The power of read-aloud

Yasin Khan

It was early 2016, we were gearing up to start our organization as a response to one of the problems contributing to the learning crisis in government schools across the country – lack of reading. The solution I believed was to work on the factors that would enable reading in schools.

I met people across the country who are already deep in the domain of reading and children’s books. The one thing they all vouched for was the practice of reading aloud. Read-aloud is an activity that appears to go well with all engagements concerning children and books. My quest was to understand why this activity is staple in this domain. As part of my Library Educators Course with Bookworm, Goa, I conducted an action research with my team to understand the effects of read-aloud. In this essay, I share the learning and best practices my team and I understood through the study.

My research was conducted at our partner school in Ukhrul with grade 5 children. Ukhrul is a hilly district in Manipur. The condition and challenges of the school are representative of government schools of rural India.

I will break the article down into four areas, viz-a-viz, literature review on the practices of read-aloud, my findings on the behavioural impact of read-aloud, the impact of read-aloud on vocabulary, and the good practices discovered through the study.

Literature on the practice of read-aloud
Read-aloud is an effective way to introduce children to the joy of listening and reading, and developing their socio-emotional and critical thinking. Butler cited researches that provide evidence of a direct relationship between reading aloud to children, language development and development of reading interest (Butler 1980). The Report of Commission on Reading says that reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading (Anderson, et al. 1985).

Literature reviews suggest that optimum effect of the read-aloud activity can be achieved when a certain set of dos and don’ts are kept in mind. Holly and Tyran claimed that read-aloud does not necessarily always increase learning outcomes (Lane and Wright April 2007). Read-aloud activity can attain maximum effect when research-based methods of read-aloud are adopted – dialogic and text talk, for instance. We adopted the read-aloud method suggested by Holly and one suggested by Santro (Santoro, et al. 2008) during our action research. Holly comprehensively talks about dialogic steps of read-aloud while Santro focuses on the outcome of the read-aloud such as template of story retell and K-W-L (what you think you Know, what you Want to know, what you Learned).

Jim Trelease, in his book, Handbook of Read Aloud, suggested that reading to a child with full attention and enthusiasm may help her retain what she has heard for a longer period than a solitary two-hour TV viewing (Trelease 2013). Choice of books, of course, is crucial. Jim Trelease further suggests that for KG to grade V, the book should first be enjoyable and interesting to the facilitator and the children. We kept this in mind always while selecting books to read to children.

Behavioural impact of read-aloud
We noted several cues of positive behavioural changes among children towards the read-aloud sessions. We observed children wanting to maintain physical proximity with the facilitator during the read-aloud sessions. We observed that children respond to questions about the story, relate to the story, pose questions about the story, are able to recall information from the story and spontaneously offer comments about the story. We could notice a growing connection between the children and the facilitators. The children listened to the stories sitting freely without fear and with full attention and curiosity. The children seldom showed such positive behaviour in other subject classes. This revealed to us the success of the read-aloud sessions.

We also witnessed an increase in self-led book selection and self-reading. This is a very important expected outcome of any read-aloud and library intervention. We inferred these changes from the fact that the number of books children borrowed increased from no books to upto three books per day, per student. In the school library we had set up, everyone was allowed to take books home. Children hardly took books home until we started the read-aloud intervention for the research study. The principal and teachers of the school were surprised to see this change.

Impact of read-aloud on vocabulary
We consistently adopted a method to ensure children attain deep learning of the target words from the text we read aloud. This is because we know from research that language and literacy are closely linked. We also know that story books contain a rich collection of vocabulary that supports comprehension and language learning. The method consisted of making sure children understand the meaning of the target words in a child-friendly way, contextualizing the meaning in the children’s lives, visualizing the meaning of the word with actions, comparing and associating the word with the words they already know and repeating the words in future read-aloud sessions.

We assessed the children’s vocabulary after a week of read-aloud intervention. At the beginning or end of each session, we checked children’s retention of the new words they had come across during the read-aloud. On one occasion, before we started our session with the book, The Elephant Bird (Tehsin 2014), as usual we started the session with a recap of the story ‘The Will’ (Azmi 2015), which we had read in the previous session. I asked the children what was the ‘will’ of Abdullah, and what ‘will’ you do if you were in Adullah’s wife’s place. Through such conversations, I came to know that they still remember not only the meaning of the words but also the way they were used in the story. We did not set any target on how much they should learn during the entire research, but we were now confident that the children learnt many new words through the read-aloud sessions.

Good practices were discovered through the study
From our regular sessions, we also found out that a successful read-aloud session depended on many other things apart from the book you chose to read. One such feature is the environment or space where the read-aloud is conducted. We conducted our read-aloud activities only in the library as it was not the regular classroom and was more attractive than the classroom. The seating was such that every child was directly facing the facilitator. This whole arrangement made the read-aloud room vibrant and energetic.

Some other aspects that may seem trivial but matter a lot are:
The way the facilitator holds a book during the read-aloud. Ideally the book should be facing the children at eye level, enabling them to see the text.

We learnt how much dialogue the facilitator should engage in. Too much talking makes the children zone out of the conversation and the story while too little dialogue cannot serve the purpose of the read-aloud because it fails to invite the reader into the story.

The facilitator too has a lot of impact on the read-aloud. Mid-way into our research we were forced to change the facilitator. I immediately noticed changes in the children’s reaction to the sessions. While the entry of an unfamiliar facilitator was not an underlying factor for the children’s behaviour, the change in the quality of the delivery of read-aloud made the difference.

Read-aloud is an art that triggers enthusiasm and better thought process. The good thing is this art can be learnt.

The research proved the positive impact of read-aloud on children in their journey to becoming readers.

References
• Anderson, Richard C., Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Judith A. Scott, and Lan A.G. Wilkinson. 1985. Becoming A Nation of Readers : The Report on the Commission on Reading. Washington DC: National Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education.
• Butler, Cynthia. 1980. “When the Pleasurable Is Measurable: Teachers Reading Aloud.” Language and Arts 882-885.
• Lane, Holly B., and Tyran L. Wright. April 2007. “Maximizing the Effectiveness of Reading Aloud.” Reading Teacher, pp. 668-675.
• Santoro, Lana Edwards, David J. Chard, Lisa Howard, and Scott K. Baker. 2008. “Making the Very Most of Classroom Read-Alouds to Promote Comprehension and Vocabulary.” Wiley 396-408.
• Trelease, Jim. 2013. The Read-Aloud Handbook. New York, USA: Penguin Books.

The author is co-founder of Korou Education Foundation based in Manipur. His work is seen through Library for All, the flagship program of the organization. He can be reached at [email protected].

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