Today on the podcast we’re excited to bring you a reading from author Rebecca Bellingham. Her book, The Artful Read-Aloud, is a user-friendly guide that builds a bridge between the artistic world and the classroom, providing a deeper dive into the art form of reading aloud. Reading aloud to your students, says Rebecca, supports a balanced, rigorous, and joyful literacy curriculum.
Today, Rebecca reads aloud from Why Read-Aloud Matters, the first chapter from her book. Here now, is Rebecca...
Below is a full transcript of this episode, adapted from The Artful Read-Aloud.
Why Read-Aloud Matters: Raising a Culture of Readers
“When I say that reading aloud will change the world, I know it sounds simple. But one of the many great things about giving kids access to the power of stories and sharing them together is that it is simple. It is also cheap and easily done. And the impact is huge.”
Reading aloud to children every single day is one of the most important things any teacher can do to help children grow and become better readers, better thinkers, and, frankly, better human beings. The more I read to children in classrooms and to teachers and graduate students with whom I work, the more convinced I am that it is one of the most powerful tools we have to raise kids, teach kids, and create compassionate and civil communities. Scores of researchers and literacy advocates agree with me. A 2018 International Literacy Association leadership brief states, “Reading aloud is undoubtedly one of the most important instructional activities to help children develop the fundamental skills and knowledge needed to become readers”. Reading aloud was also called “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading,” according to the seminal publication Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985. One of my favorite literacy leaders, Donalyn Miller, says it best, however: “I make sure that I read to my students every day, no matter what else I cut”. When I was a classroom teacher, I did the same. No matter what, I read aloud to my students every single day. And as a parent, I do too. Sometimes I send them to school without really brushing their hair, but I never skip reading aloud!
And yet, many teachers still feel they don’t have enough time to read to their kids. I hear from teachers all the time about the pressures they feel to fit everything in and to make sure everything they are doing meets the standards for quality instructional time. My response to this is always the same. There is virtually nothing you could do that would be more valuable and important than reading aloud every day, not just because kids love it and are able to experience the joy and delight books can provide but also because it fuels their ability and desire to read.
Teaching children how to read is not a simple thing, and every child’s reading journey is unique. There are a few things, however, that are indisputable. Children need rich and varied exposure to books and words and positive experiences with books and reading that set them on a course to become lifelong readers. Young children also need explicit instruction in the technical aspects of print, which includes instruction in phonemic awareness, spelling patterns, and phonics. While this book is obviously not intended to be a primer on how to teach children to read, there is no question that the interactive read-aloud is an essential part of any classroom’s comprehensive literacy curriculum. Richard Allington goes so far as to suggest that 20 percent of instructional time in K–12 classrooms should be spent reading aloud.
In a 2012 Educational Leadership article, Allington and his colleague Gabriel lay out six elements of instruction that every child should experience every day. One of them is listening to a fluent reader read aloud. While this book is not another reiteration about why reading aloud is so essential, it feels important to provide a context for the ideas here.
There is little doubt about the importance of reading to young children because it gives them access to sounds, stories, ideas, vocabulary, and information they would otherwise be unable to read on their own. But attitudes often shift once children can decode. People worry, “Shouldn’t kids spend more time reading on their own now that they can read?” Of course, they absolutely should be reading on their own, and we should give them plenty of time to do that work at school and at home. But reading aloud remains essential.
Once children can decode, they still have plenty to do in order to become masterful readers. Reading requires doing many kinds of mental work all at the same time: decoding words, dealing with the print, thinking, imagining, envisioning, predicting, questioning, putting things together, and more. That’s a lot of cognitive work for a young person. More often than I’d like to admit, I find myself halfway down a page, thinking, “Wait a minute. I just read all those paragraphs and I have no idea what is going on or what I just read.”
When we read to children, we remove one enormous piece of the cognitive load. We take away the pressures of the print, freeing kids up to think. They can develop their thinking muscles no matter how tricky the text is. Even if they can read complicated text, reading to them still allows them to focus all their energy on the movie in their minds. I listen to audiobooks all the time, and sometimes it is with those books where the picture in my mind is most strong, where I can recall the actions, feelings, or voice of a character with far greater detail and nuance. This is partly because the reader is particularly expressive or masterfully captures the voice or mood of the book. Ben Berkley, a twelve-year-old son of my best friend from childhood, said it best in a 2015 email: “When I read to myself, I have to sit up and have the lights on and my brain has to be working to think about reading. When you read to me, the lights can be lower, my brain isn’t so busy, and my thinking is more free”.
Some kids have no trouble decoding words but are fooling us with their fluency. They can read all the words on a page, but they are doing something more like word calling than reading. They wouldn’t be able to retell the important parts, ask thoughtful questions, or imagine the words, actions, or ideas in their brains. For kids to get better at reading, they need to read books that they can read with accuracy and comprehension. For other kids, what they can read independently doesn’t match the complexity or sophistication of what they can understand, discuss, or think about. According to Jim Trelease, author of the famous 2013 Read-Aloud Handbook, a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until eighth grade. This means teachers can give all children in their classrooms access to books that they otherwise couldn’t read independently.
