The Academic Benefits of Reading Aloud
This is the second of a three-part series. Part One: The Joy of Reading Aloud. Next month: The Art of Reading Aloud.
I’ve taught literature for local homeschool co-ops for more than a decade now. During this time I’ve witnessed, up close, an extraordinary number of families who value read-aloud time in their homes. Recently, when my students read the Sherlock Holmes books, one 17-year-old boy asked if it was okay that his mom was reading the books aloud to the family instead of him reading silently to himself.
“Yes!” I told him, “Not only is it okay, it is encouraged.” I then asked him if he, as the oldest child in his family, helped with the reading. I was thrilled to hear he regularly helps his parents by reading aloud to the younger children.
Research shows that homeschoolers score far above their public school peers on standardized tests. Analysts believe there are many reasons for this phenomenon. I believe one reason is that homeschool parents and children are reading together more than the average American family. It’s a lesson for all parents that is easily imitated, no matter where our children get their academics.
Raising a Reader
Research has also shown that reading aloud is the single most important factor in raising a reader. Not whether you have a Ph.D. or a high school diploma. It’s whether or not you’re reading aloud to your children. It’s caught, not taught.
I’m not talking about just about how to read, but raising a child who wants to read. Filling your child with a love for the written word and the desire to open a book.
Children need to find joy in their lessons. Phonics is hard for some children. When children see the purpose of their phonics lessons is to be able to read their own books, they become more engaged in learning.
Some children learn to read simply by sitting in the lap of their parent and looking at the words as they are read. I have a couple of children like that. I sat down to teach them how to read and they already knew.
However, it was a different story for my dyslexic child. He did not begin to take off in reading until he was 10 years old. Today, as a 26-year-old man, he loves to read even though it takes him significantly longer to read than the average person.
I believe his love for the written word goes back to the days when he couldn’t read himself because of his dyslexia. I read everything aloud to him. Everything. We cuddled on the couch and worked on school lessons together. When you’re a little child, it is comforting to be able to cuddle with your mom and have her full attention.
If reading is pleasurable, children will read without a fight. After all, it is human nature to be drawn to what is pleasurable.
Writing and Grammar
Writing and grammar lessons will be easier with a solid foundation of read aloud time. If you’re reading good literature, then you will more likely write good literature.
My dyslexic son is an excellent writer. I remember asking him once, when he was 14, “Christian, how did you get to be such a good writer?” He answered, “Because you give me books like Lord of the Rings and Narnia.” He knew.
Speech and writing are basically copycat activities. We imitate what we see and hear. It goes in through our ears and eyes and comes out our mouths as well as our keyboards.
My second child had severe speech impediments. It was a hereditary problem and at 5 years old she was difficult to understand. When Mary first saw a speech therapist, I was told many children with speech problems have them for no other reason than they don’t have a significant amount of verbal communication with adults in the home.
The therapist also shared that speech problems were on the rise and studies showed children with two working parents were twice as likely to develop speech problems than those with a stay-at-home mother. More recent studies show speech problems continuing to rise today due to the increased number of children spending time in front of screens instead of interacting with others.
Vocabulary and Comprehension
When my young daughter tested off the charts for vocabulary, the specialist told me, “You may struggle to understand Mary’s speech, but boy can she understand you!” She asked if I read aloud to Mary on a daily basis, knowing full well my answer would be yes. The specialist told me that she never saw children with good vocabulary who weren’t read to by their parents.
A year later, Mary tested in the 99th percentile for reading comprehension. Again, the specialist was excited about the results. She told me it was because of our daily lessons where I read to Mary and had her retell the story. This exercise took fifteen minutes a day. In kindergarten, we read from the children’s Bible. In first grade, it was saints’ stories. Fifteen minutes a day made all the difference in the world.
An important thing for us to consider is that listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension. Children understand the verbal before they understand the written. In Jim Trelease’s book, The Read Aloud Handbook, he uses this example – the word “enormous.” If a child has never heard the word enormous, he’ll never say the word. If he’s never heard it or said it, imagine his displeasure when he attempts to read it. Imagine the frustration of encountering it for the first time on the written page.
During read aloud time, if a child hasn’t heard a word before, he’ll often figure out its meaning through the context of the story. If the story reads, “The giant was so enormous that he towered over the houses in the village,” it is easy to figure out the meaning of “enormous.”
If he can’t figure out the meaning of a word as you read, make sure he is comfortable in stopping you and asking for a definition. Keep a dictionary close to you for such instances.
Expanding Attention Spans
Reading aloud also helps children and their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Our current society conditions children to have short attention spans: 1-minute YouTube videos; TV commercials; Facebook memes; Twitter’s 140-character limit; and Snap Chat. Sitting down with Mom or Dad to read from the time when children are little will help grow their attention span. It will help them read for long periods of time on their own when they need to. It is, wonderfully, unforced learning.
When to Begin and End
You can never start reading aloud too early with children. I suggest beginning at the same time you begin talking to your child. All you need is a library card and the willingness to do it.
Conversely, children are never too old to be read to. Most parents stop reading aloud once children learn to read on their own. Please, don’t be one of those parents. The research shows that children who are read to through the adolescence years do significantly better in vocabulary and comprehension.
Again, listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension. For example, a child who soaks up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe read aloud, may only be able to read simple sentences such as “the cat in the hat” to herself. If you stop reading aloud as soon as a child begins to read herself, you’ll both miss out on many great stories.
The Importance of Fathers
It makes a big difference if Dad is reading and not just Mom. Studies show that boys with fathers who read to them score significantly higher on standardized tests. Second are boys whose fathers read recreationally. Boys need to know that reading is not an activity only for girls, and that can happen if Mom is the only one reading.
Dads, make sure your sons see you reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Make sure they hear you talking about what you’re reading. Emotions are contagious – if they see you’re excited about reading then they’ll be more likely to get excited about reading themselves. Make sure you’re making time to read aloud to your children. Make it a habit.
Dads are busy, but all I’m suggesting is fifteen minutes a day. You can make an incredible difference in your child’s life with only few extra minutes.
In my opinion, reading aloud is more important than worksheets, homework, flash cards, book reports, and the rest. Those things have their place, but for those methods to work at their best potential you need to first build a solid foundation with good books.
Copyright 2015 Maureen Wittmann