Reading Aloud in a Pandemic

Tips for Parents and Teachers

Posted Nov 05, 2020

As schools continue in virtual and hybrid capacities because of the pandemic, parents and teachers are in search of ways to make up for lost learning time and prevent the inevitable COVID slide. Fortunately, there is an essential activity that nearly all parents can partake in; not only is it free and enjoyable, but it is also supported by a wealth of research proving its effectiveness in building academic achievement. That magic approach? Reading aloud. If you’ve gotten out of the reading aloud habit or your routine is getting stale, here are some practical ideas on how to get going.

Embrace Rereading

When my daughter was 5 years old, she insisted on rereading one particular picture book over and over again. Confession: I loathed this particular book. (I won’t give its title for fear of offending someone who inevitably will proclaim, “But I love that book!). Each time she thrust that book into my lap, I’d groan inwardly. My solution? Hide the book in the back of our closet. Sure, she was disappointed the next day when I shrugged and told a white lie of, “I just don’t know where it went.”

A more effective route – and certainly a less deceitful one – would have been to embrace the repeated reading. In fact, there are multiple benefits to multiple readings of the same text. Studies show that children acquire new vocabulary with multiple rereadings. Furthermore, children’s comprehension increases with each rereading, as does their fluency and their ability to engage in meaningful conversations about a familiar text.

If the idea of reading that dreaded book one more time makes you shudder, we might increase the child’s role as an active listener with each rereading. Before starting the read-aloud of a tried-but-true book, we might say, “This is the third time we’ve read this book. You tell me what you remember about it”. Swallow an extra dose of patience, avoid the temptation to hide the book, and feign excitement the next time a child pushes an old familiar into your lap.

Think Aloud

Typically as we read aloud to children, we periodically stop and ask questions to probe for their understanding of the text. A more effective approach is a think aloud, when a proficient reader models his/her thinking through “I” statements. Through thinking aloud, we verbally report. our internal thought processes so that we build our children’s understanding and pass along skills that they might adopt and apply to their reading. Note this simple language like “I’m getting the idea here” and “Now I’m understanding that….” Here, we create a road map for children to better comprehend. Teachers and parents should purposefully think through the confusing parts of a book with comments such as “I didn’t understand this part so here’s what I will do.” Then children gain new ways to maneuver through their sources of confusion. The beauty of a think aloud is its versatility; think-alouds are effective for all age levels and all types of texts.

Read Nonfiction Text

If you were to scan the books that you’ve read aloud with your child, chances are most of them would be narrative text – traditional picture books of fictional chapter books. After all, it’s easy to snuggle up at bedtime and read aloud from a story that has a clear plot, a variety of interesting characters, and a unique setting. Too often in our read-alouds, we overlook nonfiction texts, which have technical vocabulary and dense information. In fact, two key studies indicate that both parents and early childhood educators fail to read aloud from nonfiction texts. Here’s the challenge: When young children begin formal schooling, they spend up to half their day with nonfiction text. But their lack of previous exposure to nonfiction text renders them largely unfamiliar with how to successfully navigate through it.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to incorporate nonfiction text into home and school read-alouds. We can easily tie nonfiction text into family outings and school events; if you’re planning a weekend trip to the zoo, select books about the animals you might see. During one particularly snowy winter, my daughter and I read every possible book about snowplows. Going apple picking? Check out Gail Gibbons’s Apples. When we realize our tendencies to overlook nonfiction text, we are more able to intentionally incorporate it into read-alouds.

Don’t Stop at Age Nine

While reading aloud is a ubiquitous part of early childhood, reports show that read-alouds peter off typically when children are in third and fourth grades. Whereas 90 percent of parents of children ages 6 to 8 report reading aloud five to seven times a week, that figure drops to 60 percent for children ages 9-11, a phenomenon often referred to as ‘the decline at nine’. Often adults assume that because children are reading independently themselves, there is no longer a need for the read-aloud. 

We never outgrow the benefits of a shared read aloud, and that children (adults too!) of all ages benefit from a read-aloud. As children enter the tween years, we must renew our commitment to reading aloud, and embrace innovative ways to breathe new life into a familiar habit. Here are some easy ideas:

  • Encourage older siblings to share the responsibility of joining parents/caregivers in reading aloud to younger siblings.
  • Embrace texts that are longer and introduce more complicated themes and storylines; though a child might be able to independently read, they might not be ready to independently tackle sophisticated texts.
  • Reinvent the read aloud as a social interaction for older children. When COVID hit, my multigenerational family did a daily read-aloud of a Jason Reynolds middle-grade book. When my daughter saw me reading Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run memoir, she read a kid-friendly version of similar content in the popular Who Is series?

Read Aloud: Now More Than Ever

Now more than ever, parents are vital partners in their children’s education. Though we may not have the skills and knowledge to assist our children with algebraic equations or the complexities of cell reception, the read-aloud is accessible to all. The academic, literacy, and socioemotional benefits of reading aloud to children may far outlast the stress and uncertainty of today’s world.