And what about the kids who are not able yet to do that difficult decoding work, who struggle even more significantly with the demands of print? And I say that word in earnest: read-aloud is a lifeline. For all kids. But for those who struggle with reading—and there are a lot of kids who struggle for various reasons—it is often a source of frustration, discomfort, and even shame. By reading aloud to them every day, you are giving all kids access to the magic and beauty and power of story. You are giving them windows and mirrors, stories of hope, resilience, courage, and community that they otherwise might not be able to experience—in the company of one another. And you’re giving every child a powerful sense of reading identity. You are saying, “Welcome to the wonderful reading club. You belong here. You are a thinker and a lover of books!”
But that’s not all. By reading every day in your classroom, you are giving children access to literary conversations and to the ideas and inner worlds of one another. According to Richard Allington and Richard Gabriel’s 2012 book, Every Child, Every Day, engaging in daily literature conversations “provides measurable benefits in comprehension, motivation, and even language competence”. It’s almost impossible not to have literate conversations while reading aloud quality children’s literature to kids. Even just asking kids to pause and tell a neighbor what they are thinking or wondering gives them practice with talking about their reading. And even short conversations and turn-and-talks during a read-aloud have an impact.
What we model for kids is what they remember most. It is no surprise to me that my former elementary students and graduate students always remember the books we read together. Some of them even remember the books and authors I turned them on to or the books I helped them choose to read independently. I say this because the thing that mattered most to me as a teacher was modeling my fierce love of books and stories, modeling my own rich reading life, and modeling a passion for the way books can change the way we think about everything. I learned from Lucy Calkins that we absolutely must wear our love for literature, books, and words on our sleeve, that all students deserve teachers who are the mentor texts for what it means to live richly literate lives. It is critical to their literacy development. And most of the time, my students left my classroom with a hunger and an appetite for books, with an abiding sense that great books are among the great wonders of the world.
Reading aloud is the most effective way to model for students what real reading looks and sounds like. How else can we show students what the invisible processes of reading and thinking look like? How else can students hear what it sounds like to read fluently, expressively, and in a way that allows you to really see and understand what’s happening? How can we model the love we have for books unless we actually show kids our genuine reactions, enthusiasm, and experience of reading real books? I think it’s safe to say that most teachers got into teaching because they wanted to help raise a generation of kids who would be lifetime readers, not just schooltime readers who only read because it was an assignment. Obviously, if you’re listening to this book, you agree that the reason we get good at reading is not to score well on standardized tests. Knowing how essential reading aloud is for students of all ages helps us justify our daily read-aloud practice to folks who might not otherwise know what’s best for kids and push back against the narrative that scoring well on tests is the purpose of our teaching.Even if we just read aloud without pausing to think aloud or prompt kids to think, envision, or talk, reading aloud by itself would be powerful modeling. Listening to a fluent, expressive reader helps kids understand that that is how reading is supposed to go in their minds! And a teacher who models her love and amazement while reading sends a powerful message: this is how fabulous book reading can be.
But interactive read-alouds also make it possible to explicitly model comprehension skills that powerful readers need to utilize in order to gain real understanding. By thinking aloud, we are modeling the way we put together the threads of a book, think carefully about characters, and get the picture clear in our minds. By voicing our confusion about a word or complicated part, we are explicitly demonstrating what proficient readers do when they encounter trouble. By modeling the whole host of comprehension strategies strong readers use as they move through a text, we are modeling authentically—in the context of a real book, not a prefabricated passage that is designed for the practice of strategies in isolation. The modeling that occurs in the context of reading aloud demonstrates an orchestration of strategies that readers use on the fly, all at once, as we read. When we read books, we don’t decide to only envision, predict, or infer. Conductors don’t conduct one instrument at a time—just the oboe or just the clarinet. When reading aloud, we actively employ the whole gamut of comprehension skills; we model the whole orchestra.
To be sure, we can overmodel as well. Listen to Chapter 12, “Choose Wisely,” for more on the balance between letting the words and the story do their work and modeling explicit thinking and comprehension strategies effectively. Students will sometimes say, “Just read!” (as do my own kids!) when I start bogging down the read-aloud experience with too many interruptions. It is a fine balance! But we can’t forgo the opportunity to open up our brains so children can witness the inner workings of a strong reader in action.
There is another, equally important, kind of modeling that reading aloud affords, especially for big kids who are beginning to face bigger decisions and challenges—the modeling of compassion, kindness, and openheartedness. Contemporary children’s and young adult literature tackles issues that children are facing today: the effects of intolerance, bullying, and racism, as well as war, displacement, and other humanitarian crises. We are in an ever-changing world with ever-expanding and overwhelming access to information. Our children must learn to navigate the pull of various screens and devices. Reading a book together with a group of children makes it possible to quiet and focus our screen-obsessed brains, to gather around a story that shines a light on any number of big issues, and to show up for one another. When we go on a journey with a character who’s navigating tough situations that many of our kids are facing, we are able to give space for honest discussion and model careful listening. We can model compassion not only for the characters in the stories but for one another. Reading aloud can help make our classrooms kinder, more generous places, which provide a model for the kind of world we are all trying to create.
