It may come as quite a shock to some, but far too many children start school without ever having a book read aloud to them. I always assumed that the read-aloud was a right of passage for little ones and parents. My mother read to me voraciously from the time I was born. Not only did I see her reading on a near daily basis, I saw my grandmother reading her Harlequin Romance novels each night before she went to sleep. Of all the gifts my mother and grandmother gave me, the love of reading is the one for which I am most grateful.
How can a parent not read to her child, I asked my wife who at the time was teaching kindergarten. She reminded me that for many children living in poverty, books simply aren’t as accessible as they were to me. I was lucky. My mom would splurge to buy me Little Golden Books almost weekly and my grandmother bought me countless books with records so that I could play them on my denim covered record player while I followed along with the book. I still remember memorizing the basic plot of Star Wars long before I had the chance to see the movie in late 1977 thanks to my book and record. The Elkin Public Library had a Book Mobile that drove out to the rural areas of the county once a month. We selected armfuls of titles to devour throughout the month. I assumed kids had the same access to books I had. I quickly learned that even in today’s fast-paced electronic society, access to print materials remains woefully inadequate to many children.
Perhaps this knowledge seems odd given the amount of digital text available to us on a daily basis. I would contend that the availability of text does not necessarily translate to access to quality texts. The use of television and movies to tell stories, many of which started out as popular books, also keeps kids away from reading the originals. After all, if I know how the story goes and, most importantly, how the story ends why do I need to read the book? Hearing those words from a kid (yes, I’ve heard kids say that several times in my life) breaks my heart. To me, books were my escape from a sometimes sad and dreary world. I did not want a director showing me his vision of Narnia or Wilbur’s farm. I wanted to see those places in my own imagination. The trip to Middle Earth belonged to me and the hobbits. Other humans need not apply.
As an adult I came to appreciate movie and television adaptations. For me, the book version of a story was always superior. The screen version simply showed me a visual reference of a story that already belonged to me. The book and screen would forever remain separate in mind. For today’s kids, I don’t think that’s the case. Ask a kid to describe Harry Potter and you’ll hear a description of Daniel Radcliffe. Ask a bibliophile to describe Harry Potter and one of the first things you’ll hear is that he has emerald green eyes just like his mother. The cinematic version leaves this crucial detail out, but those of us who have read the books countless times understand the value of this small detail.
So what’s the point? Our children today need to hear the magic of spoken text. Books hold as much charm and realism as a movie or television show. The only difference is that the reader takes ownership and creates the world in her mind. Reading aloud to a child has never been more important than it is today. Whether it’s a parent or teacher who reads aloud, the experience can have a lasting impact on the way a child sees reading. To that end, I give you six reasons read alouds are essential for every child:
1) Kids need to hear master readers read.
Reading is a complex and daunting activity. If you think back to your early days of school you will recall how confusing all those phonics rules were. To make matters worse if you were like me and had a strong regional dialect (Southern Appalachian in the house!) you struggled with some of those sounds. Language is beautiful. In order for kids to understand and appreciate the complexity of our language, they must hear it in its most correct and meaningful form. Writers just have a knack with language. Wouldn’t it make sense for kids to hear the art of the writer’s craft through the voice of a master reader?
2) Spoken language promotes discussion of nuance in meaning and intention.
For folks who are not native English speakers, many of the nuances of the language get lost in the translation. When we complain that our groceries cost an arm and a leg, how do we explain the phrase? Context, of course! Also, consider the dangers of sending an email or text to someone about a sensitive situation. How many times has your intent been lost in translation because the reader couldn’t hear the tone, timbre, volume and pitch of your voice? I always opt for the face-to-face conversation or a phone call in order to avoid the confusion. Now put yourself in the shoes of a reader encountering a text where the qualities of the sound affects the meaning. Hearing the spoken word leads to discussion about the various interpretations of words and phrases. Sarcasm and condescension are good examples. A character’s development will guide a reader to interpret the character’s spoken voice. Hearing the master reader read the text helps develop that skill.
