Read aloud as a family

The Power of Reading Aloud

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One of my earliest memories is of laying on the couch with my sisters, listening to my mom, who was sitting on the floor at our feet, read ‘Charlotte’s Web’. I must have been 4-years-old, because I wasn’t yet in school.

Watching (and apparently reading) over her shoulder, I remember indignantly alerting my mom to the fact that she had skipped a few sentences. “What?” she asked. I pointed out the sentences she had skipped, reading them to her.

She called my dad into the room and had me read the sentences to him. I could tell they were amazed and pleased as they marveled that I could read and wondered how I had learned.

I don’t remember learning to read. It seemed to me that I just always knew how.

What would you say if I told you there was an easy, fun, free way to improve your child’s academic skills and chances at success? And that this magic thing would strengthen family relationships and entertain and delight your child?

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. All you need to do is read aloud to your family.

What is reading aloud?

The exact definition of reading aloud can vary from situation to situation. My reading aloud definition is simply that one person is reading a book aloud to another family member. We’ll discuss some interactive read aloud strategies farther down the page.

My mom read ‘The Read-Aloud Handbook’ by Jim Trelease when we were little, and took his advice to heart. She used the Read Aloud Handbook list at the back of the handbook to expose us all to great children’s literature. You can find more great suggested literature in this free classics list by grade level.

We’d read outside on the lawn during summer evenings and in front of the fireplace on winter evenings. She’d often entice even the teenagers to join in with a cold, crisp watermelon or a pan of warm brownies. I do that now with my own kids because it’s so effective.

The 1985 Commission of Reading declared, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”

In addition to building relationships and providing enjoyment, reading aloud has extraordinary power to develop your child’s vocabulary, sow the seeds of reading desire, improve his ability to learn to read, and foster a lifelong love of books and reading.

Developing that love for reading is crucial, according to Jim Trelease, author of the best-seller, “The Read-Aloud Handbook.” “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain,” he writes. “You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”

Competition for a child’s attention is so fierce nowadays, between television, movies, social media, video games and after-school activities, that books often fall by the wayside. Moreover, negative experiences with reading – whether frustrations in learning to read or suffering through tedious assignments – can further turn children off from reading.

That can have long-term consequences. As Mr. Trelease succinctly puts it in his handbook, “Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much cannot get better at it.”

He further claims that read-aloud’s are the antidote to academic struggle, and not just for kids who can’t read yet. He goes so far as to say that if parents (and school teachers) don’t have time to read-aloud, they should steal time from other subjects less critical, which includes pretty much every other subject. Reading aloud should be prioritized over everything else.

Reading aloud helps to expand kids’ vocabulary

Auditory comprehension is typically higher than reading comprehension, especially for kids. When you pick a challenging book to read aloud with your kids, you are exposing them to a wealth of new vocabulary words. This stretches a child’s language development, particularly if you stop to talk about the meaning of these rare words.

Rare words are those beyond the 10,000 words known as our Common Lexicon used in most daily conversation with each other.

You can find a great many rare words in children’s books. Children’s books have 30 rare words per thousand, while conversations between an adult and 3-year-old child typically include 9 rare words per thousand.

Read: 33 of the Very Best Children’s Books

Why is this important? Studies show that a child’s vocabulary upon entering school is the number one indicator of whether he’ll be a good reader. Trelease reminds us that by the time a child is 5-years-old, he knows 90% of the words he will use for the rest of his life.

The eventual strength of your child’s vocabulary depends on how many of these rare words he knows. And the child who has heard thousands of picture books before he reaches school will have a larger vocabulary than the child that experiences very few books during his early years.

Rich language is typical of picture books, and reading those stories aloud will introduce children to an extensive vocabulary, according to new research conducted by Dominic Massaro, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He said although parents can build their children’s vocabularies by talking to them, reading to them is more effective.

Reading aloud is the best way to help children develop word mastery and grammatical understanding, which form the basis for learning how to read, claims Massaro. He found that picture books are two to three times as likely as parent-child conversations to include a word that isn’t among the 5,000 most common English words.

Picture books even include more uncommon words than conversations among college graduates, he said.

“We talk with a lazy tongue,” Massaro said. “We tend to point at something or use a pronoun and the context tells you what it is. We talk at a basic level.”

