May 15, 2014

Janel reading to her children Jena '03 and Harper '07

Janel reading to her children Jena ’03 and Harper ’07

When my children were young, one of the most effective consequences I could impose was to take away read-aloud time before bed.  It was merely the threat of not having book time that would get them to quickly brush their teeth, pick up their rooms, stop arguing with each other, or finish their homework. My children relished the idea of curling up with their dad or me and reading their picks for the night.  We went from simple board books with contrasting images to beautifully illustrated picture books, to classics, to poetry, to novels, and often back again to the picture books.  Throughout those years, we would revisit their favorites time and time again.


Our read aloud time lasted well into their upper elementary school years, with occasional times during middle school.  There was truly a sense of loss when the demands of homework and outside activities, as well as adolescence, overwhelmed their desire to read together. This foundation of consistent reading time, coupled with the strong Walden practice where literacy is celebrated and children are read to through sixth grade, helped to shape my children into life-long readers.


“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.  Its a practice that should continue through the grades.”


This is the finding reported in 1985 by the Commission on Reading, funded by the U.S. Department of Education in their report titled Becoming a Nation of Readers.  The Commission emphasized that reading aloud should take place both at home and in the classroom.  Current research confirms this finding and underscores its relevance today, thirty years after the report was first issued.


A commonly held belief is that literacy is primarily about decoding, which is reading the letters to form words, sentences, and ideas; however, being literate involves many practices. Listening to books, discussing characters, finding meaning in illustrations, telling, listening to and understanding stories, switching perspectives, developing empathy, and making connections are all practices of literacy.


Reluctant or struggling decoders may not find reading fun and relaxing.  In fact, they may have negative emotions associated with reading, so it becomes even more compelling to provide positive, nonthreatening reading experiences that will allow for pleasurable connections to text.  As Jim Trelease states in his book, The Read-Aloud Handbook, “The mechanics of reading [decoding] are the ‘how-to’ aspects of reading.  The other part is the ‘want-to,’ the motivational end.  Without the ‘want-to’ all the ‘how-to’ drill work is not going to create a lifetime reader.  Reading aloud is what builds the child’s ‘want-to.’”


Children can also “read” pictures, so while they are listening to the words being read to them, they can follow a visual narrative.  It is this combination that often allows the story to be much more complex and sophisticated than if they were reading a simple text on their own. Reading aloud to children is an essential approach to foster competence and enjoyment of literacy in all forms.


The benefits of reading aloud are far reaching, as it develops language and literacy skills in patterns, rhythm, rhyme and repetition, vocabulary and print knowledge, storytelling, phonics, and word play.  Additionally, it is a wonderful way to encourage brain development, generate curiosity, create new and shared knowledge, and to instill a love of reading.  And, of course, it allows for incredible bonding moments that help to condition the child to associate reading with pleasure.


Janel Umfress
Walden School Learning Specialist

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