I don’t think I could overestimate the importance of reading aloud to children, even after they have learned to read. Sure, we all read to babies and toddlers, although some of us may not do it as often as we should. But many times we stop reading out loud to children in older grades. We’re missing out on a great opportunity.
Once a child reaches first or second grade, they can begin to understand books that are up to five grades above their own grade level. By picking challenging books, you expose them to vocabulary and ideas that they themselves could not yet read on their own. This is a neat concept that can be very beneficial to multi-age classrooms (and families with children of varying ages).
By picking a book that is fun and engaging for more than one age group (e.g., Charlotte’s Web), each age of child will get something different from the story. A younger child might simply enjoy the plot and characters, while an older child might pick up on the themes of the story.
Some of my favorite memories as a child are of my dad reading out loud to me and my sisters—books that we wouldn’t have chosen to read on our own, like the Pilgrim’s Progress, but how we loved to listen to him read out loud. Plus we were getting huge doses of the one thing every child wants more than anything else: their parents’ attention.
The Benefits of Reading Aloud
1. Stimulates imagination
When you read aloud to a child (especially from a book with no pictures), they have to use their minds to picture what is happening in the story. They also may enjoy predicting the character’s actions or thinking up alternate endings to the story.
2. Expands vocabulary
Reading to a child from a book that is a level or two above their own reading level exposes them to new words they might not discover on their own. They will likely be reluctant to interrupt the flow of the story by asking the meaning of a word, and will instead strengthen their ability to figure out meanings through context.
3. Develops analytical and logical thinking
Well-written stories challenge children to go beyond their own experiences and put themselves in someone else’s place. Why did the character act the way they did? How did someone else respond? How might they respond in the same situation? These questions lead to in-depth discussions and reflections on the choices we make in life and how they affect those around us.
4. Strengthens the bond between the adult and child
Reading aloud is a shared experience; usually, the adult enjoys the story as much or more than the child does and they bond as they laugh, cry, and ponder together.
5. Gives children a love of books
Reading aloud to children gives adults a chance to choose timeless, appealing stories that will grab the child’s interest and attention.
6. Strengthens a child’s love of reading on their own
A child who is read to will also enjoy picking up a book themselves – especially if they don’t want to wait for “installments” and would rather read right through it.
7. Increases attention span
A child can listen to a captivating story for a long time – and this practice increases their ability to pay attention and focus on an activity.
Silent Reading and Parallel Reading
Giving children structured time to read silently to themselves is also very important. You may want to make it a part of your school day schedule – at least a few days a week.
Parallel reading is when you and the children read independently at the same time. This allows you to demonstrate your own love and respect for reading – and we all know that children usually copy what we do, not what we say.
A principle to keep in mind is that what you help a child love and desire is more important than what you help them learn. A sure sign of a reader is a young child who snuggles up with a book, although it might be upside down and the words on the page are still meaningless to her. She is showing evidence that she wants to read. That is the kind of love and joy that you want to nurture.
Looking for Great Books?
I highly recommend The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It’s a helpful book on how and why to read to children. It’s in its fifth or sixth printing so try to get the most recent version if you can. It’s full of great info about reading aloud, as well as lots of recommendations for great “read aloud” books.
You can browse lists of Caldecott and Newbery winners to find recommendations for great children’s literature.