Reba M. Wadsworth, Retired Elementary Principal
Today I am an educator because of a dedicated third grade teacher who read aloud to me daily with passion and persistence. Each day she drew us to her feet (a most uncommon practice for that time in the 1950’s) and filled the air with her words from The Boxcar Children. As those words opened my world to include four homeless children, they instilled in me a love of reading that has taken me on a journey from a third grader with no school library and few books at home to a Ph.D in Educational Leadership. Reading aloud can make a difference in the lives of young children!
Many of you who are reading this article right now can tell stories just like mine because you also grew up being read to either at school or at home by a beloved parent. Your life like mine has been enriched with those experiences---experiences that opened doors to later success in school. School was made easier because of the exposure afforded through hearing fluent models read books long before we could read those books ourselves. Yes, reading aloud is important!
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
What did the teachers of the 50’s and 60’s know about planting seeds of literacy that we need to remember and continue in the lives of children today? The research history has been clear and strong about the benefits of reading aloud. However, here we are less than five decades from the joy I experienced at the feet of a teacher to a situation in which restraints being placed on teachers in today’s classrooms restrict the time and energy they can afford to give to the practice. Let’s take a brief snapshot of the past two decades to understand more.
When the Commission on Reading came out with the report Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985 it stated that the “single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children”.
Teachers across America began reading aloud with increased energy to their children.More than ten years later the findings were still strong that reading aloud did indeed matter for the increased literacy growth. In fact, Koralek, editor of Young Children, NAEY’s Journal, wrote that a joint position statement in 1998 by IRA and NAEYC concurred with the Commission’s findings. Their statement changed little: “The single most important activity for building these understanding and skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children.”
Yet in Calhoun’s Teaching Beginning Reading and Writing with the Picture Word Inductive Model, she quoted a study of reading aloud practices that are quite disturbing in 1993—less than ten years after the Commission’s report:
While there is general agreement on the importance of reading aloud to children in and out of school, a recent survey of reading-aloud practices in 537 elementary classrooms indicated that one-third of the teachers surveyed rarely read aloud to students (Hoffman, Roser, & Battle, 1993).
Next new concerns arose with the implementation of the federal law called No Child Left Behind. The implementation of the law appears to encourage teachers to stick to time-consuming core reading programs with fidelity. With the strict time requirements of these core programs, teachers feel threatened and stifle. They often worry that including extra time for a relaxing, joyful story read aloud without a direct focus on skills will be viewed as “unacceptable”. Teachers and children are inundated with testing and the teaching of testing skills which the law seems to think will create fluent, knowledgeable readers.
A CHILLING PICTURE
Recently, I had the privilege of curling up with my five-year old nephew to complete his homework. First, we read a short story from his reading book that was delightful. Even with the many “decodable” words included, it still contained a simple plot that invited conversation.
Next, we practiced counting and matching one-to-one. We were having so much fun that we began naming colors around the room and matched those to the color word. The last activity required me to time him as he named random letters of the alphabet to see how many letters he could name in one minute.
I watched my precious, joyful learner as tension filled him and his body became tense. He was determined to exceed himself on each try. Mem Fox [an international reading consultant, well know for her promotion of reading aloud] would have my head for allowing him to even participate in that time-consuming activity when I could have, instead, filled him with the excitement of story as we shared a read aloud beyond decodable text.
Learning the letters and their sounds are an important element of reading but timed? I think not! Where were the giggled and questions of a typical five year old?
Before we look at all the wonderful and meaningful benefits of reading aloud to children, let remember what Seth Mullins, a non-educator, wrote in a recent article from The Washington Post about the value of read aloud:
The growing complexity of our modern world has made the ability to read more essential than ever before. As with most other skills, reading is more easily mastered by those who enjoy it. We can cultivate this passion in our young ones early by reading aloud to them.
With this reminder in place, let’s now examine the many other benefits gained by reading aloud to children.
One of the greatest is that the read aloud can develop for all children a background knowledge that will helps them achieve at a far higher level of understanding.
During this valuable time, when the risk-free learning environment is filled with rich language and with children pulled close to the teacher, robust vocabularies will develop. A rich vocabulary helps children grow their understanding of the world beyond the classroom walls.
Is it any wonder then that read aloud nurtures within each child an enthusiasm for literacy?
In a classroom where read aloud is a daily occurrence, oral language development becomes a standard as the children begin to have conversations about the story, the characters and why the author made the decision she/he made. These conversations with the teacher setting the focus will naturally instills comprehensions skills that daily leads to strategies children will use with their independent reading.
Read aloud can leads to active thinking in children easier than any other single activity when children grow to know they will be held responsible for conversations that relate to the story. This leads to greater self-esteem and success, even in the most reluctant readers.
AN URGENT PLEA
Thomas Jefferson wrote that he “couldn’t live without books”. It is my hope that teachers across the land will begin once again, despite the time restraints, the influx of daily and weekly testing, and the stress that results to declare “my children can’t live without read alouds!”
Remind everyone around you that children do learn during the joy of hearing a purposeful read aloud. Now is the only time we have and we must give our children the best we have to give.
I’ve written this article as a reminder and as an urgent plea to educators in schools across America to remember what is most important to the literacy growth of children. It’s time we go back to reading aloud to children each and every day and at every opportunity! They will thank you one day just as I am now doing for my third grade teacher…
”Thank you Mrs. Frost for giving me a gift far more than I could have ever asked for…a life full and bountiful because of my love of reading.”
Editor’s Note: When Reba Wadsworth was a principal in Decatur, AL, I visited her office. I had never seen so many children’s book in one educator’s administrative space. She is the co-author (along with children’s author, Lester Laminack) of Learning Under the Influence of Language and Literature: Making the Most of Read-Alouds Across the Day, and Reading Aloud Across the Curriculum.