a strong vocabulary. If you come across a difficult word, pause to mull over its meaning, and encourage your child to guess the meaning in context. Show them by example that you don’t have all the answers all the time, and that’s okay. Introduce them to the habit of checking the accuracy of their guess by verifying it with the actual definition of the word in a dictionary. 
  2. Read Aloud to Older Kids - Older kids miss their parents reading aloud to them. The read-aloud book should be one that is slightly above the child's reading level or one that explores a genre that is outside the comfort zone of your child. Classics are thus the ideal choice for a read-aloud book. 
  3. Pace the classics - If one is forced to eat cake at every meal, pleasure becomes medicine. Variety in food for the stomach or food for thought is a very human need. Pace the classics. Read aloud a wide variety of books, and throw in a classic occasionally. Don’t overdo it.
  4. Compare the then and now - Pause to assess the behavior of a character. Did a character behave in a way that would be considered politically incorrect today? Instead of ducking the issue, embrace it, and discuss why certain behaviors that were considered acceptable at a point in time, are now considered politically incorrect. Classics are a great way to understand history and historical context. This could also be the gateway to discuss what situations today could be considered politically incorrect in the future. 
  5. Validate your child’s reading - Do this in two ways - ask them to rate the book on a scale of five and the reason for their rating. Don't try to influence their rating - accept it. Also, display the list of books read by your child (both self-read and read aloud at school or home) in your child’s room. It instills a sense of achievement in your child.
  6. Choose your books with care - Your choice of a read-aloud title can fuel or kill your child’s desire to read. Fall back on childhood favorites but if you want fresh suggestions, please explore the Kids Must Read search engine that will suggest books in the classics genre that are just right for your child.

During this time of enforced self-isolation, cozy up with your child and read the classics to them. Your children will remember this seminal time in their life; let one of their memories be of the time when their parents introduced the classics to them.