Don't Forget Read Alouds
Brad Wilcox and Timothy G. Morrison
Two literacy education professors advocate daily read alouds in elementary classrooms. In addition to personal and social benefits, they discuss contributions to students' reading motivation, vocabulary development, language and print access, and attention span.
Amid the expectations of implementing the Common Core, don't forget read alouds. Some claim that reading aloud is not a productive use of school time, because it does not address specific skills that may appear on an upcoming test, because it takes time from explicit instruction, or because today information can be obtained more efficiently online. However, Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, and Wilkinson (1985) have affirmed that "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children" (p. 23).
Advantages may not be immediately apparent, but many teachers have learned from experience the benefits of reading aloud. We trust teacher experience. One elementary school teacher crossed paths with a former student 25 years after teaching her. Now an adult with a family of her own, the student remarked, "I don't remember everything you taught me, but I remember you reading to us. I will never forget that. Those books are still some of my favorites, and I now read them to my children."
Trelease (2006) reminded us that through literature we can connect with the human heart. Teachers know that the purpose of literature, like the purpose of all education, is not limited to passing tests or gaining access to information. It is to provide meaning and direction for our lives. C. S. Lewis (1961) has written,
Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. . . . In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (pp. 140-141)
Like fictional literature, informational text can provide meaning, direction, and extended consciousness to our lives. Routman (2015) affirmed, "I cannot teach without great literature. . . . These days almost all the books I bring are nonfiction. This is a deliberate choice" (p. 29). Routman has made this choice because she works with students who live in low-income areas and are below grade level academically. Exposing them to nonfiction as well as fiction helps them learn to love reading as they see the world beyond their limited experiences.
Along with the broadened perspective and purpose offered by both fictional and factual literature, reading aloud to children provides four additional advantages: stronger motivation, increased attention span, more extensive vocabulary, and added exposure to language and print concepts.
Some people believe that motivation is as essential in learning to read as the alphabet (Gambrell, 1996; Guthrie, 1996). Reading aloud motivates students because it stimulates creativity and imagination in each individual listener, and it also leads to connections with others. Reading is relational, allowing individuals to build relationships with authors and characters. Many will read a book just because they like the author's work, or will read a sequel because they want to have more experiences with characters they have come to know. In addition, reading allows an individual to build relationships with others who have read the same books.
With technology you can share book titles and experiences you have had with books through social networking sites (e.g., Good Reads, www.goodreads.com). Through sharing books you find you have something in common with people all around the world. In classrooms sharing books offers a rich and unifying source for laughter and tears in a school setting that might otherwise be emotionally flat (Goodlad, 2004). In addition to bonding with others who have read the same book, young children bond with the person who reads the book to them. This shared warmth can also occur in classrooms as teachers read to children.
When Brad was working as a consultant in an urban city, he noticed a tough sixth grader standing alone at recess. His dress and appearance showed that he came from a difficult background and was facing an uncertain future. Brad approached him and started a conversation by asking, "Do you like to read?" In his street-smart voice, the boy replied, "I didn't used to but I do now." "So what's your favorite book?" Without a pause, the hardened young man responded, "Little Women." This was not a title Brad had expected to hear. But he learned that the boy's teacher loved Louisa May Alcott's book and was reading it to her class. Her enthusiasm was contagious. Clearly the boy identified with the characters and events in the book, but the read aloud experience also gave him a connection to the rest of the class and a bond with his teacher, motivating him to enjoy reading, and to actually admit it.
In his book In Defense of Read-Aloud, Steven L. Layne (2015) stated emphatically, "The intimacy of the read-aloud experience builds rapport between a teacher and his or her students, providing for a bibliotherapeutic environment that promotes a deepening emotional intelligence" (p. 9). That rapport and emotional growth leads to more motivated readers.
Children expand their vocabulary more through indirect influence than through explicit teaching. Furthermore, that exposure is far greater with reading—either teacher read alouds or student independent reading—than with oral language (Brett, Rothlein, & Hurley, 1996; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Sternberg, 1987). Hayes and Ahrens (1988) documented that for every 1,000 words in typical children's books, the number of rare words is about 31, compared to 17 rare words per 1,000 in adult conversations and 2 rare words per 1,000 on educational television programs. Just reading a newspaper or magazine can expose a reader to as many 68 rare words per 1,000. Those who are learning English benefit greatly from the increased exposure to vocabulary that they receive when someone reads aloud to them.
As children experience the world around them, listen to conversations, and watch television and movies, they are exposed to a wide variety of emotions, concepts, and actions, but may have few opportunities to hear the words that label such things. For example, children rarely hear words like saunter on television. If somebody saunters or walks at an easy, slow pace on television, children see the action, but they don't hear the word describing it. Reading aloud provides a secure, comfortable setting where children can be flooded with words that describe their experiences.
Language and Print Concepts
Fox (1993) and a colleague taught a small group of intermediate grade students for a limited time each week. These teachers found the children so hungry for a good book that they abandoned their other plans and read The Indian in the Cupboard to the children. When the principal heard later that they had only read aloud to the children, he asked, "Is that all? You mean you didn't teach them anything?" They replied, "No we didn't. But don't worry: The Indian in the Cupboard did" (p. 112). Reading aloud is team teaching. Some of the greatest masters of language in the world come into the classroom and join with the teacher in exposing children to concepts about print and the feel of the rhythm of language.
Difficulty level of reading material is less limiting during read aloud time than during other reading experiences. Children can be exposed to books they could never read on their own. This experience can challenge their minds and stretch their abilities and interests. Many children who are read to gain a sense of story that helps them as they learn to read and write themselves (Stein & Glenn, 1979; Sweet & Snow, 2003). Young children are also exposed to many concepts they will need to know about printed language (Clay, 2002): the directions of written language—left-to-right, top-to-bottom, front-to-back—also capital letters, punctuation marks, and word-to-word-matching.
Reading regularly aloud to children and re-reading favorite books can increase children's attention span (Lewman, 1999). One second-grade teacher said, "I can always tell which children have been read aloud to and which ones haven't, just by their attention spans." As children listen to stories and enjoy books, they learn to sit still and focus their minds for longer and longer periods. Some educators (Boushey & Moser, 2006) call this reading stamina, or the ability to read for long periods without getting distracted or distracting others.
When the same second-grade teacher began reading longer chapter books without illustrations, she read for about the same amount of time she had spent reading picture books. Slowly she stretched that time out until children were content to listen for 15 to 20 minutes as a time. She said, "My favorite words to hear are 'You can't stop there! You've got to keep reading!' Then I know I have them hooked."
Children who grow up with fast action on television and special effects in movies and electronic games may need practice receiving information in a different form at a slower pace. This requires regular practice and effort, but they soon find that the action and effects they create with their minds are just as satisfying, if not more so. Children are often disappointed in movies made from books if they have read the book first.
Some teachers say, "I don't have time for read alouds." Do they have time to brush their teeth or take a shower? Usually (at least we hope) these activities are part of a daily routine that they do not even have to think about. Read alouds must become part of our classroom routine. Some teachers like to set aside the same time every day, perhaps right after recess or just before going home. Others like to use reading aloud as a transition activity when children return from PE or computer lab. Regardless of the chosen time, reading aloud should occur daily. Read alouds should become a vital part of each teacher's comprehensive literacy instruction.
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Trelease, J. (2006). The read-aloud handbook (6th ed.). New York, NY: Penguin.