Massaro said the limited vocabulary in ordinary, informal speech means what has been dubbed “the talking cure” –encouraging parents to talk more to their children to increase their vocabularies – has its drawbacks. Reading picture books to children would not only expose them to more words, he said, but it also would have a leveling effect for families with less education and a more limited vocabulary.

“Given the fact that word mastery in adulthood is correlated with early acquisition of words, shared picture book reading offers a potentially powerful strategy to prepare children for competent literacy skills,” Massaro said in the study.

Reading picture books to babies and toddlers is important, he said, because the earlier children acquire language, the more likely they are to master it.

Reading aloud gives your child a model of fluency to follow

When you read to your kids, you’re providing a model of how to read language. Read-aloud’s help build a syntactical understanding of language.  As you read aloud, your children hear a model for intonation, expression, and phrasing. You pause at commas and periods. Your voice inflection changes when you read questions or exclamations.

They learn that reading isn’t only about reading the words accurately, though that is one component.  They hear what “good reading” sounds like. And they emulate it.

Reading aloud exposes kids to new authors and genres

A big, fat copy of Huckleberry Finn might look a bit intimidating to a five-year-old. And he might never pick it up on his own. But once the two of you laugh together over Huck and Tom’s ‘robber gang’ and cry together over Huck’s dad, your child will be hooked and it will be impossible to prevent him from reading it on his own.

Reading aloud gives kids a chance to explore genres they wouldn’t normally select. None of my three sons were particularly excited about the Little House books. Stories about a pioneer girl sounded dull. So we started the series by reading ‘Farmer Boy’ aloud and all three boys have gone on to finish the series.

There are so many amazing books that kids don’t pick to read on their own. These books make great read-aloud’s once you get your child to give them a chance.

Reading aloud prepares your kids for success– even after they can read to themselves

Literacy is an act of power and freedom. It is why slaves in our wrenching and painful U.S. history were forbidden to learn to read and write, and why young girls living in repressive societies today are kept out of the classroom. When children realize the power of narrative, they begin to dismantle patriarchy, racism, and oppression. In a true democratic society, every child has these tools of literacy to both absorb the stories of the world and to tell his or her own.

The most effective way to cultivate a love of reading in children is to read to them. A study conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that reading aloud to children every day puts them almost a year ahead (academically) of children who do not receive daily read-aloud. This practice sets the stage for lifelong success.

Reading aloud builds awareness and empathy

Literature is one of the best ways to help kids understand something without experiencing it for themselves. Books do this with all sorts of subjects and concepts, building our children’s understanding of humanity and the world around them.

When a child can put himself into the story it helps them to develop empathy. They identify with characters, and they feel what they are feeling. Children begin to understand and relate to emotions.

Reading aloud inspires children to learn other desirable attributes

You are what you read. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

It’s so true! I’ve seen the growth in my own family.

We learned integrity and strength from Atticus Finch as he defended Tom Robinson, a black man, against Mayella Ewell, a white woman, in a case that he knew would not end fairly, simply because it had to be done. He stood up all alone and did the right thing, even though the entire town was unwilling and afraid to support him.

From Nat Bowditch we learned how to learn. We learned how valuable knowledge is. We learned to love learning and to never be daunted by seemingly insurmountable tasks. Most importantly we learned that when a door closes, another always opens.

Fom Jo Bhaer (previously Jo March of Little Women) I learned that my children would learn best out of love for their teacher (me!) and the subject, and that love needed to be the basis of all learning.

You can’t turn a single page without evidence of the Bhaers love for the children under their care. Most touching to me is the way they love Dan. He came to them from the streets, plumb full of anger and bad habits. He swears, fights and causes general mayhem in the house. The Bhaers are consistently patient and loving, though still requiring him to repair some of the damage he has created. Through their love and belief in Dan’s goodness, he is able to find his way.

Reading Aloud strengthens family relationships

The very biggest benefit you will enjoy as a result of reading aloud together as a family is that you will have Inside jokes and shared experiences — a language of your own.

Just last week one of my children commented on a news story about kidnapped women and my daughter quipped that the perpetrator sounded like Huck Finn and his robber gang, when they are making the rules that the gang has to live by. We all laughed as each of my children remembered and contributed another robber gang “rule” to the conversation. Finally, one child ran to our library to grab the book so we could read and laugh over the original text.

Do you have a group of friends who are so close that you finish each other’s sentences (and sandwiches!) and enjoy inside jokes that nobody else understands? You have a language of your own.

