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Reading Aloud: The Lost Foundation of Literacy

By Justin Kerr, English Department Chair

“We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.” - Neil Gaiman

Sometimes, the easiest solution is right in front of us. While pundits and professionals search for new and innovative ways to improve waning literacy rates in the U.S., the simplest and most accessible answer is right in front of us: Read aloud to your children, or read aloud with them. 

“The single act of reading aloud to children can provide multiple benefits,” according to Education Week Staff Writer Elizabeth Heubeck.  “Perhaps most significantly, it can develop a lifelong interest in pleasure reading, according to multiple literacy experts and studies on the subject. It also comes with the ancillary benefits of increasing children’s vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Experts also note that continuing to read aloud to or with children as they get older and into middle school is equally important. “It's actually beneficial to read to kids even after they can read on their own,” said Regan McMahon, former senior editor at Common Sense Media. “Research shows that continued reading aloud after age 5 (and well beyond) improves reading and listening skills and academic performance (and is also loads of fun!).”

McMahon goes on to note that reading aloud to older kids improves comprehension, vocabulary, and listening skills while also developing an innate “thirst for learning,” parent-child bonding, and an overall appreciation for processing difficult issues and challenges.

Like many professions, education is in a constant state of flux and transition. New and innovative practices often become popular or “en vogue” given pedagogy’s constantly shifting foundation and implementation. Yet despite all of the new innovations, sometimes the best methodologies are still rooted in old-school educational foundations. Reading aloud is essential to all levels of development for a child. In addition to boosting literacy development and nurturing a passion for literature, reading aloud has also been proven to enhance comprehension and critical thinking skills. 

According to Reading Rockets, a website focusing on developmental reading, “Studies have shown that children who are read to regularly are more likely to develop early literacy skills, such as rhyming, letter recognition, and phonemic awareness (hearing the sounds in spoken words).”

A 1987 study by researchers William Nagy and  Patricia M. Herman revealed the direct correlation between reading aloud and vocabulary. The study, titled “Why Can’t I Skip my 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight?” found that students who read aloud or to themselves for 20 minutes each night end up reading 3,600 hours during the school year, resulting in a vocabulary of 1.8 million words. Students who read five minutes a day learned about 280,000 words, while the student who read one minute a day during school learned only 8,000 words.
Additionally, many professional studies suggest that reading aloud also exposes children to vocabulary they may not know and a better understanding of textual progression in books and short stories. 

The National Literacy Institute research reveals the worldwide literacy rate for individuals of both genders above the age of 15 is 86.3 percent. In the US, 79 percent of adults were literate in 2024. While that seems like a commendable number, it’s important to recognize that 54 percent of adults read below a sixth-grade level, of those, 20 percent read below a fifth grade level. Additionally, low literacy levels have a tangible dollar cost as well. Low literacy levels can cost the U.S. up to $2.2 trillion a year.  The U.S. currently ranks 36th in the world in literacy rate. 

Experts find that one effective way to combat this trend is to encourage more reading by reading aloud.
Lisa Arthursen, lead librarian at the Natrona County Library in Casper, Wyoming, agrees. “The importance of reading aloud to children is essential these days,” Arthursen noted. “As a country, we have lost sight of the importance of coupling the written word with the spoken one.”

Arthursen also noted that while she is not totally against screen time, preset algorithms and the audio-visual aspect of screens often lead to students skimming over information quickly rather than processing it. This, she argues, can have an adverse impact on critical thinking skills.

“Sometimes you just have to stop and think about what you just read, and it doesn’t click until later,” Arthursen continued. “People aren’t stopping to comprehend. Instead, they spend time speed-scrolling through information.”

Additionally, educators believe that parents need to find time to read aloud with their children. While Arthursen acknowledges that parent schedules are busy, she suggests that parents find time or find a sibling, friend, or anyone else to read aloud to or with their young ones.

Amy Meyer, Harbor Day School librarian, agrees. She notes that while school is an essential place for learning and development, it is not the most important place for learning.

“Our job as teachers is to develop foundational skills,” Meyer noted. “It’s every parent's job to help kids learn outside the classroom. Teachers are not a substitute for parents; children do not become good readers unless they see and hear their parents do it.”

The equation is pretty obvious. One aspect of learning parents can directly control with their children is reading. The success of reading aloud to and with children has been proven to be impactful throughout lower-and-middle-school levels, and it carries benefits that will continue to evolve and last a lifetime.

“Fluency is involved for anyone who is a growing reader,” Meyer continued. “You’re going to have to read something aloud, and the more you do it, the better you get at reading, critical thinking, and vocabulary. This ‘reading stamina’ piece is essential; it is huge in recognizing literary devices in developmentally appropriate literature.”

In the meantime, remember this fact: Twenty minutes of reading equals 1.8 million words.

Harbor Day School

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Harbor Day School is a co-educational private independent K-8 school established in 1952.