The Importance of Read Alouds

By: Alexis Kiburis, Psy.D., NCSP

Reading aloud to children is one of the most fundamental activities that parents and teachers can do to promote foundational literacy skills. Read alouds can be a fun, engaging way to make text come alive for students; they also serve as a tool to model and promote a love for reading. Additionally, read alouds can encourage students to use their imaginations and to better understand the value of print. In addition to facilitating an interest in books, read alouds can serve a valuable role in helping students master some of the key elements of reading success, especially: prosody, vocabulary, and comprehension. Read alouds are a valuable teaching activity from infancy through the high school years.

Read Alouds for Improving Prosody

Reading fluency is comprised of three key elements: “accurate reading of text at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression” (Hudson, Lane, & Pullen, 2005). Prosody incorporates a multitude of features, including: stress, phrasing, intonation, expression, and pauses. Students who struggle with reading often read in a monotone and without appropriate phrasing. Prosody and reading comprehension appear to have a reciprocal effect on one another: weak prosody can lead to reduced comprehension due to incorrect phrasing or as a result of inappropriate expression.

By modeling fluent reading during read alouds, a teacher can help students understand how the voice of a reader can help written text make sense. When reading aloud with adequate prosody, fluent reading sounds just like oral language. By accurately reading at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody, a teacher models for his or her students how a fluent reader sounds. Read alouds can benefit students simply by providing a model of prosody; moreover, read alouds can be made even more effective when explicit teaching of prosody is embedded within the activity. During the early stages of reading development, a teacher may read aloud from a book with oversized text. Pointing to each word as he or she reads aloud, the teacher demonstrates and explains where to pause and how the text indicates when to raise or lower the voice.

Once students are able to read, phrase-cued text lessons provide a way to increase the effectiveness of teacher modeling of prosody (Rasinski, 1994). A phrase-cued text is a story or passage with sentence boundaries and within-sentence-phrase-breaks marked with diagonal slashes. When implementing a phrase-cued text lesson, the student should follow along as the teacher completes a read aloud of the phrase-cued text. Then, the student is asked to read the phrase-cued text aloud several times, followed by feedback from the teacher. Finally, the student is presented with a copy of the same passage or story without the phrase cues and is asked to read aloud once more. Any passage or story can be modified to include phrase cues by using the Phrase Cued Text Generator from InterventionCentral.org (see Table 1).

Table 1.

An Example of Phrase-Cued Text
Sample Passage without Phrase Cues

In the winter I like to ski in Stowe.

Although it may be cold, I like the idea of speeding down a mountain at top speed. Winter truly is my favorite time of the year.

Sample Passage with Phrase Cues

In the winter/ I like/ to ski/ in Stowe.//

Although it may be cold/ I like the idea/ of speeding down a mountain/ at top speed.// Winter truly is/ my favorite time/ of the year.//

Adapted from: Rasinski, T. V. (1994). Developing syntactic sensitivity in reading through phrase-cued texts. Intervention in School and Clinic, 29(3), 165-168.

Read Alouds for Teaching Vocabulary

Before starting kindergarten, the majority of word learning occurs as a result of listening to the spoken dialogue of those around us. Rich oral language experiences during early childhood greatly impact an individual’s vocabulary knowledge (Hart & Risley, 1995). Once a child begins school, many of the words that a child hears during spoken dialogue are words that he or she already knows. When speaking, we tend to utilize simple, common words and infrequently speak in full sentences when engaging in casual conversation. In contrast, sentence structure used within text tends to be much more sophisticated and provides exposure to uniquely academic and context-specific vocabulary (see Table 2). Reading aloud to students is an excellent way to expose them to new, rich vocabulary. Even the vocabulary development of older students can benefit from read alouds. As summarized by the National Reading Panel (2000), Stahl, Richek, and Vandevier (1991) found that sixth graders were able to learn new vocabulary word meanings from orally presented passages.

Table 2.

Frequency of Rare Word Use in Major Sources of Oral and Written Language
Text Type Rare Words per 1,000
Printed Texts Abstracts of scientific articles

Newspapers

Popular magazines

Adult books

Children’s books

Preschool books

128.0

68.3

65.7

52.7

30.9

16.3

Television Texts Prime-time adult shows

Prime-time children’s shows

22.7

20.2

Adult Speech Expert witness testimony

College graduates speaking to friends/spouses

28.4

17.3

Adapted from: Hayes, D. P., & Ahrens, M. G. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of ‘motherese’? Journal of child language, 15, 395-410.

Fostering vocabulary development through read alouds can be made even more effective when explicit instruction is embedded. Text Talk, a research-based method described in Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, utilizes explicit instruction to teach text-specific vocabulary, using the context of a read aloud as the foundation for introducing the meaning of 3 or 4 vocabulary words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Using the Text Talk method, vocabulary words are taught after a read aloud has been completed. The 3 or 4 vocabulary words are pulled directly from the read aloud text and are chosen by the teacher based on the following three factors: (1) the word’s generalizability to other contexts, (2) the likelihood that the word will appear in future text reading, and (3) the significance of the word in understanding the meaning of the current read aloud. The teacher then uses the context of the read aloud text to provide a familiar situation within which to introduce the first vocabulary word, provides a student-friendly definition of the word, and then asks the students to repeat the word to create phonological representation of the word. Next, the teacher shows how the word can be used in different contexts from the read aloud text by playfully and actively engaging with the word. This same process is repeated with the other 2 or 3 vocabulary words. Finally, the new vocabulary words are brought together so that students have multiple opportunities to interact with all of the new vocabulary words. In 2007, the educators involved in Utah’s Reading First project created and compiled Text Talk Lessons, which includes over 100 Text Talk lesson plans. This resource provides numerous examples of how the Text Talk framework can be used across various instructional levels to enhance the effectiveness of read alouds for teaching vocabulary.

