Reading does not have to be silent! This blog will discuss how tapping into your senses and listening to books, as well as speaking them outloud, are two extremely beneficial ways to create confident and competent early readers. But what do we know about the science behind these skills and how they impact reading acquisition? 

Reading Aloud:

Reading aloud stimulates brain activity and that process promotes learning in a few key areas. Particularly impacted by reading aloud are:

  • Emergent literacy skills, i.e. phonological awareness and letter recognition
  • Comprehension (understanding of both words and the narrative of the story)
  • Attention and listening skills
  • Confidence and self-esteem

Shared book reading can also be a key catalyst in fostering a love of reading which can last a lifetime; a benefit that’s importance cannot be overstated. 

Let’s take a deeper dive into those benefits and consider what impact they have on our reading instruction! First let’s consider what happens when children listen to books read aloud:

Reading Aloud and Emergent Reading Skills:

Emergent reading skills are the foundational skills that children need before they are going to be able to fluently read a book and understand what they read. Key skills focused on for emergent readers include:

  • Language skills – particularly an understanding of spoken language and vocabulary
  • Phonological awareness – the ability to recognise and manipulate spoken segments of words and sentences
  • Orthographic mapping (sound-letter correspondence) – an understanding of how sounds and letters relate to each other
  • The conventions of print – for instance turning a page or reading from right to left in English

When children listen to stories being read aloud, the brain’s left parietal (responsible for sensation), temporal (responsible for language), and occipital (responsible for vision) lobes are activated. These regions of the brain are the hub for processing the meaning of words/sentences, story comprehension and visual imagery (Hutton et al, 2015). As a result of this activation, over time children start to recognise letters and make links between sounds and print.

Reading aloud with children does not replace the need for explicit and structured instruction into these vital foundational skills, but can be used as an important adjunct in the classroom and at home to build early reading skills.

When children listen to stories being read to them, the reader naturally tends to promote awareness of sound patterns by emphasizing rhyming words and alliteration e.g. ‘Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle’. Over time, children therefore begin to recognize and identify these sound patterns themselves.

This supports the early development of phonological awareness skills and the knowledge that sounds can be manipulated (Silven, Niemi & Voeten, 2002). Studies show a positive relationship between children’s ability to detect and manipulate syllables, rhymes and phonemes (key skills of phonological awareness), and the speed and ease with which they become competent readers (Wagner, Torgesen & Rahotte, 1994).

When children listen to stories being read, they are exposed to written language, which is often different to the conversational language they are used to.

Reading aloud also exposes children to written language, which sounds different to how we speak conversationally. Reading aloud exposes children to new grammatical structures, new vocabulary and the structure of stories (with a beginning, middle and an end) at a higher level than those they can read independently. These pre-reading skills lead to the acquisition of longer and more complex sentence structures and set the stage for more structured and formal reading instruction at a later age.

Another benefit of listening to someone reading is the exposure to fluency. When an adult reads aloud to a child, they naturally model accurate fluency, speed, phrasing and expression. Repeated exposure to this natural language supports the development of a child’s oral language and reading fluency.  

Listening to Stories and Language Development:

Dominic Massara (2017) found that “children listening to the reading of a picture book are roughly three times more likely to experience a new word type that is not among the frequent words relative to their caregiver’s speech.” Essentially, when children are exposed to regular read-alouds, they hear more varied vocabulary than we use in everyday conversation. 

To give you an example, I might not use the word ‘marvelous’ or ‘tremendous’ in conversation with a child to describe something I like, but picture books often include such advanced vocabulary. Reading aloud to children exposes them to words they may not hear in everyday conversations before they have the ability to decode these words independently. Ohio State University (2019) found that children that are read aloud to each day enter kindergarten having heard a WHOPPING 1.4 million more words than those that have not experienced this! Clearly, reading aloud has a huge impact on language and vocabulary development!

An interactive style when reading aloud with a child (talking about the text, asking questions, relating it to life experiences, pointing out interesting observations etc) is particularly beneficial to language development. (Read more about interactive reading and other reading tips for parents here). Not only does it promote joint attention, which is a vital skill for communicating with those around us, but it also enhances a child’s receptive language (understanding of words and sentences) and expressive language (communicating our own ideas/thoughts) skills (Ezell & Justice, 2005). A solid foundation of language skills forms the basis from which we later learn to become proficient readers!

Barriers of Listening To Read-Alouds:

Now we have discussed the benefits of listening to read-alouds, let’s consider some of the barriers and possible solutions. Let’s start with a big one: children aren’t supposed to have long attention spans yet! The average 4-year-old has an attention span of 8-12 minutes per activity. This increases only to 12-18 minutes for 5–6-year-olds! Instead of expecting perfection, we need to realign our expectation about how long a child can sit quietly and listen for and be prepared with some tricks up our sleeve:

  • Let them wiggle, fiddle and move their bodies during the read aloud. Building movement into your reading activity actually helps children to focus and can improve retention of new vocabulary and reading skills (Erwin, Fedewa & Ahn, 2013)
  • Keep read-alouds short and sweet, if they aren’t into a book, it’s okay to move on!
  • Pick a genre they’re interested in
  • Make it entertaining – funny voices go a long way!
  • Check out Adrienne Gear’s blog about how to make reading interactive for more ideas

Let’s be real for a second, life is busy and we’re not always going to find time to dedicate to read-alouds. That’s okay. But I’d like to challenge you to find time for read-alouds during routines that you already have. Parents, that could be listening to audiobooks instead of music in the car, educators that could be building in time to listen to read-alouds during Daily 5s.

