Reading aloud is the single most important factor to help children become proficient, avid readers. Here's how to tap its power.

How important it is to teach children to lose themselves in the dream of the story. We want our children to gulp down stories — to thunder across the finish line at the Kentucky Derby or live alone in a thatched hut and work at the mill.

Our strongest readers open a book and find themselves, in novelist John Gardner's words, on "a train moving through Russia" or listening in panic for some sound behind the fictional door. But when other children read they are not on that train, they are not listening behind fictional doors. They are thinking instead about short vowels and "Whew, what a long paragraph" and "How many more pages are there?" and "What's Pedro doing by the window?" How do we help all children become passionately engaged in the world of the story? How do we help them know what it is to lose themselves in the drama if a story? Reading aloud to children is part of the answer.

Reading Aloud to Children Matters

Reading aloud is so important, I have often proposed to Teacher's College that we never place a student teacher in the classroom of a teacher who doesn't read aloud each day After evaluating ten thousand research studies, the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on Reading issued a report, Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985), which goes so far as to state that "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children." The study found "conclusive evidence" supporting reading aloud in the home and in the classroom, and it claimed that adults need to read aloud to children not just when children can't yet read on their own, but throughout all the grades.

We read aloud many times and for many purposes. If we are predictable about this, our students can anticipate not only that we'll read aloud but also the roles we hope they will take on during each of these read-aloud times.

Reading Aloud to Start the Day

Ralph Peterson, author of Life in a Crowded Place (1992), suggests that we respond to the challenges of our elbow-to-elbow classroom living by using ceremony, ritual, and celebration to create learning communities. One important part of building a classroom community is finding ways to cross the threshold, ways to mark the classroom as a world apart. In many classrooms, the morning read-aloud convenes the community and acts as a blessing on the day.

For our opening read-aloud we select poems and picture books that make us all laugh and fall in love with words. Above all, we read favorites. Of course we read texts our students have written and texts we have written, and we reread often. Our goal, as the poet Julius Lester says, is for the literature to "link our souls like pearls on a string, bringing us together in a shared and luminous humanity." This read-aloud time tends to last only five minutes or so. We don't stop to clap out the syllables in compound words, pre-teach vocabulary, or elicit children's predictions. We simply get out of the way of the text and let the words work their magic.

Reading Aloud Within Reading and Writing Mini-lessons

In the mini-lesson before our writing workshop, we often return to texts we've introduced during the morning read-aloud (or during a later read-aloud of a chapter). This time we study passages we love, talk about what the author did, and consider the effect the author was hoping to create.
Teacher Model: Write the word fabric on the chalkboard. Do not say the word, but provide time for students to examine the word's parts. Then model how to use syllabication strategies to read the word.

In the mini-lesson that precedes our reading workshop, we may also return to the text we introduced during a previous read-aloud. When we revisit books, we show readers the richness that is there in literature for those who have the eyes to see. "This morning, I want to talk about the scientific language some authors weave into their texts," we might say. "Listen again while I read a couple of sections from 'I'm in Charge of Celebrations' and pay attention to what you do when you hear (or read) words you don't know."

Reading Aloud in Support of the Social Studies and Science Curriculum
It's terribly important for children to listen to nonfiction texts read aloud. If our children are going to comprehend and write news articles, essays, how-to texts, directions, arguments, and proclamations, they need to develop an ear for the rhythms and structures used in these genres. We cannot take all our children on field trips to see fish ladders bypassing the giant dams of the Snake River or to stand under the massive ruins of Rome. But we can give our children the words that will take them to new worlds, launch new investigations, and introduce new concepts. Oftentimes our upper-elementary children will have difficulties on standardized reading tests not because they can't read the words or recall a passage but because they don't know the difference between a continent and a country, a century and a decade, a species and a gender. It would be wise to support our students as they grow to be stronger listeners to nonfiction texts. We do this by:

  • Reading aloud nonfiction books that support our students' interests and hobbies as well as our curriculum.
  • Reading aloud very simple, accessible books to introduce a subject, only later moving to more complex texts on that subject.
  • Giving children more information early on so they are in a better position to learn more: it helps to watch the movie or make the field trip or hear the overview of a subject before reading a nonfiction text on that topic.
  • Actively modeling our own learning process by pulling back from a text and saying, "Wait a minute! So far, he's said birds migrate in four ways [we list them]. Now it looks as if he's on a new topic of how he can research bird migration, or at least I think he is.... Yes, look, I was right. He says here..."

