The most important thing I do in teaching is reading aloud to children. I love what I do. It started my first day of teaching when Lindy, my Head Teacher, handed me the book Swimmy by Leo Lionni and asked if I could read it to the class. I was transported into a new world, and that began my daily journey of reading aloud. I call it a journey because my decades of reading aloud has brought me to understand the tremendous difference it makes on the lives of children.
Recently Emma asked me if she could return to my class and read aloud Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. This was the book she remembered hearing every day, before I read aloud from our chapter reading book. Emma was so proud.
Not only was Emma proud, she was becoming a reader herself.
The research and documentation on the cognitive benefits of reading aloud is staggering. Hart and Risley’s groundbreaking study a few decades ago, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children; found that the total number of words a child hears is directly related to academic success. In the study, children from professional families heard forty-five million words by the age of four. Children from working class families heard twenty-six million words, and children in poverty heard thirteen million words. Their follow-up study documented that years later there was a tight link between academic success and the number of words heard.
Author Jim Trelease is correct when he says, “The knowledge of almost every subject flows from reading. One must be able to read the word problem in math to understand it. If you cannot read the science or social studies chapter, how do you answer the questions at the end of the chapter?”
First we hear words, and then we speak words, then read words, and finally write words. It all starts with language. The brain is an amazing reservoir, and all the words that are poured in (receptive language) eventually manifest and come out as expressive language. Listening and hearing = comprehension, and the accumulation of words that enter the brain will naturally flow to reading.
Author Pam Allyn uses the phrase “marinating vocabulary” when she talks about reading aloud. She points out that words develop into important dialogue, and that comes from both books and storytelling. She is really saying hearing words in a myriad of ways further develops vocabulary, thus cognitive development, and reading.
When I learned these facts and began reading the research, it cemented all that I instinctively knew in my soul.
Yes, there is more. When you read aloud to a child you are educating their heart, giving them the seeds of goodness. After all, it takes far more than knowledge to become a good citizen. The givers and the doers, the mothers and fathers, teachers and leaders and workers all have a commonality. That begins with words, language, and stories. Good books impart everything from discovering the world, to the subtleties of making choices and decisions, with words woven carefully through characters. The point is, hearing a multitude of different stories is building one’s self. Books and stories show you the way.
Perhaps John Phillips, founder and benefactor of the renowned school Phillips Exeter Academy, said it best of all more than two centuries ago:
“Goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and both united form the noblest character and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”
Educate the mind and also the heart. Read aloud. Make a difference. Grow a reader.