Vocal heroes: how children of all ages benefit from being read to
Reading aloud to older children allows them to experience what fluent reading sounds like, and they carry that fluidity into their own reading
I recently read an article about a woman whose marriage improved after her husband read aloud to her while she was sick in bed. Everyone loves being read to, no matter one’s age.
Hong Kong has an emerging read-aloud culture. In the beginning, parents and teachers only read to children who were learning to read, to help them sound out words and decipher new vocabulary. There wasn’t much reading aloud to children in the early and toddler years, and even less reading aloud to children who had already learnt to read on their own.
In the past decade, through the efforts of both government and non-governmental organisations in Hong Kong, parents and teachers have embraced the ideal of reading aloud from birth. This ideal is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy stating the three essential things that every baby needs: to be vaccinated, to be breastfed, and to be read aloud to.
In order to further develop a strong culture of reading aloud, parents in Hong Kong need to continue reading aloud to children who can easily read by themselves. Modelling best practices is the greatest benefit of reading aloud to “big kids”. When you read, you allow your child to experience what fluent reading sounds like, with different voices, changes in speed and emphasis on certain words. In time, he will carry that kind of fluidity with him to his own reading, whether silently or aloud. When you pause to consider certain plot developments, dialogue or descriptions, you are highlighting the parts of the story that require examination or contemplation. You are modelling reading comprehension.
If pausing to discuss the book seems contrived and too much like teaching, don’t do it. In fact, research studies show a strong correlation between the quality of voice fluency and silent reading comprehension. So long as you help your child develop a fluent read-aloud voice, you will necessarily improve his reading comprehension.
Reading aloud to your child will also help to demonstrate humanity. When you show empathy for a character or share your awareness of a situation in the story, you are giving your child an opportunity to understand the world around him.
Any story that you think your child may enjoy will make good read-aloud material. If you worry that Harry Potter will challenge the stamina of both reader and listener, then you can consider stories in smaller doses. A Little, Aloud, by Angela Macmillan, is an anthology comprising both prose and poetry, with royalties from sales donated to The Reader Organisation, a UK charity that promotes the connection between reading and well-being.
Joan Aiken was a wonderful author of children’s literature, and A Necklace of Raindrops is a collection of eight of her short stories.
Teachers can also play a part in this, especially language teachers. Dr Stephen Krashen, the leading authority on second-language acquisition, has extensively researched this area, and all his findings point to the conclusion that we acquire language by input, not output. What this means is that speaking more will not make us more fluent. Therefore, rather than asking students to take turns reading aloud from a shared text, teachers will go far in helping students develop language skills simply by giving students ample opportunity to listen to the language in a sustained and engaging manner. Simply put, the most effective language teachers are those who read compelling stories out loud to their students.
The start of the new year is as good a time as any to re-establish the habit of reading aloud at home and in classrooms. Not limited to babies and toddlers, this can also be a cherished and enriching ritual for loved ones aged between seven and 107.
Dr Krashen will be giving talks on language acquisition and free voluntary reading on February 19 and 20 at The University of Hong Kong. For more information, visit www.bringmeabook.org.hk.
Annie Ho is board chair of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong (www.bringmeabook.org.hk), a non-profit organisation advocating for family literacy