If you’ve ever read to a child or a group of children, you’ve probably noticed they seem to enjoy it. A lot. Teachers all know the desperate cry of “Nooo!” when we put down the book after reading aloud to our kids. Feeling engaged and swept away by a great story is deeply pleasurable. In a 2015 Washington Post article titled, “Why Kids Still Need ‘Real Books’ to Read—and Time in School to Enjoy Them”, Nancie Atwell says, “Book reading is just about the best thing about being human and alive on the planet”. And I feel that reading aloud is one of the best things about being a teacher and a child in a classroom, not only because it fuels kids’ reading lives but because it fills kids (and teachers!) up with joy. And that is not to be underestimated.
Joy is serious business. I think we should be talking more about the importance of joy in our classrooms. Quite simply, we are more productive, more engaged, and more open to learning when we are happy. Lots of serious folks in the world of business are looking closely at the role of happiness at work and the impact it has on the bottom line. From Shawn Achor’s international best-seller The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life, to studies on the benefits of happy people at work conducted by management consulting firms, to happiness-at-work-themed TED talks that have been viewed millions of times, the field of positive psychology is on fire. It isn’t too far a leap to wonder about the role of happiness at school and the impact it has on students.
So, where does read-aloud fit in to all this? In the simplest terms, read-aloud makes kids happy. It’s a surefire way to create moments of joy at school, which creates the conditions for kids to do their best learning.
And reading aloud is one of the most effective strategies available for addressing what Kelly Gallagher calls, in his book of the same title, readicide, which he defines as “the systematic killing of the love of reading” and which occurs, according to a 2010 journal article by Steven Wolk , when the only kind of reading we ask kids to do in schools seems “designed to make reading painful, tedious, and irrelevant”.
If kids don’t experience the joy in reading, how can we expect them to see the point? If the bulk of their experiences with reading are painful or tedious, how will they grow into lifelong readers? Creating joyful learning and reading experiences is not fluff because kids who love to read, read more. And kids who read more do better in school and (because it’s a reality we have to face . . .) do better on tests.
Throughout the process of writing this book, I spent time in lots of classrooms, reading to different communities of kids and focusing on different aspects of this work. But one thing struck me in particular: how much the older kids, and even the adults, were affected by the experience of listening. Time after time when I read to middle school classrooms, they wondered aloud when I might come back to keep reading the book we had started together. “Do you like when teachers read aloud to you?” I inquired, and kids confirmed that they really did but that it didn’t happen much anymore; it stopped in third or fourth grade, and they missed it. In a 2018 School Library Journal article titled “Never Too Old: Embracing Picture Books to Teach Older Students”, Librarian Mary Zdrojewski found this to be true as well, when she began working with teenagers in her New York school district. When she asked students what they wanted from their library class, she expected to hear requests for coding, robotics, or hands-on projects. But, she said, “they just wanted [her] to read aloud to them”.
I wasn’t surprised by that story. Most of my work is with adults, with teachers who have just started their practice and teachers who are forty-year veterans. I almost always start a day with reading aloud, by filling the space with words, with story, with an experience that unites and connects us all. And just like when I read to kids, something shifts in the room, something cracks open between all of us. And when I ask the teachers the same question I ask the kids, “Did you enjoy that experience?” the answers are almost always the same: “Yes,” they say, “it has been a long time since someone read to us like that. We forgot how much we loved it.” Friends of mine who are parenting teenagers find this to be true as well: reading a book aloud with their middle and high schoolers creates a space for connection and conversation with their kids during what is often a tricky time of life. Recently, when I returned to a school to lead professional development, the principal told me she started reading Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind to her eleven- and thirteen-year-old sons after my previous workshop. “As we read the book together,” she told me, “I could feel my older son’s love for reading return. It was so refreshing to read together again, and I was so surprised by their full engagement. It’s the best book club I belong to!”
We don’t age out of the read-aloud experience. Reading to kids is a vital part of creating a community of readers in your classroom and supporting a balanced, rigorous, and joyful literacy curriculum that feeds your students’ souls and minds as well as your own.
Pre-order The Artful Read-Aloud at Heinemann.com
Follow us on Instagram @heinemannpub to stay up to date on the latest books, your favorite authors, and upcoming events!
Rebecca Bellingham is a teacher, literacy consultant, college instructor, and performer. After receiving her master's in elementary education at Lesley University through Shady Hill School's Teacher Training course, Rebecca began working as a teaching artist in the South Bronx with DreamYard, a nationally recognized community arts organization. She went on to teach at the Berkeley Carroll School in Park Slope, where she was a fourth-grade teacher and literacy coach. She received a master's degree in literacy specialization at Columbia University Teachers College and began working at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as a staff developer and later as a full time instructor in the Literacy Specialist program. Currently, Rebecca leads professional development within the San Diego Unified School District, partners with many nonprofit, arts-based and literacy organizations, and continues to teach courses on the integration of the arts and literacy at Teachers College. As an actress and singer, Rebecca has performed in numerous off-broadway and regional theaters around the country.