Why Reading Aloud to Older Children Is Valuable

| May 14, 2013 | 40 Comments
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Educator and author Jessica Lahey reads Shakespeare and Dickens aloud to her seventh- and eighth-graders, complete with all the voices. Her students love being read to, and sometimes get so carried away with the story, she allows them to lie on the floor and close their eyes just to listen and enjoy it. Lahey reads short stories aloud, too: “My favorite story to read out loud has to be Poe’s ‘Tell-tale Heart.’ I heighten the tension and get a little nuts-o as the narrator starts to really go off the rails. So much fun.”

While reading Dickens aloud helps students get used to his Victorian literary style, Lahey said that it’s also an opportunity for her to stop and explain rhetorical and literary devices they wouldn’t get on their own. And they read the Bard’s plays together, divvying up the parts, because “that’s how they are meant to be experienced.”

“Shared words have power, an energy that you can’t get from TV, radio, or online.”

Reading aloud to older children — even up to age 14, who can comfortably read to themselves — has benefits both academic and emotional, says Jim Trelease, who could easily be called King of the Read-Aloud. Trelease, a Boston-based journalist, turned his passion for reading aloud to his children into The Read-Aloud Handbook in 1979; it has since been an unequivocal bestseller with sales in the mult-millions, and Trelease is releasing the seventh, and final, edition in June.

Obviously, Trelease firmly believes in the value of reading to kids of all ages.

“The first reason to read aloud to older kids is to consider the fact that a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to decode themselves if they are read aloud. “You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading at this level happens through the ear.”

Research collected on middle school read-alouds showed that 58 percent of teachers read aloud to their students – and nearly 100 percent of reading and special education teachers. And, while middle-school students reported liking read-alouds, little data has been collected on the “extent and nature” of reading aloud to twelve- to fourteen-year-olds.

“Research indicates that motivation, interest, and engagement are often enhanced when teachers read aloud to middle school students,” wrote research authors Lettie K. Albright and Mary Ariail. Teachers surveyed for the study cited modeling as their number-one reason for reading aloud.

Trelease acknowledged that modelling the pleasure of reading is important, but there are more reasons read-alouds work so well — like “broadening the menu.”

“Let’s take a nine-year-old who’s just finished two solid years of drill and skill, a lot of testing, a lot of work, and they’re competent, but they’re thinking in terms of reading as a sweat experience,” he said. When a teacher reads a good book above student reading level, he show students that the good stuff — the really great books — are coming down the road, if they stick with it.

“Broadening the menu” becomes even more important if a child has difficulties with reading. According to Wandering Eductators’ Dr. Jessica Voigts, who homeschools her daughter Lillie, reading aloud can make reading more pleasurable for someone with dyslexia. “Reading together – with her watching the words as I read, and then her reading to me – is a way to be together, to experience the world, to enjoy a common pleasure. I read to her, about two-thirds of the time, and then she takes over for one-third of the time. We pass the book back and forth, although we’re usually right next to each other,” she said.

And though her daughter struggles, Voigt admitted she reads to Lillie for more than just academic benefits. “This is a time — tweens, teens — when life is full of craziness. This is one way to have a place of rest, of being, something to count on each day. Shared words have power, an energy that you can’t get from TV, radio, or online,” she said.

For Trelease, the power of shared words is a big reason to keep on reading aloud after children are able to read for themselves. Students might interject questions, comfortably wading into complicated or difficult subjects because they are happening to the characters in the story, and not to themselves. “Why do you think so many children’s stories have orphans as characters? Because every child either worries or fantasizes about being orphaned.”

While Trelease maintained that read-alouds can happen through any device (“Look at all the truckers listening to books on CD,” he said), and Lahey reads from a physical paper book, dogeared and scrawled with all her notes in the margins, both emphasized how students recall read-alouds with fond memories. Trelease recently received a letter from a retired teacher who reconnected online with former students some 30 years later. She wanted to know the one thing her former students remembered about her class.

“Without fail, it was the books she read to them.”

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  • http://twitter.com/mzteachuh Melanie Taylor, M.Ed

    High school kids really enjoy being read to, also. It is a very special connection among the community of the literate.

  • http://twitter.com/WanderingEds Dr. Jessica Voigts

    I’ve seen so many positive things in kids that are read-aloud to (and that read aloud!) – from a connection with family members to a broader worldview. Love this!

    • http://www.facebook.com/teachers.heaven Teachers Heaven

      I have had such positive results with a student I work with at a home for boys who has the most severe case of dyslexia of any student that I have worked with. I read aloud to him and the two of us did choral/shared reading. His reading improved drastically.

      • http://twitter.com/WanderingEds Dr. Jessica Voigts

        LOVE that. it makes a huge difference!

  • Nanette Avery, Ed.S.

    A valuable concept…I was reading to my middle school students back in the 90s…Trelease is certainly not a new name to veteran teachers…good ideas are often not new; just rediscovered…

  • http://www.facebook.com/theladyhamlet Marni Penning Coleman

    I just posted the other day about my fourth-grade teacher, who not only read aloud to us, but got us to perform Shakespeare at 8/9-years old! She went on to teach middle school as well – and 15 years later, I became a professional Shakespearean actor who co-founded a (still-running) Shakespeare company. Shakespeare was meant to be heard! :) http://insomnimama.blogspot.com/2013/05/to-be.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/carissa.peck.5 Carissa Peck

      I couldn’t agree more. I love reading! I HATE reading Shakespeare. The stories are better if ai hear or better see them!

    • Shannon

      Check out Chop Bard podcast on iTunes. Over 100 episodes going through each play, reading aloud and creating an enjoyable and enlightening experience!

    • https://www.facebook.com/westybsa Mark West

      Not Shakespeare per say but the ONLY way I was able to make it through Homer’s “The Odessey” was with books on tape. ENDOFSTORY! They saved me from absolutely failing world literature in high school.

  • http://eric.kamander.com/ kamander

    Perfect timing. I had been wondering a lot recently what the word is on reading to my kids who can do so much reading on their own. But they love it so much and so do I. I knew it had to be good, so it is great to see there’s some data to back it up.

  • http://twitter.com/AlmaDzibGoodin Alma Dzib Goodin

    This is because children can see and hear the words, and this send the information to the brain through two bias. If the content is enough descriptive, it can add other perception like smelling and flavours, with it can enrich the experience

  • gericar

    Here is the thing about reading aloud, I think almost everyone loves it… adults as well. “Read to me” have to be among the three best words in the language. It can make car trips more fun, bring families closer together if you can corral them for a regular reading time, open us to new authors or different kinds of literature. It can also make the point to our children, no matter how old they are that we value the written word. It is great to have kids read to us, not in the learning to read context, but in turn taking on long trips or other situations. Reading aloud is a great and neglected form of entertainment. Actually one of the most lovely things is to read someone to sleep.

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  • DuMelle

    I teach high school Special Ed. and find myself reading to the students more often than not. There are specific situations that I feel that they should read themselves, but in general if I can use reading aloud as a behavior management tool I will never shy away from it. It often helps control the classroom environment. As long as students are following along and pass comprehension assessments, I feel that reading aloud to them is not a problem.

  • Kristin

    This article has inspired me to start a read aloud program at our library this summer. One question I have; do you have issues with the kids talking, interrupting, or not paying attention?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anita-Thompson-Monroe/100001292277978 Anita Thompson Monroe

    Yes, this is a good idea. I discovered when I was teaching reading to middle school student who were not fluent readers that I could coax them into “tracking” along as I read. Most of them hadn’t developed that physical skill. I’m actually writing a book on the subject.

  • Steve123

    My only concern with reading aloud to students at the Middle School level is that this type of activity may be good for some of the students but not necessarily beneficial for “all” of the students. Yes, it may be great for students with an achievement gap in reading, but what about the expert readers? There are many other research based reading practices that get results and truly can be differentiated for every student.

    • Lou

      I have found in middle school that the “expert” readers enjoy the read aloud as much as anyone else and perhaps even more.

      • Steve123

        Enjoy is great, however, I’m looking to meet the educational needs of “every” student. I want my expert students to be pushed to higher levels of learning and move from dependency to independence. It’s frustrating to be a parent of a high achieving student and their education is being hijacked by the one size fits all approach to education. This is a practice that can be over used and used for the wrong reasons. I get that it is beneficial for Shakespeare and poetry because of rhyme, meter and inflection.

        • Jessica Lahey

          I teach in an academically accelerated school, and am reading high-level books while explaining polysyndeton, asyndeton, apostrophe, anaphora, and antithesis to them while giving context to the historical and cultural references. Even brilliant students won’t pick that stuff up without guidance, and reading out loud allows me to share the magic of the language, introduce them to rhetorical devices and place the narrative in context. Anything but low-level learning there. In fact, it’s a great way to bridge the chasm between the highest and lowest achieving kids while teaching at an incredibly high level.

    • jultech

      Expert readers often “pass over” vocabulary because they get the general context and many might not recognize literary devices or recognize the importance of literary analysis.

      • Cindy Fowler

        I have to agree!! As an expert reader when I read I pass over many words. I love to slow down and read-aloud to my students. Many times I read material way above their reading level in my Intensive Reading class because they have no problem with comprehension when they are using their listening skills.

    • Castle Librarian

      My grade 11 English teacher read science fiction short stories aloud to the class. As an “expert” reader, I loved it. It was my favorite class of the day. I read the best stories again on my own outside of class. I still remember the plot lines over 30 years later.

    • https://www.facebook.com/westybsa Mark West

      How would you define “expert readers”? I think this labeling of “expert readers”, “average readers” and “below average readers” only serve to discourage those not so good with reading comprehension from reading. In a time where so many people do not recognize the effort required of the “average student” or the “below average student” we must not only focus on the gifted and talented students, we must present material in a way everyone understands.

      I am not a teacher but as a Scout Leader one common issue I see with new instructors is that they use a one-size-fits=all instructional method. obviously a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work and in reality only discourages the learner who struggles from trying to develop a new set of skills. And because most don’t have the patience or experience to teach these struggling Scouts, they are often ostracized and pushed out of programs where with additional time and patience could develop the new skills.

  • Denise Schiavo

    I am a Special Education teacher, and I read to my students, not just for the “learning,” but for the bond which develops between ourselves and the group.
    Many of my students before arriving in my 6th and 8th grade classes had given up on reading all together, either because of frustration or because of the lack of a “safe” environment.

    As teachers, we can help generate the feeling of a good “bedtime” story, and allow that feeling to grow within their hearts and minds. Some students may never have known the luxury of being read to, while others have lost it due to “growing up.”

    Opening the pages of a book, sitting together, listening to the words as they come alive..this is priceless….when you can engage the imagination, wonderful things begin to happen.

    Is it fair that a child should only see words on a page….instead of discovering the excitement of the story?

    • https://www.facebook.com/westybsa Mark West

      I can totally relate to this. Throughout school I was consider a “special needs student” and was always disappointed with the fact that many general education (not of their choosing or fault) teachers just can’t understand certain things about special education. I for example by middle school given up on trying to seriously participate in gym class but during one of my high school gym classes I was finally able to feel and be comfortable in class, not because I had significantly improved strength, hand-eye coordination, or agility but instead because the gym teacher was finally able to connect with me on a personal level. It also helped that even the “jocks” or “athletes” in the class were willing to be understanding and accepting that some people can’t perform as well as the average student when it comes to average physical activity skill sets.

