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Reading Aloud: Are Students Ever  Too Old?

Do you read aloud to your students? Is there ever a time when students are too old to be read to? Many teachers are firm believers in reading aloud—even at the upper grade levels!

"I...became nothing but hearing. I would settle down...and, propped up high against the pillows, listen to my nurse read the Grimms' terrifying fairy-tales. Sometimes her voice put me to sleep; sometimes, on the contrary, it made me feverish with excitement, and I urged her on in order to find out, more quickly than the author had intended, what happened in the story. But most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words, and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually travelling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place that I hardly dared glimpse on the secret last page of the book. Later on, when I was nine or ten, I was told by my school principal that being read to was suitable only for small children. I believed him, and gave up the practice...." (From A History of Reading, Viking, 1996, by Alberto Manguel, pp. 109-110)

Why Read Aloud?

Teachers have read aloud to young children for centuries. We know that time spent reading aloud is valuable to them. We have watched pre-readers listen to a story, then capture the book itself to look at again and again. Sometimes they memorized the story, shared it with their friends, and at times even slept with the book.

I sometimes shared picture books with kindergarten classes without showing the illustrations. Children paid close attention, listening more carefully since there were no pictures to tell the story for them. After reading the story, I would ask children to draw pictures of the setting, the main characters, or their favorite parts of the story. When the pictures were shared, children were always surprised by the different ways they interpreted the same story. Of course, their favorite part was when they finally had a chance to see the illustrations in the book!

But reading aloud in school by teachers (and even by students), often stops, or is greatly cut back, once a child learns to read on his own.

Why?, wonders author Jim Trelease in his book The Read Aloud Handbook:

"Reading aloud is a commercial for reading. ...Think of it this way: McDonald's doesn't stop advertising just because the vast majority of Americans know about its restaurants. Each year it spends more money on ads to remind people how good its products taste. Don't cut your reading advertising budget as children grow older."

Reading aloud to children helps them develop and improve literacy skills -- reading, writing, speaking, and listening, Trelease adds. And since children listen on a higher level than they read, listening to other readers stimulates growth and understanding of vocabulary and language patterns.

"Whole language teachers affirm that reading aloud teaches children about literature in a way that silent or independent reading never can," says Judy Freeman in a 1992 Teacher Magazine article, Read Aloud Books: The Best Of The Bunch.

"Reading aloud in school is not a frill. Go out of your way to make each book a special experience for your students. Allow them to live literature, to become so involved in a story that they become a part of it. It could change their lives."

Reading Aloud to Young Children

Public TV station WETA provides tips for reading aloud to children. Those tips include:

  • Remember to discuss read-alouds with the class to enhance and expand students' understanding.
  • Use the illustrations to encourage prediction and interpretation. Encourage students to use the illustrations to add to their understanding.
  • Learn more about the authors and illustrators. Read other works by favorite authors.
  • Help students relate books to their own experiences.
  • Get other books about curriculum-related topics of interest to class members.

Reading Literature Aloud in Adult ESL Classes

Amy Staley, an ESL writing teacher in Japan, recommends the use of children's picture books with adult students. She discovered the value of using such books when she read Hiroshima no Pika (Hiroshima Flash), a story about the atomic bomb, to her students. She used it to stimulate emotion and questions before presenting a writing assignment (writing letters to French President Chirac about nuclear testing). With careful selection and planning, such books can be incorporated into the curriculum.

An ERIC Digest article, "Children's Literature for Adult ESL Literacy," discusses how reading children's books aloud to adult learners of English as a second language can be valuable. The illustrations often help to explain vocabulary and "...repeated patterns [often] provide an additional aid for language learning." Children's picture books now cover more mature themes, but author Betty Ansin Smallwood cautions that " selection is critical...."

Reading Aloud a Part of Tutoring Programs

The Department of Education's America Reads Challenge encourages the institution of tutoring programs to help raise the reading levels of school children and to raise the awareness of parents about reading's impact on children. Reading aloud to children, is an important part of those programs:

  • Belmont Community School in Worcester, Massachusetts, has seen kindergarten test scores rise. "We sell a product at our school and that product is reading," says Principal John Monfredo. The school-wide program, Books and Beyond, was designed to "build the skills and the desire of every child to read." An important part of the program is teaching parents the importance of and the "how-to" of reading aloud to their children.
  • The Reach Out and Read Program of Boston Medical Center puts books and children together in clinic offices. "In the clinic waiting room, community volunteers read to the children, engaging their interest while modeling book-related interactions for the parents." As doctors interact with the children, they use books to determine developmental progress. And each child receives a new book to take home.

States Take Action To Promote Reading Aloud Across the Grades

Programs in Indiana and Virginia are emphasizing the importance of reading aloud. An important part of both initiatives is the provision of new, quality, high-interest books.

The Middle Grades Reading Network is "dedicated to the promotion of voluntary reading among young adolescents, the reinstitution of reading as a subject taught in Indiana's middle-grade schools, and the updating and expansion of Indiana's school library book collections." The program, funded by the Lilly Endowment, places books in middle school libraries and encourages teachers in all subject areas to read aloud to their classes, carefully choosing the material for its interest level and content. The Indiana program pushes for more structured library time for middle-grade students where the librarians read aloud and make students aware of new reading material. And, very importantly, the reinstatement of reading as an appropriate subject for these grades is being promoted in the state.

West Virginia has initiated "...a volunteer effort that seeks to motivate children to want to read." Read Aloud West Virginia has more than 5,000 trained volunteers who read aloud to 65,000 students throughout the state. "Book trunks" are another component of the program, providing quality books for the volunteer readers.

And what happened to Alberto Manguel (the boy whose principal told him that he was too old to be read to)? Did he really give up the practice?

"...[I] gave up the practice [of being read to] -- partly because being read to gave me enormous pleasure, and by then I was quite ready to believe that anything that gave pleasure was somehow unwholesome. It was not until much later ... that the long-lost delight of being read to came back to me." (From A History of Reading, Viking, 1996, by Alberto Manguel, p. 110)

Steps to Literacy

Looking for purposeful, informative read alouds for your students? You can find curated collections of texts that are perfect for read alouds or independent reading at Steps to Literacy.

Steps to Literacy offers inclusive and differentiated collections of age and developmentally appropriate books and resources that engage students and foster a love for reading within each of them.

Learn more about building your own customized classroom library.

Article by Anne Guignon
Education World ®
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Last updated: 11/22/2016