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Reading Aloud—Is It Worth It?

Why do teachers read aloud to their students? Are the benefits of reading aloud worth the time? Many teachers believe reading aloud enhances classroom instruction and improves academic achievement—and recent research supports their belief. Included: Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, talks with Education World about the value of reading aloud!

"During read-aloud, we share the excitement, the suspense, the emotion, and the sheer fun of a new book and its intriguing or annoying characters," said Nancy Lacedonia, who teaches in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Lacedonia recognizes the value of reading aloud and has often listened to the moans and groans of her students at the end of read-aloud time. She wondered How does the classroom teacher decide what to read to his or her students?

Intrigued by the benefits of reading aloud, Lacedonia created a survey to determine how teachers decide which books to read-aloud. She surveyed 93 Massachusetts K through 12 teachers working in urban, suburban, and rural school settings.

The results of that survey, published in "Why Do Teachers Read Aloud?" (The NERA Journal, Volume 35, Number 1, 1999), proved to Lacedonia that reading aloud is not a hit-or-miss activity. The survey showed that 70 percent of primary-grade teachers read to their students every day and 37 percent of secondary-school teachers read at least three or four times a week.

Teachers at all levels said they chose read-alouds that related to a theme or topic of study, and they placed a strong emphasis on fostering a love of literature.

Reading Aloud Improves the Classroom Climate

Mary Bowman-Kruhm, a faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education, teaches reading classes for prospective special-education teachers. "I read to my graduate students at the beginning of class because it gives them time to get settled and to clear their minds of the day's activities," she told Education World.

"As a beginning teacher," Bowman-Kruhm continued, "I quickly became aware that reading aloud to my class had benefits . . . my students became very quiet, they heard some good literature, and they got through an entire book. One student said it was the first book he had read in its entirety since first grade."

What Bowman-Kruhm learned from reading to her secondary and graduate students is true of students at all age levels. Probably the most important daily activity parents and teachers can do with pre-school and kindergarten children is to read aloud.

The Print-Rich Environment

Print-rich classrooms offer a variety of books that take into account the different levels of ability and disability in the classroom. "The wider the variety of books, the greater the variety of children whose interests will be either met or provoked," Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, told Education World.

For instance, children with reading disabilities "build visual images before the printed word becomes meaningful. The child who cannot read or struggles with it can still find meaning in the picture of whales or wolves or werewolves. A child who can store those images in the imagination will be better prepared for the word w-h-a-l-e when he or she is trying to decode it. If there is no visual image to match the word, it's a foreign language immediately," said Trelease.

There is a downside. Without a print-rich reading environment, reading achievement flounders. In a preview of the 2000 edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook, Trelease quotes the results of a 1996 University of Southern California research study.

The researchers examined the print climate in classrooms of three California communities. They found that students in schools with book ratios of only three books to every one pupil (versus the national average of 18:1) had low reading scores and few students went on to college.

"As the research shows, low reading scores have much to do with the print climate," added Trelease. "Readers raise readers because they do the raising in an environment that nurtures it."

Increase the Ration of Books to Students

It's possible to develop an outstanding read-aloud program in an impoverished school district. "Reading to children costs nothing! No matter how poor the community, it costs nothing for a teacher to read to a class. They take their library card, borrow a book, and then read to the class. Money has nothing to do with it," Trelease told Education World.

Trelease provides tips for developing print-rich schools even if funding new books isn't possible.

  • Learn about the research connecting the richness of print with good school scores.
  • Educate school board members about print in the classroom. Since the board members vote on the budget, they must also know the research and the teachers' needs.
  • Read more contemporary children's literature for their grade level. "You cannot order or request what you don't know about."
  • Post a classroom "wish list" of books. Those lists will give parents an idea of what they can give to the classroom. Start a birthday book program, and ask parents to donate a book on their child's birthday.
  • Learn how to write grants. Then look for funds to build print-rich classrooms. For instance, Microsoft gives away $2.1 million a day, according to Trelease.

