Q: Our school recently sent home a flier promoting the benefits of "reading aloud to your children every day of the year." My kids are 7 and 9. I read to them as preschoolers, but should I continue to do it?
A: Why not? There are a host of educational and emotional benefits. Thirty years ago, educator Jim Trelease outlined them in "The Read-Aloud Handbook." It became a surprise best-seller, now in its sixth edition.
Trelease explains, "Reading aloud to children sends a pleasure message to the child's brain." It seems to send pleasure messages to parents, too, by staking out quality time at the end of each busy day, all in the cause of helping a child learn to enjoy reading.
The results are a big deal. Kids who connect "reading" with "pleasure" are likely to want to read more, become acquainted with a range of authors and genres, and do better in school, says Trelease. "Conversely," he says, "children who don't enjoy reading, who don't read much, cannot get better at it."
Reading aloud to kids helps stir their imaginations, boosts listening skills, hones their ability to focus, and gives them a model of what fluent reading sounds like.
One of the most important benefits is vocabulary development, says Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio (blog.coreknowledge.org). "When students listen to a read-aloud, the cognitive bandwidth that might ordinarily be devoted to decoding is redirected toward the vocabulary and content of the reading," he says. "We learn vocabulary primarily in context, not by memorization. Thus, read-alouds build language proficiency by exposing kids to sophisticated vocabulary well above their independent reading level."
This is especially true when parents read nonfiction aloud to their children. "Parents often choose poems or fiction over nonfiction texts," says Pondiscio, and that's a lost opportunity. "Nonfiction often has rich, domain-specific vocabulary. You're more likely to hear words like 'orbit,' 'zenith,' 'solar,' or 'celestial,' in a book on astronomy."
In a biography of Jeremy Lin, for example, a listener would likely encounter terms such as "point guard" and "assists," and names of places such as Palo Alto, Harvard, Taiwan, China and Madison Square Garden.
"Read-alouds not only grow vocabulary, they are the best way to build critical background knowledge essential for later reading comprehension," says Pondiscio.
Reading aloud to children has benefits well past the primary grades. Pondiscio explains why: "Oral language competence precedes written language proficiency. We learn to speak and listen long before we read and write. Reading comprehension and written fluency typically don't catch up to oral competency until about eighth grade. A strong case can be made for read-alouds in building knowledge, vocabulary and fluency through middle school."
Start a new family habit to celebrate World Read Aloud Day, which is on March 7. A quick Internet search will surface many annotated lists to choose from. Common Sense Media includes a full range of choices for all age levels. Scholastic Parent & Child magazine just named the 100 Best Books for Kids (Scholastic.com/100books). Find sources of compelling nonfiction in magazines, newspapers and websites as well as books.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)