3) Reading is a social experience.
Why do so many adult readers join book clubs? Because we love to talk about what we read! Ask any reader this important question: What is the purpose of reading any story? The answer is to gain some understanding of a part of the human experience. We are naturally social creatures. Hearing a story read aloud allows children to share in that experience. Remember that read-alouds don’t have to be passive activities. Many lesson plans abound (like here!) that will help structure a class read-aloud to keep kids actively engaged
4) Text comes alive when performed actively and with passion.
When Harry Potter became the cultural phenomenon of the century around 1999, the movies of the series did not yet exist. At the time I was teaching seventh grade. I noticed tons of kids walking through the halls reading one of those books. I stopped a young lady and asked her what was so special about Harry Potter. She insisted that I go to Barnes and Nobel immediately after school and buy the first one. “Then, you’ll understand, Mr. J!”
I did as I was told. When I arrived back at home, I sat on my sectional sofa with my fuzzy blanket and read the book from cover to cover in about two hours. Once I closed the book, I put my shoes back on, got in the car, and drove back to Barnes and Noble to buy the other two books in the series! Over the next several years I attended every midnight release party for the subsequent releases. What made me and so many others fall in love with Harry, Ron, and Hermione? It wasn’t the movies. It was the books. Those characters were alive for us. Hogwarts was real! The only disappointing thing about the magical world of Harry Potter was that somehow our own letters of acceptance to Hogwarts had been lost in the Owl Post. For reluctant readers or for readers who have never learned mental visualization, hearing text come alive through a read aloud performance can spark the same level of enthusiasm for a book that I experienced with Harry Potter. Don’t believe me? Select a read-aloud for your class and then ask your librarian if there is an uptick in requests for that book in the library. I’m willing to bet all three of my Star Wars Force FX lightsabers that requests for that book will have shot up because you exposed kids to that book! Read with passion and the kids will be sucked into the story. Read with unique voices and the story comes to life the same way it would if the kids were watching a screen adaptation. Be adventurous! Turn your read-aloud into a performance to make the book come alive. Your students will love it and you will grow in your own appreciation of the story.
5) Read-alouds promote reading as a lifelong endeavor.
The ultimate goal of all reading instruction should be to help kids become lifelong learners. Reading should never be reserved for high stakes testing and the preparation for it. Writers have shared stories for centuries that define who we are as a people, that give us purpose in our lives, that bring meaning to existence. Even our students have stories to tell. Reading aloud brings the joy and passion of reading to the forefront where it belongs. Once a kid connects to a character, a fictional setting, or an author who speaks to them there is no stopping the desire to learn even more!
6) It’s just plain fun!
In the world of education, “fun” activities have taken a back seat to test prep. Not only is this a disservice to our kids, it also has the unintended consequence of turning kids away from reading as one of life’s pleasures. Some of the best stories out there are laugh-out-loud funny! Elephant and Piggie will have your kids rolling on the carpet. Skippyjon Jones will make your kiddos jump up to be one of his banditos. If humor isn’t your cup of tea, try a serious title. Who doesn’t cry when Charlotte dies only to have her children befriend Wilbur? And I always get choked up when Jesse finds out that Winnie Foster never accepted the gift of immortality. The trouble is I could never figure out who I felt sorry for, Winnie or Jesse. Regardless of your tastes, there is a great read aloud out there for everybody. Ask your librarian if you are stuck. Oh, wait! I am a librarian! If you need pointing in the right direction, tweet me or comment at the bottom of the page!
Read Aloud Suggestions
Pre-K through 2nd
- Elephant and Piggie (series) by Mo Willems
- I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
- The Book with No Picture by B.J. Novak
- The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt
- Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems
- Honestly, anything by Mo Willems!!!!
- Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
- Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
- Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner
- Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett
3rd through 5th
- Pax by Sara Pennypacker
- The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
- Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
- Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
- Inside Out and Back Again by Thanahh Lai
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
- Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
- Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
- The War that Changed My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamilo
- The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
- Holes by Louis Sachar
- The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit