Tuesday, March 3, 2020 3:24 PM
My granddaughter Payton deposits a pile of books in my lap and shuffles through them, deciding which she wants me to read first. Sometimes we read six or seven stories in one sitting. Several times a day. It’s our favorite thing to do together. If I didn’t insist on a break to do other things, I think Payton would be content to have me read until my voice gives out. Me too.
Why am I so passionate about reading aloud? Besides being thoroughly enjoyable, it is the single best thing you can do to set your child up for success in school and life. Entire doctoral theses have been written and hundreds of research studies conducted to quantify the value of read-aloud. Let me give you the highlights.
First, the academic and cognitive benefits. All babies learn language by listening to spoken conversation. But written syntax is a step beyond. Consider this sentence from William Steig’s The Amazing Bone: “Later she sat on the ground in the forest between school and home, and spring was so bright and beautiful, the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower.” Children who regularly hear complex syntax like this develop a better command of language. The evidence is not just anecdotal: Led by Patricia McGee, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, a U.S. Air Force-commissioned study of toddlers found that read-aloud triggered certain brain cells, strengthened existing synaptic connections, and created new brain cells and connections.1 Of course every teacher knows that read-aloud is the foundation for all reading skills, including phonemic awareness, comprehension, prediction skills, and understanding of syntax.
Then there’s vocabulary. It’s grueling to study vocabulary for the SAT; isn’t it better to learn words organically throughout your life? University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by age four, a child from a professional family will have heard forty-five million words, a working class child twenty-six million, and a child from a family on public assistance thirteen million words.2 Extensive read-aloud can decrease this disparity, leveling the educational playing field. Both of my granddaughters (ages four and six) use words like “emerged,” “flourish,” and “revelry.” My daughter and her husband use advanced vocabulary in their home, but I also hear the girls using words we have read together. In a creative story, Abby wrote “they chorused.” Payton used “gloating” in a sentence and defined it for me. So when I wrote When Poke Woke, I made a point to include lots of challenging words: “Eyes bulging, The Mangy Mongrel skidded to a stop and bolted back to the house, his tail drooping.”
Read-aloud also fosters remembering and develops higher-level critical thinking skills such as problem-solving and decision-making, according to McGee. My granddaughters weighed a dog’s destructive behaviors against his selfless love as we read Bad Dog, Marley by John Grogan. And stories unleash children’s imaginations and creative thinking. Things that Are Most in the World by Judi Barrett led to the girls brainstorming other “mosts,” such as Abby’s “The funniest thing in the world is a shark eating a bowl of pizza.”
A Scholastic study found that read-aloud leads to kids becoming avid readers.3 Abby has completed the first three Harry Potter books and is working through the fourth. A seminal study led by Richard Anderson, Director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Champaign, found that being read to makes kids better readers, which leads to success in school. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education-commissioned study noted that the single most important factor leading to reading success is read-aloud.4
Of course, you might expect those benefits. But did you know that reading aloud also strengthens executive function? This includes memory, planning, flexible thinking, and self-control. We love anticipating how the dog will disrupt each fairy tale in Ivan the Terrier by Peter Catalanotto. After the story, we always discuss additional stories and suggest at which point Ivan might come barking. Additional benefits are cited by Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Assistant Professor Manual Jimenez, who found that kids who are read to remember facts and concepts better, concentrate (and thus, listen) more effectively, and have longer attention spans. They are better behaved and less prone to hyperactivity.5 Even wiggly Payton, who falls off chairs and never met a floor she didn’t face-plant on, barely moves when we’re reading.
Read-aloud also fosters cultural and civic awareness. McGee found that children who are read to will know and understand their world and their places in it. They will also demonstrate greater ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions (this is called Theory of Mind—ToM) and show more compassion and empathy in navigating social relationships, according to psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of New York’s New School for Social Research.6 The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt is a perfect vehicle for discussions about emotions and conflict resolution. As each crayon airs its grievances, kids learn to look at issues from more than one perspective. Some books even help dispel stereotypes. In Sophie’s Masterpiece by Eileen Spinelli, a spider is shooed and swatted until she finally finds sanctuary and weaves a blanket for a newborn baby. Even this lifelong arachnophobe looks at spiders differently now.
Finally, read-aloud is fun! I concur with The Read-Aloud Handbook’s Jim Trelease that it conditions the brain to associate books with pleasure.7 I dare you to read aloud Mo Willem’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus without grinning in delight—or outright howling—at every page. Read-aloud may even reduce stress as much as 68%, says cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis of the University of Sussex.8 What better way to bond with your child than snuggled together, laughing and talking about a good story? And what could be more important? Grab a book and read it with your favorite child.
1 Patricia McGee, “The Instructional Value of Storytelling,” Technical paper, United States Air Force Research Laboratory, Mesa, Arizona (2008), http://faculty.coehd.utsa.edu/pmcgee/McGee-2008-AFRL.pdf.
2 Betty Hart and Todd Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, 1995).
3 Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report: Fourth Edition, YouGov (2013), https://www.scholastic.com/content/dam/KFRR/PastReports/kfrr2013_4th.pdf.
4 Richard C. Anderson, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Judith A. Scott, and Ian A. G. Wilkinson, “Becoming a Nation of Readers,” The Report of the Commission on Reading, The National Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education (1985), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED253865.pdf.
5 Manuel E. Jimenez, Alan Mendelsohn, Yong Lin, Patricia Shelton, and Nancy Reichman, “Early Shared Reading Is Associated with Less Harsh Parenting,” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 40, no. 7 (Sept. 1, 2019): 530-537.
6 David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 18, no. 342 (Oct. 2013): 377-380 DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918.
7 Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook: 7th edition, (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).
8 “Reading ‘Can Help Reduce Stress,’” The Telegraph (Jan. 13, 2020), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html.