Read Alouds for Increasing Comprehension

Children who are read aloud to on a regular basis, tend to have a stronger understanding of story structure. Story structure, sometimes referred to as story grammar, refers to the predictable format of literary text and includes story elements such as: characters, plot, setting, and theme. Notably, students enter school with varied experiences with read alouds. By one estimate, this variation can range from as few as 25 hours or as much as 1,000 – 1,700 hours of total read aloud time upon entering first grade (Adams, 1994). While simply reading aloud to students can help them begin to recognize story structure, the inclusion of explicit instruction on story structure will further increase students’ understanding of elements such as story characters and events (National Reading Panel, 2000). Embedding story structure questions within read alouds, as summarized below (Table 3), or utilizing a story map, can assist students in recognizing story elements.

Table 3.

Story Structure Questions to Integrate into Read Alouds
Story Element Sample Questions
Setting Where and when does this story take place?
Characters Who is this story about?

Who is the main character, or protagonist?

What is the character’s physical description?

What are the character’s personality traits?

Problem What is the problem the character faces?

What does the character want to do?

What tough decisions does the character face?

Sequence of Events What does the main character do about the problem?

What happens as the character tries to solve the problem?

Outcome How does the story turn out?

Does the character solve the problem?

Theme What lesson does the main character learn?

What lesson did you learn from the story?

What is the moral of the story?

Adapted from: Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2013). Teaching Reading Sourcebook: Updated Second Edition. Berkeley, CA: Consortium on Reading Excellence in Education, Inc. (CORE).

Beyond increasing student understanding of story structure, read alouds support students’ active engagement with text. Even students who are able to read independently will continue to reap the benefits of listening to and actively analyzing text that is read aloud to them. By overtly modeling and teaching students the strategies and thought processes that are necessary for building a deep understanding of the ideas presented in text, the utility of read alouds can be further enhanced. Previewing background knowledge, pre-teaching critical vocabulary, and integrating questions during and after a read aloud will help to promote higher-order thinking, assist students in actively engaging with text, and increase comprehension (Table 4).

Table 4

Question Types to Integrate into Read Alouds
Type of Question Sample Signal Words Examples
Memory Who, what, when, where

Sequence

What did the class do?

Where did they go first?

Convergent Thinking Why, how, in what ways How did the situation change after Alicia arrived?

How is what Jason did similar to what Alan did?

Why didn’t they begin their trip early in the morning?

Divergent Thinking Imagine, predict

If…then, how might?

Predict what may happen to Jen’s family when they get to the lake.
Evaluative Thinking How do you feel about…?

Why do you think/feel this way?

How do you feel about Ben’s decision to skip his homework and go to the baseball game?
Adapted from: Carnine, D.W., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E.J., & Tarver, S.G. (2010). Direct Instruction Reading (5th Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

 

From infancy through the high school years, read alouds can serve as a valuable tool for fostering student success with literacy. In addition to engaging students and demonstrating the enchanting power of printed text, when combined with explicit instruction, read alouds can have a significant impact on student reading achievement.

References

Adams, M.J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. Jessup: MD: National Institute for Literacy.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.

Carnine, D.W., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E.J., & Tarver, S.G. (2010). Direct Instruction Reading (5th Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hayes, D. P., & Ahrens, M. G. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of ‘motherese’? Journal of Child Language, 15, 395-410.

Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2013). Teaching Reading Sourcebook: Updated Second Edition. Berkeley, CA: Consortium on Reading Excellence in Education, Inc. (CORE).

Hudson, R.F., Lane, B., & Pullen. (2005). Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What, why, and how. Reading Teacher, 58(8), 702-714.

National Reading Panel (U.S.), & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction : reports of the subgroups. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Rasinski, T. V. (1994). Developing syntactic sensitivity in reading through phrase-cued texts. Intervention in School and Clinic, 29(3), 165-168.

Stahl, S. A., Richek, M. A., & Vandevier, R. J. (1991). Learning meaning vocabulary through listening: A sixth-grade replication. In J. Zutell & S. McCormick (Eds.), Learner factors/teacher factors: Issues in literacy research and instruction: Fortieth Yearbook of the National Reading Conference (pp. 185-192) Chicago, IL: The National Reading Conference.

Utah Reading First Educators. (2007). Text talk lessons. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Office of Education.

Dr. Alexis Kiburis earned her Psy.D. in School Psychology from the University of Southern Maine.  She is an Orton-Gillingham and Direct-Instruction trained reading expert and specializes in assisting schools in setting up and implementing tiered supports that support all students.  Most recently, Dr. Kiburis served as the Director of the SMART for Schools Learning Lab in Gorham, Maine, an after school tutoring program for students with reading and math difficulties.  Dr. Kiburis lives in Cumberland, Maine.

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