Why Joyful Read Aloud Experiences Are Essential for Young Readers

If you asked most of the teachers I know, “What is your favorite time of the day?” I believe many would answer—reading aloud. In my 30 years of teaching first grade, I have rarely missed an opportunity to read aloud to my learners. On average my students hear five read-alouds a day. In the morning, in the afternoon, during reading and writing workshop, during science or social studies… I am not necessarily reading the whole book—maybe just a little section to point out a terrific lead, or to introduce a science topic. To keep myself on track, we create a read-aloud tally, marking a tally for each read-aloud experience we have together. A few years ago we had 790! In my travels across the country, I meet teachers who are struggling to find a compelling rationale to replace a packaged program lesson with a read aloud experience. In this post, I’ll share just a few of the many reasons why read aloud is essential in the era of higher standards.

Read Alouds Address Complex Concepts and Ideas

If we stay true to the notion that reading is a thinking process, we can address complexity and depth authentically through read alouds. I am inviting my first graders to do a lot more thinking aloud—talking about the books we read and honoring the thinking they have already done. Then, as we read complex texts together, I nudge them to ponder more deeply about the big ideas, themes, author’s purpose, and so on. Coupled with that, I am searching for texts that have complex concepts to spark conversations. One of my favorites is The Can Man by Laura E. Williams , the story of a homeless man who is collecting cans to buy a winter coat and a young boy who decides to collect them to save up for a skateboard. A book like this invites conversations about needs and wants, and themes of poverty and inequity. Another title that yields complex thinking is If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson. In January and February, I read aloud a chronological collection of picture books and informational texts about United States history—the Underground Railroad (Underground) , Jim Crow laws (Ruth and the Green Book), the Civil Rights era (Freedom on the Menu)—not only because it builds students’ content knowledge, but because these books tend to be meaty enough to usher in rich oral thinking and conversation.

Read Alouds Build Background Knowledge and Vocabulary

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that more and more of my students come to school lacking the background knowledge and vocabulary needed to do the thinking, reading, and writing we expect. Abundant read aloud experiences help to fill in these gaps. Before delving into a science unit on the water cycle, I might read Water is Water by Miranda Paul to introduce words like steam, cloud, and fog. In addition, because so many of the books students will read in the future have traces of traditional tales woven throughout, I make it a point to read different versions of nursery rhymes, folk tales, and fairy tales. A few of my students’ latest favorites are Jan Brett’s The Turnip and Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood.

Read Alouds Spark Big Questions and Big Thinking

I learned the importance of asking open-ended questions and giving non-judgmental responses from Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words (2004). So, I always begin with the open-ended question, “What did you notice?” Then, I listen to what students say and build from there, always remembering to follow up with, “Why do you think that? What part of the text/illustrations helped you understand that?” It works well to look at a book from the perspective of a reader and the perspective of a writer. Reading from the writer’s perspective helps learners better understand craft and structure. With any picture book, you can ask, “What do you think the writer was thinking when she did this? Why would she choose to do that?” Or you can pose questions about the visual choices of the illustrator. “How do you think the illustration supports and enhances the words?” Think of read-alouds as a way to launch a continual dialogue about books throughout the day, and from day to day.

If we want children to integrate meaning and ideas across texts, they have to have experiences hearing a lot of texts. They need a rich textual lineage—a wealth of reading experiences from which to draw. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we put forth all these grand ideas of voluminous independent complex text reading, but then don’t offer students voluminous, joyful read aloud experiences each and every day.

Maria Walther is a first grade teacher and the author of five professional books with Scholastic, as well as the Next Step Guided Reading Assessment.