Reading Aloud in Support of the Social Studies and Science Curriculum
We also read aloud to demonstrate to our children and to mentor them in the habits, values, and strategies of proficient readers, and to help them experience the bounties of thoughtful, reflective reading. When I taught fifth and sixth grade, my students and I sometimes read a chapter book together. I'd assign a chapter or two each evening, and in school we'd "walk through the text together," defining and finding examples of literary techniques and noticing symbolic meanings. Only now, in retrospect, do I realize it was educational malpractice to require that my struggling readers fake their way through a book they could not read. But there were other problems as well; the time lapse between when children read the text at home and when all of us responded to it in class meant that I could only deal with the remnants of their reading.

I have since come to believe that working together around the whole-class read-aloud text is a much better way to achieve the goals I was aiming toward back then. Instead of assigning the class to read a chapter or two each night and then discussing it every day at school, we now read the book aloud and weave discussions into read-aloud times. Our discussion often occurs at selected moments during the read-aloud, in the midst of the rich, vivid drama-in-the-mind that happens as children listen to a text.

As effective as it can be to say what we are thinking or invite children to talk in the midst of listening to a text, we do need, however, to avoid pausing to discuss a text so often that we overwhelm the story. The single most important habit we need to model is engagement in the text.

Reading Aloud Can Help Children Talk and Think About Texts
Oddly enough, many students will listen to a text and have nothing to say. But when these same students talk about television shows or movies, they don't need conversational starters or webs. Something is drastically wrong, then, when our students are silenced by texts. I suspect this is often the result of problematic instruction. For too long, children have read literature and then faced a barrage of questions, each with one right answer. Recently I heard a teacher hold up Arnold Lobel's book, Frog and Toad, and say to a group of children, "Frog and Toad are friends who are what, class?" I know the book well but I didn't have a clue about what the teacher expected the class to say. One boy piped in, "Friendly? Frog and Toad are friends who are friendly?" The child's intonation alone showed that he was asking, "Is this the answer you want?"

But no, the teacher was looking for another word to fill in the blank in her sentence. She repeated her question. "Frog and Toad is about friends who are what, class?"

"Adventurous?" a child suggested, and although I cheered his ingenuity and knowledge of the story, the teacher continued to scan the room looking for raised hands and the right answer. Now she produced a clue. "It starts with a d."

I wracked my mind. "Frog and Toad are, what?" I thought, "Damp?"

No one ventured another guess, so the teacher completed her own sentence. "Are Frog and Toad different, class?" she asked; and proceeded to deliver her predetermined lesson on multiculturalism. Frog is green and Toad is brown, but they are, after all, still friends.

To help our children think, talk, and eventually write well about texts, we must make a dramatic break from the habit of grilling them with known-answer questions. Couldn't we simply say to our children, "Could we talk about the reactions the children in this book had to Crow Boy?" and then back out of the conversation, leaving space for them to comment and elaborate on each other's comments without acting as masters of ceremonies? In helping classrooms of children learn to converse together, the easiest step is to use "say-somethings," a strategy we learned from Kathy Short, Carolyn Burke, and Jerry Harste's book, Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers (1996). We tend to read aloud and to pause at "talk-worthy" spots.

At first, we simply encourage children to talk to anyone who is sitting nearby. After a few weeks, we assign children to sit beside the same read-aloud partner each day. Long-term read-aloud partners allow children to say things like, "You know how yesterday you said such and such? Well, it's happening still," or, "It's the same as before!" Children practice getting in and out of talk positions quickly, so that before Long, we can pause at a key section of the text and look out at our children, who note our signal and get knee-to-knee with their partners. The room erupts in conversation. After a few minutes, we simply resume reading (beginning with a paragraph of overlap as the voices subside).

How important is reading aloud? Critically important. Too often children (and some adults) consider the read-aloud as a time to doze, dream, fiddle, and snack. I see the read-aloud as the heart of our reading instruction time, and I want kids' full attention to be on what we do together.