Reading the Bible Out Loud with Beginning Readers
My son’s first-grade teacher wanted her students to read out loud, at home, every day. I don’t remember the exact requirements—or maybe it was just a recommendation—but my wife and I strove to have our son read to us out loud, twenty minutes a day. After a few Pete the Cat books and a couple rounds of Green Eggs and Ham, I decided to switch it up. And so on October 28th, 2017 I made my son read Psalm 1. After all, if he has to read out loud anyway, why not capitalize on the time investment, and put him in the Word of God? Admittedly, I had to fill in a few of the vocabulary words, but we made it through Psalm 1 just fine. The next day we tackled Psalm 2. The day after that, Psalm 3. And the day after that was October 31st, so we skipped ahead and read Psalm 46 because we’re Lutheran, and that’s what you do on Reformation Day: you read Psalm 46 and then sing A Mighty Fortress. All in all it took him over 100 days, but before my son completed 1st grade, he had read the entire Psalter out loud. I took a picture of him beside an open Bible and posted it on Facebook just to brag about him. I figured “why not?” I had already posted a picture of his first fish, and a video of him legging out an infield grounder in baseball. Isn’t this an accomplishment worth sharing? I certainly thought so.
It was during this reading of the book of Psalms that I got into the good habit of making my son read regularly from God’s Word. “Dad, can I play the iPad?” he would ask. And my response was always the same, “Have you read your Bible yet today?” When the answer was “no” he would sigh and fetch his Bible and then he’d read another chapter from Scripture before he would get his screen time. It’s about priorities. “Seek first the kingdom of God” Jesus said. Oh, and his teacher wanted him reading out-loud anyway.
Once the Psalter was completed we moved on to Matthew. This was also a good experience, only moderately awkward when he asked me what a “eunuch” was—a fair question for anyone reading Matthew 19. And then, before we knew it, we were done reading Matthew. And so I snapped another picture, posted it on Facebook, and then we moved on to Genesis. Somewhere in the middle of Genesis we stalled out. We went on vacation, we moved to a new town, and started a new school. We went from reading a chapter of the Bible every day, to not reading a single chapter for four months. Then school started up again. And guess what? His second-grade teacher wanted her students reading out loud, at home, twenty minutes every day, too. So, we picked it back up. We finished up Genesis, snapped another picture, posted it on Facebook and then took up 2 John because my son wanted to do a short book. After 2 John we read 3 John and after 3 John, we read 1 John. And since we were on a roll with Johannine literature, we then read the Gospel of John and finished it out with reading Revelation. The completion of every book was accompanied by a picture posted to Facebook of my son’s reading accomplishments. After Revelation we read Daniel, and after Daniel we read Haggai, after Haggai we went back to the New Testament and read Romans, and after Romans we read Jude, and after Jude we took up Exodus.
I decided to write about this reading habit with my son for two reasons
First, we get asked about this a lot. Just yesterday my son and I were at a graduation party. We were eating cake when a parishioner of mine approached us and asked my son, “So, what book of the Bible are you reading now?” I don’t know that he’d ever spoken to this gal before but he took it in stride and said, “Exodus.”
I remember another occasion like this involving the youth minister of the local Methodist church. He and I are Facebook friends. This past winter we were both at the community swimming pool, and he walked over to me and asked, “So, what book is your son reading now?” I told him, “Revelation.” He then spoke with my son about this as we were waiting to go down the water slide, and my son confirmed that Revelation was the best book because it was interesting with “horses and wars and swords and stuff.” This social-media exposure of my son’s reading is impacting people. It’s getting them to think. I know of at least one family who has taken up the practice themselves.
The second reason is because it’s the season of graduations. My son will complete 2nd grade this week. And for whatever reason, I got to thinking about all the books of the Bible that he’s read. My son is still only seven years old, but as of today, my son has read (in order) Psalms, Matthew, Genesis, 2 John, 3 John, 1 John, Gospel of John, Revelation, Daniel, Haggai, Romans, Jude, and is thirty chapters through Exodus. That’s a lot of reading. That’s a lot of good reading. That’s a solid foundation for the faith.
