Why Is the Read-Aloud a Life-Changing Form of Civic Learning?

The following post was written by Pam Allyn and is part of an ongoing monthly series from the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

—Mem Fox

The academic reasons to read aloud are profound: building comprehension skills by modeling a deepening engagement with text, building fluency as the child listens to the smoothness of a mentor reader, building vocabulary and grammar skills as the child marinates in literary language. But the benefits of the read-aloud extend far beyond improvements in reading ability. They also have a powerful impact on the child’s social and emotional development and the ineffable benefits to the child’s human spirit.

What does the read-aloud do to benefit the child’s spirit? The read-aloud:

1. Builds empathy and understanding

Reading aloud gives children a lens through which to understand the experiences of others. The characters who become dear to us collectively in the warm embrace of the read-aloud are characters who, through the voice of the reader, become alive to our children. They are in the room with us. We can witness the other side of a story or the internal struggle of a beloved character. Authors such as Mo Willems, Charlotte Zolotow, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Kwame Alexander all create a tenderly reverberating world of empathy and compassion, of knowledge building, of how we are all human in this great big complex world we live in.

2. Scaffolds cultural engagement

A story in literary or informational form is honoring the experiences and lives of a whole world of people living in a variety of cultural and linguistic contexts. The read-aloud is powerful when it can be a way to bridge divides and also to illuminate differences that are compelling and wonderful to the listener. Let us select books to read aloud that represent a wide range of characters and cultures, languages and dialects. Host a virtual read-aloud to share across cultures. Don’t worry if everyone doesn’t understand every word. Hearing stories read aloud from different cultures and languages gives a child the powerful sense of all the diversity in the world. Great writers give us exquisite examples of how the world is full of colors and sizes and sounds that all add up to our humanity, and great writers also write specifically from their own cultural perspectives and language to share the details that make us profoundly and beautifully different. Beyond all else is the fact that reading aloud is a powerful complement to the oral tradition around story sharing.

The sound of the human voice passing along stories has a deep tradition across many cultures, and the presence of the read-aloud in our classroom is a way to honor that.

3. Cultivates the power of deep listening

Reading aloud builds listening skills in an unparalleled way. These skills extend far beyond the world of reading. Research of children’s reading habits conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that reading aloud to kids every day will put them a year ahead of kids who are not read aloud to daily, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. Listening deeply means we are not only encouraging answers in response to preordained questions, but also that we are encouraging listening to the sound of an author who conveys his or her particular style, that we are listening to the unique dialogue characters speak, that we are listening to tone and rhythm and the sheer delight of literary sound.

4. Creates excitement for the beauty of vocabulary and grammar

Reading a Walt Whitman poem to a group of fourth graders is a powerful immersion in complex grammar and vocabulary. They don’t have to understand every word or even most lines to soak up the sophistication of his text. The cadence and intention of his ideas carry them along as a boat carrying its passengers, riding the high seas boldly and bravely.

As I Walk These Broad, Majestic Days

As I walk these broad, majestic days of peace,

(For the war, the struggle of blood finish’d, wherein, O terrific Ideal!

Against vast odds, having gloriously won,

Now thou stridest on–yet perhaps in time toward denser wars,

Perhaps to engage in time in still more dreadful contests, dangers,

Longer campaigns and crises, labors beyond all others;)

–As I walk solitary, unattended,

Around me I hear that eclat of the world–politics, produce,

The announcements of recognized things–science,

The approved growth of cities, and the spread of inventions.

There are certainly complex words and phrases in this poem, but the overall theme and the soaring rhythm and even a small amount of background knowledge will give our students the thrill of a lifetime. Your voice conveying that excitement and fearlessness is what helps them to tackle difficult grammar and vocabulary in their own independent reading lives.

5. Fuels happiness

Happiness really matters. Ask any parent what they most want for their child and happiness is one of the top two answers (good health is the other). Yet when we talk about school and about teaching, we talk about outcomes to the exclusion of happiness. We talk about test scores and formative results of portfolios and improvements, all of which most certainly matter, but at the end of the day, for me as a mother and as an educator, the smile matters most. I think we truly underestimate the importance of happiness in school. I have sometimes said that the only assessment we actually need would be to ask children: “Were you happy in school today?” Their response would tell us everything we need to know, from the quality of the teaching to the quality of the physical environment to the interaction of peers.

The read-aloud fuels pure happiness. When done in a comfortable setting with a wonderful book, the entire community is lifted up, and the children are energized, excited, included, and joyous. All the conditions for great learning are met.

P.S. Visit my organization litworld.org to find out how you can join us for World Read-Aloud Day!

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