The Gift of Reading Aloud

Within hours of my son’s birth in a hospital in Minneapolis, MN, a visitor came to our room and gave us a book called Do You Know New? by Jean Marzollo. A board book with simple drawings and short, rhythmic sentences, it was the first book I ever read to my son. Over time, we read it so often that we knew it by heart, and by age two my son could “read” it to us. The visitor who gave us the book was a volunteer from a literacy organization that had as its mission that every baby born in the city would go home with a book. As she was handing us the book, the volunteer stressed that we should read to the baby every day, several times a day.
As a voracious reader and lover of stories, I was happy to put reading aloud to my son at the top of my priority list. I understood more fully the significance of the gift the volunteer had given us when I began my teaching training a few years later and learned of the extensive research on the subject. Countless studies have found that reading to children positively impacts their language and reading skills, as well their overall cognitive abilities. Moreover, there is an effect on children’s social and emotional development as well. The evidence indicates that reading aloud to young children helps them build empathy and increases their knowledge of words they can use to describe their feelings, which enables them to manage their emotions more effectively. Reading to children is without question one of the most important activities we can do to affect a child’s developmental outcomes.  

Because of its significance to a child’s development, reading aloud is a regular part of the school day in the Lower School. Teachers regularly read picture books to students to model fluent reading, teach story elements, and expose students to new vocabulary. Students look forward to hearing their teachers read the next chapter in a book selected to further the class’s learning on a specific topic. In every classroom, books are read aloud because of the pure pleasure we experience when stories transport us, inspire us, and give us reasons to laugh and sometimes even cry together.

While we are fully convinced of the power of reading aloud, we took some time last year to think more deeply about teacher read alouds as a practice that serves our goal of growing skilled readers and writers. We dove into the large body of research known as the science of reading that seeks to identify evidence-based approaches and methods that result in successful outcomes for students. The research tells us that a competent reader needs both strong phonics skills to decode words and the ability to make sense of the words, which is referred to as language comprehension. In the last four years, we have perfected our phonics instruction by explicitly teaching a sequence of phonics concepts that gradually builds from basic elements to more complex. With this kind of systematic instruction, our students are equipped to become expert decoders—but we know that word recognition is only half of the story. Ultimately, reading is the act of making meaning from print, and without the ability to comprehend what they read, students are merely word-calling. 

Comprehension engages higher-level mental processes including thinking, reasoning, and interpreting. The processes involved in comprehension are dependent on having specific knowledge in content areas and possessing related vocabulary, which makes comprehension largely knowledge-based. How do young children come to possess the wide breadth of knowledge and expansive vocabulary necessary to make sense of what they read? Unsurprisingly, research indicates that one important practice is teachers reading aloud complex texts that are above grade level and engaging students in discussions in order to build knowledge and maximize acquisition of vocabulary. Reading aloud is especially important in our pre-kindergarten through grade 2 classrooms where students’ listening comprehension far exceeds their independent reading abilities. In these early years when children’s developing decoding skills limit them to reading simple texts, they need an adult to read to them to give them access to content that engages their curiosity and excites them about our wondrous world. Adults reading to children exposes them to words that they typically do not encounter in spoken conversation. One study found that books are roughly three times more likely than parent-child conversations to include words that are outside of words commonly used in the English language.

I saw an example of this idea at work when I came upon two kindergarten students chatting in the hallway and heard them using the word "livestock" in their conversation. My guess is most five-year-olds growing up in Pittsburgh would not be familiar with this word or use it so casually in their conversation, but these girls had spent several weeks in the fall immersed in a Farm to Table Discovery unit where they had heard the word repeatedly in text read to them and used it in classroom discussions. "Livestock" is not a hard word to decode. The phonics concepts necessary to read it are taught in kindergarten and first grade. Most kids with basic phonics knowledge will be able to read it, but it is unlikely they will know what it means. That won’t be true for our kindergarten students, who will understand it when they come upon the word at some point in their reading, even if it is years later.

Exposure to words and development of content knowledge is made memorable by the way we engage students through interdisciplinary Discovery units designed to build knowledge of science, social studies, and the arts. Listening to your teacher read about farms is a good start, but talking about the information, performing experiments with plants, taking a field trip to an urban farm, and transforming your classroom into a farm with centers where you can play and create results in learning experiences that create a lasting impression. By combining listening to complex texts with class discussions and hands-on, multi-sensory activities, we are creating optimal conditions for deep learning that endures over time. 

At home, when you and your child snuggle up with a book and discuss how the character’s actions surprised you or marvel together over information on a topic that interests you, the memories created are invaluable. About 100 years ago, long before the science of reading ever existed, poet Strickland Gillilan captured this idea in his poem "The Reading Mother." The poem ends with the words, "You may have tangible wealth untold; caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be—I had a mother who read to me."