Everyone has heard that it is important to read to children from a very early age; but, do you know WHY it is important? What are the benefits of reading aloud to children, and what can the reader to maximize the benefits of those reading experiences?
Benefit #1 of reading aloud to children: Developing thinking about stories
The “oral tradition” was the ancient practice of storytelling. Every culture throughout time practiced this tradition. Long before books and movies, “story” was necessarily the dominant mode of teaching, entertainment, and remembering. Among today’s storytellers are our authors, cinematographers, podcasters, and even YouTube creators. They are the ones who, today, explain, entertain, and record information.
When read to, children develop a sense of “story” from the books that are read to them—and this development happens even more quickly when the reader takes the time to point out these features as they are encountered in the text. (Of course, the reader can quickly KILL the fun of the reading with too much commentary, so keep that in mind.) Consequently, listeners will subconsciously begin to develop a “schema,” a type of unwritten outline, for each type of story they are read. They will learn to expect to hear about the setting, about the particulars of the characters, about the conflict as it develops, and so on.
Both non-fiction and fiction “stories” have archetypal (typical) patterns.
Non-fiction stories present information organized by cause and effect, problem and solution, chronology, factual listing, as well as comparison and contrast.
Fiction stories follow various types of plots depending upon the genre. There are circular plots, parallel plots, and plots with specific patterns that are related directly to their specific fiction genre (think clues in mysteries and boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back in romances).
One of the first types of fiction patterns that young children may begin to internalize are patterns in fairy tales. “Once upon a time,” details in threes, and “they lived happily ever after” are all components of fairy tales that kids learn about and begin to anticipate even at a very early age.
When children begin to internalize the differences between types of text structures, as a result of being read to, they can begin to make predictions about text. At that point, they are well on their way to developing the metacognitive (thinking about their own thinking) skills that will serve as a basis for their reading development in much the same way that all consumers of “storytelling” have learned from stories over thousands of years. That “learning” from stories is comprehension.
Benefit #2 of reading aloud to children: Vocabulary development
You’ve no doubt heard that children who are not “ready” to begin school possess significantly smaller vocabularies than children who are considered “ready.”
Here are some notable studies that point out the importance of children developing a wide vocabulary before they even begin school:
But why? How does the number of words a child can understand and use in spoken language correlate to success in reading development?
Well, think about it. Isn’t it much easier for you to figure out a “new” word in print if you have heard the word before and you have some inkling as to its meaning than it is to figure out a “new” word that you’ve never heard before?
For developing readers, having a relatively large speaking and listening vocabulary scaffolds and simplifies the process, and much of the work, of reading. When they come across a new word in text, once they have sounded out and connected the new word to one they already possess in their speaking/listening vocabulary for which they already have an idea about the meaning, they can proceed on with the text. In fact, students often won’t have to “sound out” the entire word in order to decode it. The stronger their speaking/listening vocabulary, the more likely it will be that they can use context and recognition of beginning sounds and word chunks to dive into the treasure chest of vocabulary words in their head and pull out the “new” word.
On the other hand, students who have limited speaking/listening vocabularies may struggle for the meaning of a word even after they have used their decoding skills to be able to say the word, increasing the time they have to spend identifying the “new” word, and limiting their ability to comprehend the text they are reading. Over time, these impediments compound and will severely limit the child’s reading development, especially in terms of reading fluency, independence, and confidence.
For older readers, middle school and high school age, being read to, especially being read texts that are in some way “difficult” for them, whether it be in terms of vocabulary or lack of background knowledge, works in the same way it does for younger readers. Removing the “work” of decoding the reading, observing as the teacher/reader “thinks aloud” about the text, and adding the element of discussion of the text in real time scaffolds even older readers’ vocabulary development as well as supports the development of background knowledge on a given topic.
Reading aloud to children – FAQs
Don’t fiction stories make the best read alouds?