Making Reading Aloud Work—Three Examples

Julie Coiro, a special-education teacher and contributing editor for Suite, ties reading aloud to a curriculum theme. To give her students a broad perspective, she collects nonfiction and fiction related to particular themes.

"I like to pull in books at many different reading levels," Coiro told Education World. "This way readers will appreciate the occasional book that's too easy, but informative, and the book that's way too difficult to read but has great pictures."

Other ways teachers use reading aloud to enrich the curriculum include the following:

Read aloud for comprehension.

Repeated reading not only helps children learn to read but also has an impact on school success. Lifelong enjoyment of reading is directly related to daily reading. Children see the pictures and print up close, ask questions, and make comments.

"I read aloud to share wonderful stories, poems, and factual texts with children," wrote Sharon Taberski in an Instructor magazine article, "Motivating Readers" (May/June 1998). "Sometimes I select chapter books that are slightly above the children's independent reading level or picture books that lend themselves to stop-and-start discussions."

Daily read-alouds help children "internalize language and structures they'll apply to their own reading one day. My daily read-alouds also demonstrate how to understand what's being read."

Taberski suggests three comprehension strategies for class read-alouds.

  • Strategy 1: Think about the story. "When I read the story, I stop at various points. My students and I then discuss what's happening and what we think will happen next."
  • Strategy 2: Map the characters. "As we read the story, we continually refer back to what we already know about the characters and add new information. The children make predictions based on this information."
  • Strategy 3: Map the story. The story map includes information about the characters, setting, problem, main events, and resolution. The students review the story map before reading a new chapter.

"Because I introduce these strategies during read-aloud, the children support one another and become confident enough to try strategies on their own," Taberski added.

Read to highlight math concepts.

"When I plan for reading aloud during math time, I choose books that invite my students to think and talk mathematically, that pose a problem, or that highlight a particular math concept or strategy," said Donna Maxim. She works at the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine. (See "Math Reading Aloud," The NERA Journal, Volume 34, Number 1, 1998.)

"Children's literature plays an important role in confirming the notion that math is more than computation on paper and provides opportunities for learners to develop the language of math," Maxim explained.

To help students predict the outcome of a book, Maxim asks what the title might mean? What problems might be posed? "I teach math concepts and strategies during math class and use literature as a resource when teaching math concepts," she said.

Two examples of books she uses to teach children to think and talk mathematically are:

  • Counting on Frank by Rod Clements (Garth Stevens Publishing, 1991). The main characters are Frank, a dog, and his master. The young boy and dog make wild calculations and share bizarre information about many things. The book gives students opportunities to solve problems as a group.
  • How Much Is a Million? by David M. Schwartz (Scholastic, 1985). The author explains large numbers to children by comparing the numbers to concepts familiar to children. "If you wanted to count to a million, it would take you about 23 days."

Involve parents and others.

Dr. Jimmy Cook, teaching editor for Teaching K-8, likes the warm, fuzzy feeling he gets when he reads to students.

In a Teaching K-8 article he wrote, "It's All in the Telling" (February 1998), Cook recommends that teachers build a portfolio of entertaining, informative and age-appropriate read-aloud books and invite a guest to read at least once a week. Likely candidates include parents and grandparents, the city mayor, and the chief of police. "Children become excited when a new face arrives to perform some act of kindness in the classroom," said Cook.

How important is reading aloud? Catherine Paglin seemed to answer this question in In the Beginning, an article published in NW Education Magazine (Fall 1998). "From being read to repeatedly, children learn that reading is enjoyable, that pictures provide clues to the story, that books and print go from left to right, that print represents words and meaning, that stories have a beginning and an end. By listening, watching, and asking questions, they add to their vocabulary and increase their comprehension."

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 Wesley Sharpe, Ed.D.
Education World
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Last updated: 11/22/2016