  • jen bryant

    Wonderful discussion here . . . I frequently receive emails from educators and librarians who are using one of my novels in verse as a read-aloud with their older
    students. The level of interest, attention and emotional engagement in any story appears to increase dramatically when this is done, and as the article points out, retention is positively affected as well. When I’m drafting a novel, poem, or non-fiction picture books text, I ALWAYS read may day’s work aloud and find that the lyrical quality of each scene or stanza weighs heavily into whether I’ll keep it, revise it
    or toss it. I can’t help but believe that when students listen to a well-written text, they are also effortlessly storing strong models for their own writing.–jen bryant

  • Danny

    Should students have their own book to read along with you or focusing on your words and expressions?

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  • Chris Cander

    I LOVE reading aloud to my students and my own children. It’s as fun for me as it is beneficial for them. http://wp.me/p1WE1w-pE

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  • Tonya1026

    I love the idea of reading aloud to older students. Especially,
    Shakespearean stories. I think students will have a better appreciation
    for the stories if they hear it read aloud with discussion followed by a
    viewing of the actual play or having the students perform.

    Tonya Simmons
    smartandsnazzykids.com

  • Diana Dull Akers

    I just loved the opening paragraph here, and the image of the kids laying on the floor, their eyes closed, taking in the story! Agree with the viewpoints expressed here 100%. So here’s the irony for me — I want my kid to progress in reading, but I’m getting all verklempt at some of the reading snuggle time loss as we shift to reading chapter books with so few pictures that she wanders from me! Does this make me a neurotic mom? Do I care? :-) Wrote about it here for Bookboard: http://bookboard.com/blog/2013/06/from-picture-books-to-chapter-books-a-family-journey/

  • Bethany

    I think that reading aloud to students, no matter their age, is an amazing thing. It is not only a great way to model reading for your students but is also a way to have everyone be connected. Many times, due to different reading ability, students are reading different books and have little chance to talk about what they are reading. Being able to discuss what you are reading is really important. I feel that if you can talk with someone about what you are reading it shows that you are comprehending it, which is huge. Another great thing about reading aloud to students is it gives those who may not be the best readers the chance to experience a book that they would not have been able to read on their own. Also, reading aloud gives students a chance to sit back and enjoy the story. It gives them time to work on their ability to put what they are hearing into an image in their minds. But, just reading aloud is not enough in my opinion. I feel that you need to take it farther by discussing what was read last, what the students predict will happen next and after reading, talk about what was read. This gives all the students time to understand where the story is and where it may be going. It also lets them practice the skill of using what they know about the story so far to make a prediction about what will happen next. I know the article mainly talked about reading Shakespeare or poetry but I think that reading any book, that is a little above their level, is beneficial for every student.

    • Elizabeth

      I agree that all students benefit from books being read aloud to them, however it needs to be consistent. i know that it wouldn’t work for me if a teacher only did it on occasion, but I could see it working if they did it every day. It is also a good way to introduce books student might not have picked on their own and introduces vocabulary that might be above their current level and gives the teacher a chance to discuss different situations and literary context.

      I feel that students need to get used to things being read aloud by one person first so they can get used to how that person pronounces words and reads allowed because we all do that a little differently. I feel that having some text “preformed” (like poetry or Shakespeare) makes them a great deal easier to comprehend than reading them to yourself.

      • jen

        Reading fiction books aloud to my son is something I have done with him since a very early age. Often times, before watch a movie edition of a book, we will read the story together then compare/contrast the two versions, he loves it. Though now that our time is becoming more hectic, we often listen to books on CD in our travels. Reading aloud (and listening to audio books) is a wonderful and fun way of modeling reading skills and strategies to students of any age.

    • Amanda Swanson

      Bethany!
      I really like this blog that you have found. I think it is true that is a student is able to talk about what they have read means that they are comprehending it. I like how you mentioned that reading aloud is great because some students are not able to read well and therefore they are able to listen and know what the story is about. I also agree that reading aloud is not enough but they need to be able to talk about it and talk about what they think is going to happens next. I really enjoyed your blog and your post!

  • library lady

    Still remember my fourth grade teacher and the way she read aloud to the class.

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