Families naturally develop that shared language, too, as a result of living together. Reading as a family can expand and develop that shared language like nothing else.

As you read together, you explore new worlds. One week, you’re in Narnia, and the next you’re chopping down the biggest, oldest oak tree in the forest so your dogs can get the coon they treed. You’ll laugh together and cry together more than you ever thought possible, and you will develop your own shared language, inside jokes and loving memories.

We’ve come full circle. I followed my mom’s example and read aloud to my own children. I was also surprised when I realized that my oldest daughter could read before I taught her how.

I’ve arrived at the same conclusion as millions of moms who have gone before me: that reading aloud to my children is the very best use of my limited time and energy. It’s one of the very most important things I can do as a parent. Reading aloud has the power to change the world, one family at a time.

“Reading aloud not only has the power to change your family— it has the power to change the world.”             ~Sarah Mackenzie, author of The Read Aloud Family

The good news for families is that reading aloud is easy to implement. Reading aloud to your child requires only a book, which is free with a library card, and your willingness to spend a little quality time with your child.

The simplest way to find time to read aloud as a family

I know it seems like there is never enough time. And there are so many things screaming for our attention — all of them good and desirable. I get it.

Still, I guarantee you that the time you spend reading aloud with your children will be some of the very most valuable and rewarding time you spend with them. I have a few sneaky ways of sneaking read aloud time in to our busy lives.

My favorite time to read aloud as a family is while we’re doing chores. We choose not to use our dishwasher and instead wash dishes by hand, (read: The Saving Nature of Family Work for an explanation) so one person reads while another person clears the table and another washes dishes, etc…

Another great time to read aloud is in the car. Fold the TV’s back into the ceiling and put on an audio book. Audio books have most of the same benefits for your children as reading aloud. The only thing missing is the cuddle factor.

Find empty corners of your day, or ways to multitask. Your investment of time will be returned tenfold. Reading aloud should be a priority as important as feeding your children nutritious food.

Read-aloud book lists that will help you find the best read-alouds for your kids

If you need some suggestions for fantastic read-aloud books, my kids and I put together a list of our favorites. Only a thousand-page volume could do justice to the many titles that deserve mention. That sounds intimidating both to compile and to keep current.

While not comprehensive, this read aloud book list is a great place to start and a time-saver.

63 Family Favorites to Read Aloud

Read Aloud Handbook List  (from Jim Trelease’s book, The Read Aloud Handbook)

Classic Books printable reading guide

Pin this helpful information (and the read aloud book lists!) for later!

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  1. My wife got her masters in literacy and the thesis for her masters degree was the importance of reading aloud in developing literacy in children- so this really resonated with us! My wife read aloud to our children every day – and we put in place some incentive systems to further encourage the kids to read as they got older. Great post – that you for sharing! Here are the two articles we wrote regarding encouraging literacy in children.

  2. I’m reading this article for school about the development of the brain and this post resonates with me so much because, in the article , they talk about how kids who are exposed to language via TV or overhearing other people speak to one another receive little benefit to language development. It’s in communicating with your kid directly, reading to them, pausing to reflect and ask questions where kids become more verbal. Great post!

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      That is so interesting! It makes sense, though, that kids would benefit less from language that isn’t directed toward them — that they aren’t directly interacting with.

  3. I can remember sitting outside on nice summer days with my mom as she read books to me too! This is something I really enjoy doing with my kids.

  4. I’m currently reading The Read Aloud Family, and she references Trelease’s book several times. I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I always knew vocabulary was a huge win for reading aloud, but I think I had associated it with reading chapter books to younger children. I read a picture book today with my son that was just a random book he grabbed from the library shelf. It was cute enough, but as I read, I started to notice how many “simple” words were included that I don’t generally use. I was thrilled! Then, later, I was reading Hardy Boys to my older son and I realized how many times he was asking “what does that word mean?” Read alouds for the win today in our house!

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      Thank you for those perfect examples!

  5. I love this! I’ve read aloud to my kids since they were babies. My five year old is already reading on her own now. I credit our reading aloud a lot!

  6. We started reading aloud to our children from birth basically, to get them and also us the parents into the habit. It’s so wonderful for all the reasons you list above! I loved reading as a child, and hope I’ve instilled that same love of books and learning in my children through this simple act of reading aloud : )

  7. Love this! The read aloud handbook is on my bookshelf and it’s my next book to read this summer!

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