One of the greatest tragedies of the congregations the Lord has called me to serve is the rampant biblical illiteracy of the parishioners. I love them all, and I’ll defend every one of them to the death, but this has not been an area for pride or boasting. Biblical illiteracy is rampant, but it doesn’t need to be. My son has shown me that. He’s only seven. At our current rate, he’ll have read the entire Bible out loud before enters sixth grade.
Solving biblical illiteracy is a bit like changing your diet. There is no quick-fix. There is no magic pill that will magically increase your Biblical metabolism. There is no switch that I can flip to make you magically more familiar with Scripture. It takes time. But not as much as you imagine. My son is only 7 years old. He doesn’t read out loud particularly quickly. He still stumbles over words. Last evening he had trouble with the words “contribution” and “perpetual.” But he’s persistent (at least, his dad is), and so he slogs through it. And he’s getting smarter.
Shortly after my son (my eldest) was born, everyone said, “Don’t blink. It goes by so quickly.” And they were right. It does go by quickly. And so those 20 minutes of reading every day are really beginning to add up. It seems like just yesterday we sat down to read Psalm 1, but in reality, it was almost two years ago. And now here we are, twenty-one months later, and we’ve got 12 books of the Bible under our belt.
I’d like to commend this practice to all of you, especially to those of you who have children. If you have children, make them read to you, out loud, from the Bible, every day, and start them as soon as they can read. Not only has my son grown by this reading, but I have too, because I’ve been there. I’m functionally reading with him as he reads out loud. It slows me down in the text, and makes me notice things I haven’t noticed before.
So here are some other rapid-fire observations that I’d like to make about my experience.
Start with the Psalms. They have some of the shortest chapters in the Bible, and beginning readers like to feel like they are making progress. Psalms 1–17 are pretty short and easily read by even the beginning reader. Furthermore, the transition from poetry to prose is easier than moving from prose to poetry.
Read a chapter a day or for twenty minutes, whichever comes first.
Once a chapter has been read, write the date next to it so you know when you read it.
Read from the version of the Bible that your child is going to encounter at church. In our case, we read from the ESV, because the ESV is what’s read on Sunday.
Don’t worry about your child not understanding all the vocabulary. That will come in due season.
Warning, there is a lot of sex in the Bible. Be prepared to have the birds-and-the-bees conversation with your children, especially if you’re reading Genesis.
I have my son reading from a reader’s Bible. That means there are no verse numbers and no footnotes and no headings. This keeps my son from getting distracted. I’d highly highly highly recommend that you do this too. Study Bibles, for all their bells-and-whistles, almost beg the reader to get distracted from reading the actual text.
Make your child pronounce the words correctly and speak loudly enough for you to hear them.
Feel free to ask your child if they have understood what they have read, and help them summarize the basic contours of the chapter in their mind. Reading comprehension is a dying skill.
Have a smartphone nearby. When my son reads about carnelian or jacinth, he wants to know what that is.
Make them read before they get screen-time. Teach them that the Bible is more important than Minecraft.
If you often post pictures of your children’s accomplishments on social media, be sure to do the same when they finish reading a book of the Bible. Celebrate their good behavior. Reading through Psalms is more impressive than legging out a triple.
Kids love patterns and numbers, and I was shocked at how much my son loved reading Genesis chapter 5.
When you go to the concert of your favorite band, the best part of the concert is when the band plays the songs you know. Along those same lines, church becomes more enjoyable when the pastor is talking about books of the Bible that children know because they read it at home.
I hope my experience of having my son read Scripture inspires you to do the same. If you take up the practice, I’d be happy to hear if your experience is similar to mine.
Timothy Koch. Pastor at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Milbank, SD.