If we want to help children learn to use cognition, imagination, and all six cues when they read, we need to get them excited about reading through energetic guidance and proactive practice. One of the most effective ways to guide children into becoming stronger readers and to give them the necessary mental practice for doing so is to read aloud to them every day. There is no substitute for regularly reading aloud to children; when we do so, we are helping them create meaning the way they do naturally—via the ear (Sanders 1995). Here are ten essential reasons for reading aloud:
- To provide enjoyment. Children generally love being read to by someone who enjoys reading aloud. In such a situation, children discover how much fun it is to listen to literature and how powerful literature is in stimulating their imaginations (Egan 1992). When they are read to, children are transported into new worlds—ones that they create in their own minds, ones born of words, and ones charged with emotive energy. Only by listening to literature can children initially learn how to create fully embodied worlds in their minds. Because children will not become good at something they don't enjoy doing, we must offer them literature-based experiences that are positive, engaging, and enjoyable. When children come to see and experience literature as something fun, as something positive, as something that leads them beyond themselves, then they will be much more willing and interested in learning how to become readers themselves (McKean 2001).
- To model expressive reading. Since most children have little exposure to models of effective, expressive reading, we need to fill that gap. For the majority of children, the only models of reading that they hear are media-driven: television programming and advertising, movie-talk, and radio-speech. And, for the most part, the media does not deliver rich language that is read by someone skilled in the art of reading aloud (Scheuer 1999; Singer & Singer 1990). Just as children try to imitate the antics of a favorite musician, athlete, or actor/actress, so too will they want to imitate someone who is a passionate and powerful oral reader (McKean 2001; Richards 2000). More importantly, by listening to models of expressive reading, children will learn that there is great art and skill (and magic!) involved in being able to transform the immobile ink marks on the page into a powerful performance and an enriching experience (Martinez, Roser, & Strecker 1999; Johns & VanLeirsburg 1994).
- To show the connections between speech and print. When children hear literature read aloud, they see how printed words can be closely connected with spoken words. Because the organization and arrangement of most printed texts are different from the organization and arrangement of most spoken language (Ong 1982), children need to be shown how to make bridges of understanding between these two worlds. Often children try to apply the unspoken rules of spoken speech (spoken ideas are often fragmented, not fully developed, not formally organized, and not connected to a central idea) to print language and are unsuccessful (Dunn 2001). When they hear literature read aloud, however, they begin to make the important links between the speech they have internalized and the speech they are hearing (Harvey & Goudvis 2000; Popp 1996).
- To help children develop stronger vocabularies and more sophisticated language structures. Since children acquire language primarily through the ear, the words they hear are central to their ability to understand and use words in speech and create meaning from words in print. If children don't regularly hear new words in new contexts, they will not be able to add them to their mental storehouse of words. Moreover, children will be limited in their abilities to read and write based on the number of words and language structures they have in their minds (Orr 2000). The fewer words that children have internalized, the more limited will be their ability to read (Smith 1997). If children haven't internalized words and sentence patterns, they will not be able to read or write them (Healy 1990). If children are to become successful, independent readers, they will need to have a large, active, mental storehouse of words and language structures (sentences, paragraphs, poems, stories, etc.). When they are regularly exposed to words and language patterns that are outside their normal way of speaking, children develop a stronger awareness of language and its aesthetic and communicative possibilities. Entwined with this stronger awareness is a natural desire to put to use these new words and patterns. This new linguistic awareness will make itself known in the way children speak and write—and in their ability to read and understand increasingly sophisticated texts. Our task, then, must be to offer children daily earfuls of rich words and patterns. And there is no better source for rich language and sophisticated language structures than quality literature (Hancock 2000; Sorensen & Lehan 1995).
- To introduce different genres and writing styles. For children to make gains in their literacy development, they need not only stronger vocabularies but the ability to navigate a sea of different genres and writing styles. If, for instance, children have never been exposed to, or are unfamiliar with, the genres of an episodic story structure or a sonnet, they will have difficulty reading them; and they will certainly be unable to write them (Meek 1991). By sharing a wide variety of genres and writing styles as read-alouds with children, we will equip them with important experiences and knowledge for making sense of such texts when they encounter them on their own. Furthermore, when children engage in the writing workshop, they will have more choices for writing at their disposal (Stewig 1980). For example, if children have never heard the writing style of William Steig or if they have never been exposed to the genre of the object poem (via, for instance, William Carlos Williams), they will be unable to write like Steig or create object poems of their own. Rather they will be limited by the language patterns at their disposal (Bishop 1998; Smith 1997).
- To increase attention span. As TV works to shorten the attention span of our children, we need a strong antidote. Consider this: On average, children spend 6.2 hours per day watching TV (Postman 1985)—that's more time watching TV than they spend in school. And what they are watching are programs that incorporate quick visual changes (Healy 1990). For instance, in most television programs the camera shot changes every three to four seconds. Excessive TV viewing habituates children to restlessness, to the expectant idea that they will see something new every few seconds—because they do see something new every few seconds on TV.
TV also promotes passivity; nothing critical or creative is required of the viewer. Viewers are not expected—in fact, are discouraged—from critically analyzing TV content and language or creating unique responses, ideas, or images of their own when viewing (Scheuer 1999). When children read and are read to, however, they enjoy the opposite experience of TV viewing (Marc 1995). Rather that accentuating speed and quick cuts, as does TV, literature read aloud promotes a slow unfolding of events, images, and ideas—items that must take fully embodied shape in the minds of the listeners.
- To strengthen cognitive ability. One way that children strengthen their cognitive abilities is through the adoption and use of increasingly sophisticated language. If their mental faculties are to develop—that is, their ability to reason clearly and to think critically—children must have the means at their disposal to be able to do so (Nell 1994). Such means are found in the language of quality literature. When children regularly listen to the sophisticated language of stories, poetry, and nonfiction—language that they may not have access to in any other way—they slowly assimilate the tools for critical thought and effective cognition (Smith 1997; Temple & Gillet 1996).
- To enhance the affective domain. The chief purpose for the ongoing existence of read-aloud literature is to provide rich aesthetic experiences for the listeners (Cramer & Castle 1994). Not only do listeners create images of settings, characters, objects, and actions in their minds as they read, but they also create intellectual and emotional responses to those images (Fox 1999; Singer & Singer 1990). Through these responses—joy, sadness, suspense, awe, surprise—children come to know the texts they are listening to more fully and they come to know themselves more deeply (Neuman & Celano 2001).
- To help second language learners become familiar with the sounds and shapes of English. By reading aloud to second language learners, we can help them become accustomed to the sound of English and to the way words in English symbolize and communicate meaning. Because the lack of oral language ability in many second language learners inhibits their future literacy efforts, it is essential that we read aloud to them from stories and poems in the language these learners wish to acquire (Hadaway, Vardell, & Young 2001). As second language learners listen to texts read aloud, they will have a language experience that is personally pleasurable and academically important.
- To meet national literacy standards. The International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English (IRA/NCTE) Standards for the English Language Arts encourage students to develop a wide range of literacy capabilities and skills. Essential to the development of all literacy skills—and specifically to the ability to make meaning from encounters with a variety of texts—is access to avenues wherein language can be internalized. When we read aloud to children, we are giving them potent ways to internalize language—because children learn language, and thus internalize it, through the ear. Moreover, reading aloud to children also specifically addresses IRA/NCTE standard no. 11, which asks students to participate in language as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities. By reading aloud to children, we allow them to become participants in a literacy community, one that is shaped by their dynamic listening, by their imaginative shaping of the images of the text in their minds, and by their active responses to the texts we share with them.
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