The memory of having listened to someone read to us can conjure feelings of warmth, comfort, and happiness. Listening to someone read to us may have freed us from struggles with unfamiliar words, difficult pronunciations, and complex sentence structures. We were able to listen, imagine, and feel as we became absorbed in story characters, exciting plots, vivid settings, and amazing adventures. The shared experience may have stimulated interesting discussions and ignited vigorous arguments about meaning, motivations, and minute details contained within the stories we heard.
Reading aloud has long been a tradition in elementary schools. It deserves to remain so. The practice features many important benefits to young readers, including:
- hearing accomplished reading being modeled
- practicing listening skills
- hearing advanced vocabulary and proper pronunciation
- stimulating imagination and curiosity
- introducing story structure and components
- building background knowledge
Unfortunately, pressure to cover content, competition with technology, and limited time have led some teachers to reduce or even eliminate the practice of reading aloud to their students. Yet, the practice of reading aloud is no less important than it was generations ago.
Meanwhile, we may think that reading aloud is only important for young learners. This assumption is incorrect. Abandoning the practice of reading aloud for older students is a mistake; in fact, reading aloud offers at least as many benefits to the learning of older students as it does for younger students. Consider that reading aloud to older students can:
- Expose students to new genres with which students may not engage on their own. Assigning students to read content from a variety of genres can be a start, but for many students, the act of simply reading the words risks them missing the magic that can be conveyed as they listen and imagine the conflicts, emotions, and implications of what they are hearing.
- Give students without strong reading skills access to more complex and challenging content. Complicated content can present vocabulary struggles and concept challenges that leave students frustrated and disengaged. However, when read aloud, some difficult-to-read vocabulary can be easier to understand. Further, the reader can pause and explain content that is difficult to grasp. Conflicts can be explained, connections can be illustrated, and complex ideas can be simplified to ensure understanding.
- Create a shared experience for thinking, discussion, and analysis. Rich content can be the starting point used to coach students on critical thinking and reflecting deeply about a topic. It can also stimulate an interest in further exploration and research.
- Support emphasis on crucial information that might be lost if students are reading independently. Intonation, expression, and pace can add dimension to the text and carry meaning beyond the obvious.
- Expose students to complete ideas rather than the sound bites and truncated media messages they often encounter in electronic formats. Careful word choice, complex sentence structure, and sophisticated style can nudge students to appreciate language as an art, as well as a function.
- Build empathy and compassion. Listeners can identify with actors or characters in the text. Listening to text offers opportunities to explore perspectives, enhance understanding of motivation, and build meaningful connections.
In an age of electronic messaging, digital distractions, and out-of-context information, taking time to read aloud to students can offer an important counterbalance. Meanwhile, the opportunity to share the experience of reading, listening, and discussing can create bonds and build bridges of understanding that are difficult to achieve in almost any other venue.