As I remember it, when I was growing up in Kansas and Missouri, my dad, step-mother, and grandmother would read bedtime stories to me: Aesop’s fables, Little Golden Books, the Bible, and I’m sure there was even some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well. I also remember that someone, probably my dad or stepmom, enrolled me in Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! reading program. It was (and still is) a program that rewarded kids with certificates, stickers, buttons, and single-topping personal pan pizzas for reading books. I had a poster on my wall from BOOK IT! that showed how many books I needed to read to earn the next pizza. I may have fibbed a little bit with how many books I actually read, because I really wanted that pizza, but the program certainly got me reading more than I would have done so otherwise.
From my parents to Pizza Hut, reading was an integral part of my upbringing in the 80s and 90s; it may even be the reason why I’m now an English professor. I wasn’t the only one in the 1980s, however, that had their nose in a book. The nation as a whole was trying to improve literacy at the time. President Ronald Regan even encouraged American businesses to get involved in education, and that very charge is one of the reasons why in 1985 Arthur Gunther, the then-president of Pizza Hut, started the BOOK IT! program, of all places, in Kansas. I like to think that I may have been one of the first kids in America to have participated in a program that is now in its 35th year and reaches 14 million kids annually.
That same year (1985), Dr. Richard C. Anderson and a handful of other researchers from the National Academy of Eduction were working towards literacy improvement in other ways. They published a report called Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission of Reading. In it, they identified one the most important elements in reading and children’s literacy: reading aloud.
In fact, the Academy of Education concluded that reading aloud was “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.” I don’t know if my dad, step-mother, or grandmother knew that their bedside habit of reading aloud to me was “the single most important activity for building knowledge”; I don’t know if anyone’s parents in the 1980s or prior really knew that. Regardless, my parents and many parents around the globe have for centuries generally assumed that reading aloud to their child was a good thing. Fortunately, with the work the Academy of Education did in 1985 and much of the research since, we can do much more today than assume; we can know for certain: reading aloud to your child is definitively “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading,” and if I may so boldly add, eventual success in life in general.
To prove the connection reading aloud has to literacy, life, and success in both, I offer some of my thoughts as a parent and an educator, and I’ll offer some of the research that’s been done in this field. This way, you can choose to either start and/or improve a reading aloud routine that will reap benefits far beyond simply earning personal pan pizzas at Pizza Hut.
Improved Cognition & Vocabulary
We all want our kids to be smart, and if I can be honest, I want my son to be smarter than most. Being “smart,” however isn’t a place at which we arrive; it’s a process by which we continually change and grow. Knowing things is easy. Anyone can know things, especially with Google so easily at our fingertips; but developing an understanding of the relationship between things: that’s real knowledge. Cognition is the tool we use in that process towards knowledge. My son Jameson is only 18-months old, but he’s already cognizant of the ways in which certain actions, even ones he’s never engaged in, will produce both desirable and undesirable consequences. For instance, when he sees our bicycles hanging from the roof, he’ll point to them, say “by-thi-cole,” and then smack his head and say, “ow!” Neither Natalie or I taught him that he can get hurt on a bicycle, and he’s certainly never even ridden on a bicycle. He learned that lesson from a a cute little Scholastic book he fell in love with, Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse. From our bikes to little Nellie Sue’s in the story, Jameson became cognizant of bicycles and how to even pronounce them, even though it’s a complex, multi-syllabic word.
Cognition at any level, but certainly with young children, is strengthened with reading aloud because the exposure to sophisticated language and the sophisticated situations that language represents builds understanding long before the experience to a situation itself (like Jameson riding a bicycle) can. When Jameson was 4-months old, I was already reading Ralph Waldo Emerson aloud to him. The language of 19th century literature is often too advanced even for my English 102 students, but the simple auditory exposure does more for my son and my students than television or simple conversation ever could. That’s because most of us, in spite of our education level or individual vocabulary, only ever use so many words in everyday conversation. The vocabulary of books, however, offer more than that of conversations on TV or in the home. The fact that my 18-month old even says, “by-thi-cole” instead of the simpler “bike” is, in a small measure, proof of the sophistication of language that reading over speaking can provide. A larger proof, however, is work S.L. Strauss and others did at the Educational Research and Review in 2009. Their article, “Brain Research and Reading: How Emerging Concepts in Neuroscience Support a Meaning Construction View of the Reading Process” supports exactly what happened with my son though his book Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse: that a child builds a “model of the world” through visual and auditory systems. To put it another way, a child will develop deeper meaning and understanding of the world if they see it and hear it.
Improved Emotional Control & Attention
On it’s surface, reading aloud has to do with sound. After all, I did just mention that children understand the world better if they can see it and hear it. However, it’s what that sound is doing for a child that is so crucial. Specifically, it’s the prosody of words being read that help improve a child’s speaking, listening, and all-around communication skills. Prosody is the rhythm and acoustic effects used in poetry and music; it’s the rise and fall of pitch, pace, intonation, tone, and timbre. Prosody is, in sum, the music of language, and human being are addicted to it. It’s why children love nursery rhymes; it’s why advertisers use jingles to sell their products; and it’s why all of us are immediately transported to another time and place if the right song comes on the radio. Music, or prosody, has a profound effect on us. Prosody is obviously present in music, but it’s also present when we communicate orally by simply speaking or reading aloud. Kit Larson from the Australian Journal of Education says in his 2012 study, “The Real Power of Parental Reading Aloud: Exploring the Affective and Attentional Dimensions” that simple speaking or reading aloud is “drenched in musicality.” This musicality isn’t just present in the cutesy baby-talk that some parents use when they first communicate with their infant; it’s in all oral communication.
What’s more interesting, though, is that connected to the strong prosodic elements of oral language is our own human emotions. The prosody of our speech is hurried when we’re angry, and it’s slowed when we’re calm. When we’re excited, our intonation and volume increase, but when we’re sad, it lowers. Children pick up on this (and interestingly enough, so do dogs). Children read our prosodic emotional cures as we speak. It’s why they will often mirror the emotions of an adult. It’s not just what you’re saying; it’s how you’re saying it (something my wife always reminds me of when I’m being impatient).
Reading aloud is an opportunity for a child to connect to emotions that are expressed by the parent reading and experienced by the characters in the story. Children are able to, as we say, step into the shoes of another. More specifically, they are able to step into the experiences and emotions of another. This helps children better control their own emotions when the time comes because they have had time to essentially practice that emotion through literature. Thus, when we read aloud to our kids, it’s not just practice with words and written communication, which is an important element, it’s practice with human emotions through prosodic cues. Of course, the more expressive a parent is at reading a book aloud, by varying pitch, voices, making sound effects, following the proper cadence of the narrative, and using other prosodic cues, the more emotionally invested and interested a child will be. Of course, one of the wonderful side-effects of a child being emotionally invested is attention, and once a child, or anyone for that matter, is attentive, they can learn— and isn’t that the point of reading after all: learning. Thus, the prosody or reading aloud gives children practice with both emotional control and their attention span.
Improved Communication & Memory
It goes without saying that seeing and hearing the written word, for children and adults alike, models how we should use words in either writing or speaking. It’s what the International Literacy Association calls “print referencing.” When we read to a child, tracking the words with our finger, pointing to pictures, and calling a child’s attention to important elements of the story all help develop the skills necessary for written communication that a child will need all his or her life. Holly B. Lane and Tyran L. Wright, two researchers at the International Literacy Association, call print referencing one of the best methods to “promote children’s development of print concepts, [the] concept of a word, and alphabet knowledge.” In fact, their 2007 article “Maximizing the Effectiveness of Reading Aloud,” offers quite a few methods for parents on how to improve their ability to read aloud, so if you are looking for ways to not only increase your reading aloud regimen but help improving performance, I’d highly suggest that article.
Beyond the obvious point that reading aloud helps prime children for both written and oral communication, it also helps improve a child’s memory. In a 2017 article, “This Time It’s Personal: the Memory Benefit of Hearing Oneself,” in the Journal of Memory and Language, Colin M. MacLeod concludes that “oral production is beneficial because it entails two distinctive components: a motor (speech) act and a unique, self-referential auditory input.” In other words, reading aloud, especially reading aloud to yourself, has “superior” effects on memory and retention because it involves both your motor skills (reading and speaking) and your auditory skills (listening). Thus, the multi-skilled (motor and auditory) approach that reading aloud takes, versus reading silently, stores information more readily in our longterm memory.
And if we were to couple reading aloud with other motor skills, like acting out a story, it would store the information even deeper. That’s why actors can often remember their lines long after the curtain has been drawn on their performance; they repetitively read, heard, and acted out their lines. Thus, these three modes of information encoding, or story storing, made sure that a narrative was embedded deep in their minds. All the more reason to read aloud and read often, even if it’s the same story over and over again. It stores the narrative and the lessons that the narrative are attempting to teach deeper in a child’s mind if they can see it, hear it, and even live it (by pretending to act it out or having it acted out by their parents).
Improved Parent-Child Relationships & Parenting Tactics
The benefits of reading aloud to your child aren’t only for the child’s sake. Just last month, May 2019, Dr. Manuel Jimenez and a team of pediatricians and researchers at Rutgers University published a study called, “Early Shared Reading is Associated with Less Harsh Parenting” in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Dr. Jimenez and his team observed 2,165 mother-child pairs to determine the effect reading aloud had not on the child but on the mother. They concluded quite simply that “shared reading predicted less harsh parenting…” In other words, parents that read daily to their child at an early age often exhibited kinder, gentler parenting tactics. The reasons for this are two-fold: 1) as the child is being read to on a regular basis, he/ she is developing “enhanced behaviors”; or to put it another way, the child is learning to properly behave through the actions being modeled by characters in literature, and 2) the need, or the desire, for “harsh parenting” tactics decreases because consistent shared reading improves the “parent-child relationship”; therefore, the time spent reading aloud together is of such a high quality that the intimacy sowed reaps an improved relationship, and thus improved parenting tactics. Even though this is new research, the idea that reading aloud improves parent-child relationships has been around for some time. The 1979 book Early Language expressed the same: When a parent reads aloud using prosodic cues like “exaggerated intonation [it] creates an effective connection between parent and child”— and I almost know no greater argument for the practice of reading aloud than an improved parent-child connection.
Reading Aloud is Not Just For Children
Reading aloud isn’t just for children and their parents, however. Reading aloud and being read to benefits children and adults of all ages. I used to teach for The Institute of Reading Development when I was just finished by bachelors degree in Southern California. I taught classes from K-12 and into adult. In many of those classes, the curriculum often called for me to read aloud to my students, or for my students to read aloud to the class. The reason was simple: it improved story comprehension and language immersion. Even at Truckee Meadows Community College, where I currently teach, the college has free software that will read textbooks aloud to students for the sake of increased comprehension and improved note-taking ability. Many assume this software, and other software like it, are only for those with disabilities, but that’s simply not true. It’s for everyone, especially those who want to improve their performance in academics. Thus, from toddlers to college students and well beyond, reading aloud improves individual performance on a number of quantifiable levels.
There is no question or debate: reading aloud to your child is one of the best things you can do for and with them. Nothing warms my heart more than when Jameson grabs a book from the shelf, walks over to me or Natalie, climbs into our laps, and gives us his undivided attention. He’s not only looking to go on adventure with Scuffy the Tugboat, Little Blue Truck, or Night Night, Groot; he’s looking for Natalie and I to lead him on that adventure. He’ll only be able to crawl into our laps for a few, short years, so we’ll take every chance we can get to share those literary adventures. Before we know it, he’ll be wanting to do everything on his own. Before that day comes, though, we’ll do all we can to lay a foundation of literacy, relationships, and life by reading to him often and aloud.
Finally, I couldn’t include everything about the benefits of reading aloud in this article (it’s long enough already), so I’ll offer some further readings and research below. I encourage you, if you read these, read them aloud; they’ll sink in more if you do.
- “Reading Aloud to Build Comprehension”
- “7 Important Benefits of Reading Aloud”
- “Why Read Aloud?”
- “The Hidden Benefits of Reading Aloud — Even for Older Kids”
- “The Power of Reading Aloud to Your Students”
- “Guidelines and Top 5 Read-Aloud Strategies”
- “Study Says Reading Aloud to Children, More Than Talking Builds Literacy”
- “Using Read Aloud in Today’s Classrooms”
- “Why Every Class Needs Read Aloud”
- “Reading Aloud to Middle School Students”
- “7 Ways Reading Aloud Improves and Enriches Your Life”
- “Advantages to Reading Aloud”
- “What Are the Benefits of Reading Aloud?”
- “The Little-Known Truths About Reading Aloud”
- “Reading with Prosody and Your Child”