Not at all…don’t limit your read aloud repertoire to only fiction. Students enjoy non-fiction just as much as fiction. They need to learn about all types of text structures and need to learn vocabulary from a wide variety of topics and contexts.
Should I let the students choose the read aloud?
Well, that sounds good, but may end up keeping variety excluded from the read aloud menu. How about offering a choice between two or three books/texts that students can choose from? You may want to do a read aloud that connects to your science or social studies curriculum. You may want to read a biography that, again, connects to something else in the curriculum. Natural benefits of read alouds, beyond story and vocabulary benefits, are building background knowledge (front loading) across your curriculum.
Should the teacher/reader “think aloud” about all of the aspects of the text?
Absolutely not! Teachers/readers need to be strategic about what they emphasize in the reading. Maybe the most important emphasis is on plot development (because that’s what you’re studying) or maybe the most important emphasis is on vocabulary (because there are some really great words and equally great context clues to demonstrate in a particular text). If you feel like you have to take advantage of every single possible teaching point in a text, you will bore your students, frustrate yourself, and take way too long in reading a text.
Should I ask students comprehension-related questions as I read?
As long as the questioning doesn’t turn into assessing or even grilling, which takes all the joy out of reading aloud, a question here or there to stimulate discussion and ascertain that the students are picking up on the subtleties of the text is ok. In these instances, the teacher may want to plan the questions out ahead of time to make sure that the focus stays on the purpose for reading the text aloud in the first place.
What is the best way to handle unfamiliar vocabulary in read alouds?
Well, there probably isn’t a “best” way, but there are several options:
- Tell the children the word that will be encountered in the reading ahead of time. Put the definition on the board—give the students a visual reference for the word. Relate it to words the students already know. The reader could even pause when he comes to that word and allow the students to anticipate that that is exactly where the new word comes in to the story…
- Read on through the sentence, then go back and have students use context clues to figure out the meaning. It would be a good idea to then write the word on the board (with the definition, if you want) to give the students a VISUAL of the word. With an image of the word in their brains, students will more likely recognize that word when they encounter it in their own reading or use that word when they are writing.
- Or, just read through and simply GIVE the students the definition, but as before, write the word on the board to give the students the visual of the word that they can store in their brains for later!
Should I let the students/listeners ask questions about the story/text?
Encourage students to verbalize (or write down and then share) “I wonder” type questions about text. These questions can then be revisited when the answer becomes apparent and students can see their thinking validated.
Do I have to read entire books for read alouds?
You sure don’t. Reading novels/chapter books should be interspersed with reading articles, summaries, short stores, etc. Here are a few ideas for read alouds beyond the traditional chapter book:
- Read the first chapters of a plethora of stories to introduce your students all kinds of books they might want to read on their own. (At the University of Connecticut, this approach is called “book hooks”)…
- Read a short biographical piece when “new people” are encountered in science and/or social studies learning or about authors when studying a piece of literature…
- Read newspaper articles from the local paper or online…
- Read from public documents…
- Read the school newsletter…
- Read your own and students’ writing…
But shouldn’t the students be reading on their own—independently?
There’s a balance that needs to be achieved. Sure, it’s super important for students to develop confidence and independence in reading silently, on their own. However, there are countless benefits that students can receive from seeing the teacher model and think aloud about the reading habits of proficient/advanced readers. Re-read the article above (ooh…that’s close reading, isn’t it?) and ascertain all of the positive effects of reading aloud to children, whatever their age.
Description: When his father sets out on a cattle drive for the summer, fourteen-year-old Travis is left to take care of his family and their farm, and he faces new, unanticipated and often perilous responsibilities in the wilderness of early frontier Texas. But Travis is not alone. He finds help and comfort in the courage and unwavering love of the stray animal who comes to be his most loyal and very best friend: the big yellow dog Travis calls “Old Yeller.”
An enduring and award-winning American classic, Fred Gipson’s Old Yellerstands as one of the most beloved novels ever produced in this country, and one that will live in the hearts and minds of readers for generations to come.