Discerning minds. How to read to preschoolers


Magicians know: children are a tough audience. Despite their inherent naiveté and typically short attention spans, they don’t miss a trick. They follow every move and assume nothing – unlike adults, who are full of assumptions and can be relatively easily misdirected. In a sense, kids are a whole lot more perceptive than some people give them credit for.

To an extent, it’s that way when reading to them, too. Except for the very, very young, don’t talk down to them, don’t use babytalk, and do anticipate that kids these days can follow some fairly complex plot lines.

If you’re interested in voice over jobs aimed at children as an audience (as opposed to jobs that use child voice actors), there are a number of genre options.

  • Audiobooks
  • Video games
  • Apps (especially for tablets and smartphones)
  • Talking toys

Although the last three of these tend to be more financially attractive for talent, Audiobooks tends to be the genre most people immediately think of. What people don’t think of is how short most young children’s books are. Since payment for narrating an audiobook is typically calculated Per Finished Hour, this market tends to be relatively low paying. It doesn’t take long to read a 32-page book. According to Writer’s Digest, that’s the typical length for a young children’s picture book, roughly a target of one sentence per page, or about 600 words at most.

As we write this, the audiobook audition site ACX.com lists nearly a hundred books in the Children’s Book genre, but most are significantly longer and aimed at older kids, tweens, teens or young adults. Although reading speeds can vary greatly, the finished-hour estimates tend to agree with the estimates in EdgeStudio.com’s Words to Time Calculator. (Incidentally, many books at ACS.com compensate on the basis of Royalty Sharing.)

If you nevertheless find yourself with a recording opportunity to keep primary teeth smiling, note that reading to young children often calls for a more relaxed (but not lethargic) pace, so that the listener can fully grasp the meaning.

And keep youngsters’ special sort of sophistication in mind. For example, here are some observations from a professional babysitter we recently spoke with. (If you’re a parent, surely you can add your own.)

  • The 3-year-old who specified which picture caption he wanted to hear next. It wasn’t so much that he was interested in certain pictures more than others, than his desire to be in control.
  • The 4-year-old who said, “Don’t read in that [character] voice, use your real voice!” Kids can be very critical, and know what they want. In fact, that direction falls right in line with today’s “real voice” standard, a direction that even cartoons have been heading.
  • Kids who want the same book read to them at every session ... but soon they start to chime in with the answers.
  • Kids who, when the bored adult tries to change the story line, shout, “That’s not how it goes!”

Yep, it’s a discerning crowd. If you work with a director, you should of course follow his or her direction. If you’re self-directing, you should read with clarity, variety and expression, but you may not want to ham it up. Better, develop credible characters, just as you would in other genres, and focus on expressing a range of emotions in a more realistic characterization.

Kids benefit from being read to even as early as 6 weeks old, and past the time when they’ve begun to read for themselves.

If you’d like to practice reading to a live pre-reader audience, check with your local library. Many libraries have a program where volunteers read to young children, sometimes in teams of two adults. There are also various other organizations, which you will discover by using a search string such as volunteer reading to children.

In addition to the experience and emotional satisfaction, it’s also a very good deed. One such organization, Reach Out and Read (reachoutandread.org) notes the following:

  • Only 48 percent of young children in the U.S. are read to daily.
  • Minority and low-income children are less likely to be read to every day than their non-minority and higher income peers.
  • By age 3, children from lower-income families have heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers.
  • By the end of third grade, reading proficiency is a key benchmark for educational development. In 2013, 66% of public-school fourth graders were less than proficient.

So, whatever the neighborhood, whatever the audience, sometimes the issue isn’t just about producing finished hours. It’s also about producing finished kids.

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