Reading aloud is like breast feeding: everyone agrees it is vital for the very young, but past a certain age it gets side-eye.
There is ample research on how reading aloud supports early literacy (Wiseman, 2010; Lennox, 2013, etc.).
What about reading to older students though?
Should story-time, like nursing, be confined to the earliest stages of life, or should it continue beyond the point kids can autonomously digest texts?
If primary function of reading aloud is to support literacy, research shows that reading to older learners “boosts their reading comprehension, increases their vocabularies, and helps them become better writers. In fact, students who are read to are more motivated to read themselves” (Blessing, 2005).
Zehr (2010) reported that, “teachers found by trial and error that reading aloud worked for adding interesting content or making literature come alive for students. And some educators say they read to their classes to model good reading, such as by asking comprehension questions as they go along.”
It is always gratifying when research supports my predilections, but I’ve been reading to older students — including adult learners — for as long as I’ve been teaching. Partly, it’s a failure of imagination: I loved being read to, cannot imagine anyone disliking it.
To be clear: my childhood pleasure in hearing books aloud had nothing to do with lack of independent reading skills. I could read by age four and would compete with myself to see how many pages I could read in a day. My record was 1,000. It was a 1,000 pages of the Paddington Bear series — not War and Peace — but the point is I read like a my life depended on it.
The pleasure of being read to was something else. Books I could (and did) read myself were still a joy to hear being read by my older sister, or one of my parents. We also tuned in to read-aloud radio programs, memorably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Jeeves and Wooster.
What makes reading aloud so marvelous? And why should it be part of every literature and language teacher’s repertoire?
To get another perspective, I interviewed Andie Yellott, a lifetime English teacher, former Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Writing Program supervisor and parent of a child with dyslexia.
- Should reading aloud be continued beyond reading competence?
Yes. Absolutely. When my son was in fourth grade, I would go in for one hour during lunchtime and read to his class. It was the highlight of the week, they told me. They loved it. They always wanted one more chapter.
- How did reading aloud support your son with dyslexia?
He could not have gotten through school without me reading to him. I read everything, even the godawful high school health book. One of the advantages to reading aloud is you can stop and springboard off into other paths, other conversations, which you wouldn’t do if the kid was reading alone. And if you want a kid to do well on a standardized test, read, read, read.
- How did reading to your dyslexic son facilitate his communicative abilities?
He’s got a huge vocabulary. I’d read to him, stop, ask what a word meant, try to figure it out contextually. Reading aloud to him made a difference. He thought he couldn’t write; now, he’s one of the best writers I know.
Like Yellott, I’ve had lots of student enthusiasm for reading aloud. It is more than just fun, though. Reading aloud supports specific skills, depending on whether the teacher or learner is reading aloud. Here are six benefits observed in my classrooms.
Native and non-native speakers alike struggle with the whimsy of English pronunciation. In extreme cases, this can lead to students understanding spoken words but not being able to identify them in print, or vice versa. Reading aloud while students follow along in a text is a straightforward way to ensure that kids are matching the right groupings of letters to the sounds they hear. This is especially important for those who struggle with reading and/or are learning English as an additional language.
When students are reading independently it is difficult to gauge how well they comprehend individual words. Students may grasp the main idea of a text but miss important vocabulary. As Yellott said, reading aloud is an opportunity to identify and define unfamiliar words in context. While reading to my students, I pause frequently to check comprehension. If they don’t know a word, we search for context clues, then look up the definition to verify our deduction. This is also a great opportunity to reinforce knowledge of parts of speech, e.g. ‘this is the noun fly; what does it mean when we use it as a verb?’
Reading is too often solitary and functional, the vegetable kids have to eat before dessert. We need to remember: independently reading printed texts is a novelty. For most of homo sapiens‘ time on the planet, stories were oral. People gathered around fires, or beneath fearfully and wonderfully made cathedral ceilings, to listen to a bard/priest/storyteller. Being read to was the only way most people could experience books until the advent of mass public education, which wasn’t all that long ago.
Reading aloud in the classroom reclaims the power of the story to articulate fears, hopes and desires; to delve and reveal. Students who have a chance to respond verbally to a book: express how they feel, ask clarification questions and debate it with their peers, are axiomatically more engaged than those who skim it in lonely silence.
Correct decoding errors
Even competent readers often make decoding errors such as ‘stared’ for ‘started’. If a student is reading silently, there is no chance to identify and correct these slips that, as they accumulate, affect comprehension. Younger and/or less able readers are more likely to make these mistakes, so reading aloud is an ideal tool to support their literacy.
If Emily Dickenson was right and “a word is dead./When it is said” then spare a thought for punctuation. Students can learn the function of commas, colons, etc. through direct instruction but that doesn’t automatically translate to competent — much less creative — usage in their writing. One of the best (only?) ways to understand the delicious possibilities of punctuation is to read aloud. By treating the punctuation as a kind of score — lift the voice here, pause, slow down, shout! — students develop the ear for punctuation that every good writer must have.
Improve verbal fluency and confidence
We tend to think of fluency in the context of learning an additional language, but it isn’t just language learners who need to practice this skill. Learning difficulties, lack of a richly verbal home life and shyness are a few of the reasons native speakers may struggle to express themselves fluently in their language. For students who struggle to articulate, whether because they are acquiring the language or for some other reason, reading aloud takes the pressure off of deciding what to say, and allows them to focus on how to say. Reading well-written texts gives students a chance to see how successful communication sounds; they can practice pronunciation, enunciation and tone without the risk of error. Ideally, they can inhabit the voice of the text and, in bringing it to life, experience the possibilities of their own voice.
In Sense and Sensibility the ‘sensible’ (i.e. sensitive) sister Marianne falls in love with Willoughby in part because “he read with all the sensibility and spirit” his rival lacked. In Jane Austen’s time, to read aloud well and fluently was a mark of refinement and good taste. As our world becomes more digitized, text-driven and fragmented, reading aloud is due a renaissance. Anyone can jab out a text; to read a book with eloquence and feeling, though? That’s magic.
How do you feel about reading aloud to older students? What benefits/challenges have you observed? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke