I do believe that parents have received the often-ubiquitous message that reading aloud to your child is crucial. In this case, believe the hype. Even studies that span continents demonstrate a strong correlation between reading at home and academic achievement. Similar to many activities deemed “good for you” such as brushing one’s teeth or exercising, making reading aloud a daily ritual ensures that it does not get obscured by the obligations of life. Many families like to make reading books a pre-bedtime routine, but any time of day will do.
Why is reading in the home so beneficial, and how can parents make the most of this practice? Looking to the research, I discerned four major benefits of read-alouds:
Cultivating a love of reading
Learning Concepts about Print (how books and print work)
Integrating new vocabulary
Practicing Phonological Awareness (distinguishing between and manipulating sounds)
#1: Cultivating a Love of Reading
Sure: our child’s pediatrician and teacher like to remind us ad nauseam about the importance of reading in the home. Yet, I hope parents still associate the comfort, joy, and closeness with this ritual rather than grudging duty. Author Mem Fox says, “When I say to a parent, ‘Read to a child,’ I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.” Yes, you read to your child because researchers recommend it, but retain the enjoyment. Reading in the lap of a loved one should be an immensely positive experience. Giggle, cuddle, snuggle, laugh, and even cry during a particularly poignant story. Children will associate reading with that wonderful experience and quality time with you. The reading that you do together sets the stage for all reading to come, and a happy association with books will foster more reading as they grow and become increasingly independent. Even children with reading difficulties such as dyslexia will pick up books with enthusiasm if they have that literary connection forged with love in the embrace of their parents.
#2: Concepts About Print
In order to read, children must first understand how print works. For example, they need to know that print represents the spoken word. When the letters spell, “The cat is black,” that communicates meaning. Children must also differentiate between pictures and print, begin reading on the left page before the right, track words left to right, and identify letters and words.
Here are some prompts that you can give while reading to help your child develop their concepts about print:
“Where is the front of the book? Where is the back of the book?”
“Where are the pictures on this page? Where are the words?”
“Where do I start reading?”
“Can you point to the words as I read them?”
“Your name starts with the letter _. Can you find that letter?”
“You know the word ‘cat.’ Can you find the word ‘cat’ on this page?”
“Can you hold the book and turn the pages for me?”
Do not feel obliged to ask every question every time. Reading should feel more relaxing and less like a pop quiz. Asking a few of these occasionally will help your child navigate how to read a book.
For more advanced concepts such as punctuation, consider simply noticing, or verbally pointing out, different forms. This habit does not require a script, but I will provide some examples of casual observations I might make. When I read the Mo Willems books featuring an irascible pigeon, I often exaggerate the sentences that end with multiple question marks or exclamation points. I remark, “This pigeon sure asks a lot of questions. I know to read it like this [demonstrate asking a question with my voice going up at the end], rather than this [demonstrate reading the sentence as a statement], because it ends with a question mark. Let’s see how many questions the pigeon asks in this book.” Similarly, I might observe, “There is an exclamation point at the end of this sentence, so I know to read it with extra feeling. That feeling might be excitement, fear, anger, or happiness. Let’s see how many exclamation marks are in this book and what big emotion a character might be experiencing.” This repeated “noticing” will manifest in your child also paying attention to punctuation.
#3: Learning New Vocabulary
No matter the richness of a parent’s vocabulary, books will contain words not uttered in everyday life. When reading, make an effort to quickly define some words your child might not know. To demonstrate this practice, I will use Tough Boris by Mem Fox, a tale of a rough-and-tumble pirate. In describing Boris, Fox writes, “He was massive.” I pause and state, “‘Massive’ means really, really big.” Later, she describes, “He was greedy.” Again, to the best of my ability, I define “greedy.” “‘Greedy’ means that he does not share.” If you encounter a word that you feel unsure about or have difficulty defining, demonstrate looking it up on your device or in a dictionary. Children should not harbor the mistaken idea that adults know everything. In modeling what to do when you are at a loss, you equip them to do the same.
If you read a book with vivid, complex language, do not feel compelled to stop and define every potentially unfamiliar word. That could hamper enjoyment of the read-aloud. For those great books such as Tough Boris that foster vocabulary development, read them many times and repeat the definitions. Multiple experiences with a word will increase the likelihood that your child absorbs it into their lexicon. Indeed, on a field trip to an art museum, as we approached the large and stately building in the school bus, one of my kindergartners exclaimed, “It’s massive!” Thank you, Mem Fox.
Finally, consider integrating some academic vocabulary such as “character,” “setting,” “author,” and “illustrator.” Engage in discussions about the similarities and differences between an author’s books. Oftentimes, an author’s bibliography features the same character in a familiar setting, such as young Peter’s many city-based adventures written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. Such explorations prepare your child for higher-level engagement with texts, such as class discussions and book reports.
#4 Phonological Awareness
Learning to read requires a huge number of abilities to coalesce. Before a child can read the word “cat,” they must know the sounds the letters make. They must read from left to right so “cat” does not become “tac”. Crucially, they must blend the three sounds together, so “c-a-t” becomes “cat”. Blending sounds proves difficult for most young learners, but it is significantly easier for those with strong phonological awareness skills. You need not remember the term “phonological awareness,” which means “the ability to manipulate sounds of spoken language;” just know that a child’s ability to alliterate, rhyme, and manipulate sounds will help them tremendously on the road to reading.
We get a sense of a child’s phonological awareness through their ability to alliterate and rhyme. Alliteration indicates that words have the same onset, or first, sound (“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers). Rhyming words end with the same sound (cat, bat, hat, rat). Children struggle with the abstractness of these concepts. Often, when I ask children, “What rhymes with ‘cat’?” they enthusiastically respond, “Dog!” Thus, using rhyming books presents an excellent opportunity, as the words rhyme in addition to making sense in context.
Take the Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney, which contain stanzas so great that rappers have been known to back them with a beat. I read the book normally for the first few read-throughs. Then, I allow the children to supply the rhyming word. For example, I read, “Llama llama red pajama reads a story with his…” I pause, look around expectantly, and the children say, “Mama!” Later, I read, “Baby Llama wants a drink. Mama’s at the kitchen…” and the children provide, “Sink!” Sometimes, a child says a word that makes sense but does not rhyme. I consider, “Does ‘counter’ rhyme with ‘drink’? Hmm...maybe it’s a different word. It starts with ‘s’ and ends with ‘ink’.”
Just as you might “notice” punctuation, point out instances of alliteration in books and name it as such. In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming contains both rhymes and alliteration, a wonderful opportunity to differentiate between the two. You might observe, “‘Sssplitter, sssplatter’ starts with the same sound. That’s called alliteration!” Once you alert a child to alliteration, they begin to notice it everywhere: in speech, in books, in songs, on the radio, and more. Encourage this exercise in phonological awareness (which, again, means distinguishing and manipulating sounds).
In our next blog post, we will discuss how to select books to read aloud. Here's a hint: choice is key!