So now we know about the positive impact of listening to read-alouds and some ways to get started, let’s explore the impact of a child reading aloud themselves. 

The Link Between Reading Aloud and Fluency: 

One of the main benefits of reading aloud is our reading fluency. Fluency fulfills an important role as a bridge between word recognition and understanding the meaning of the text (Pikulski and Chard, 2005). Helping a learner to read as effortlessly and expressively as when they talk in conversation helps to transfer children with word recognition skills into fluent readers, capable of automatically and quickly reading a text whilst not losing meaning (Wren, 2006). This is one of the best ways to develop a love of reading.  

As the goal of fluency is for reading to sound as effortless and fluid as an oral conversation, one of the most natural ways to work on something sounding like speaking is, you guessed it, by speaking it outloud! Kuhn and Stahl (2000) reviewed 6 classroom studies and found particular improvement in reading fluency when learners read aloud, particularly when learners read:

  • At their comfort level
  • The same text multiple times (that’s right, you don’t need to find a new text every time!)
  • To a peer or someone at a similar level
  • Aloud at home, not just at school
  • With explicit feedback on areas to focus on (e.g. speed, phrasing or intonation – the rise and fall of your voice when you talk)

Learners Reading Aloud and the ‘Production Effect’:

When learners read words aloud (‘narrate’), they are significantly more likely to remember those words or pieces of texts than if they read them silently. This is called the ‘production effect’ (MacLeod, 2011). By reading aloud, we are more easily able to retrieve words and sentences from our memory.  When we retain words/sentences more easily, we are able to lock in comprehension and new vocabulary gains.  This occurs because we stored the word using our auditory processing system (hearing it spoken aloud by ourselves) which, when compared to silent reading or writing the word, has been found to be the most effective way to retain a word or piece of text (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).

Barriers to Reading Aloud

Now we’ve explored the benefits of reading aloud, let’s consider some of the barriers to this. Many children may initially shy away from reading aloud for a variety of different reasons, including lacking confidence, difficulty decoding the text, new and complex sentence structures or being worried about not getting it right (I definitely fit into this last box as a kid!) But now that we have discovered the many advantages to reading aloud, what can we do to support our reluctant readers? ANSWER: Remove the STRESSORS and get back to the FUN

Here are some common stressors:

  • The audience
  • The complexity of the text
  • The decoding required
  • The type of the book (low interest or too technical)
  • The pressure of being listened to

Reading aloud does not need any of these things! It can be done with a favourite song, a favourite book, and it definitely does not need an audience. A dog, the flowerbed or even a brick wall make nice, low pressure reading aloud companions. 

Another stress-free option for narrating a book without the pressure of an audience is through online reading platforms.  Online reading platforms, such as Simbi, often include tools to allow readers to narrate the story and record their voice. Children record a narration to any book they like from their tailored global library, at a time that suits them.

Instead of reading aloud to a brick wall where no-one can hear them, an educator or parent can go back in and listen in to the narration for assessment or progress purposes. They can even record feedback that the child receives after they recorded their narration. With the reduced pressure of an audience, the ‘just right’ difficulty of the text and wide variety of genres available, children are given the best possible chance of success when reading aloud and educators gain a real understanding of their learner’s progress. Win win!

Reading platforms such as Simbi can also be a useful resource for listening to reading too. Educators and parents might not always have the time to read aloud to the child, but audio books or online reading platforms provide the next best thing to relaxing on the sofa with a parent and a book!

References:

Erwin H., Fedewa A., Ahn S. (2013). Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5 (2), 109–124.

Ezell HK & Justice LM  (2005). Shared storybook reading. Baltimore, MD: Brooks Publishing. 6

Forrin, N. D., MacLeod, C. M., & Ozubko, J. D. (2012). Widening the boundaries of the production effect. Memory & Cognition, 40(7), 1046-

Hutton, J. S., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A. L., DeWitt, T., Holland, S. K., & C-Mind Authorship Consortium. (2015). Home reading environment and brain activation in preschool children listening to stories. Pediatrics, 136(3), 466-478. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/136/3/466/61420/Home-Reading-Environment-and-Brain-Activation-in?redirectedFrom=fulltext 

Stahl, S. A., & Kuhn, M. R. (2002). Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement: Making It Sound like Language: Developing Fluency. The Reading Teacher, 55(6), 582-584.

Massaro, D. W. (2017). Reading aloud to children: Benefits and implications for acquiring literacy before schooling begins. The American Journal of Psychology, 130(1), 63-72.

MacLeod, C. M. (2011). I said, you said: the production effect gets personal. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 18, 1197–1202. doi: 10.3758/s13423-011-0168-8

Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 58(6), 510-519.

Ohio State University. “A ‘million word gap’ for children who aren’t read to at home: That’s how many fewer words some may hear by kindergarten.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 April 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190404074947.htm>.

Silven M, Niemi P, Voeten (2002). Do maternal Interaction and early language predict phonological awareness in 3- to 4-year-olds? Cogn Dev;17:1133–55.

Wagner RK, Torgesen JK, Rahotte CA (1994). The development of reading-related phonological processing abilities: new evidence of bi-directional causality from a latent variable longitudinal study. Dev Psycho;30:73–87

Wren, S. (2006). Fluency: A review of the research. Retrieved July, 22, 2011.

About the Author Helena Thornley

Helena Thornley, Speech and Language Pathologist, offers some tips to support communication development through reading.

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    The Benefits of Listening to Stories Out Loud and Reading Aloud

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