The magic of story time: Why is reading aloud to kids so important?


As a teacher in San Jose Unified, Seena Hawley made a point of reading aloud to her fourth and fifth graders every day. Not only was it a highlight of their day, she also believes it boosted their reading comprehension and their sense of empathy.

“Storytelling can be very powerful in teaching,” said Hawley, who spent a dozen years in the classroom and now runs the Berkeley Baby Book Project, an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which gives children a book a month from babyhood to age 5. “The best children’s literature, like all literature, engages children on deep human issues, at their level, while giving them steppingstones to the next levels.” 

Story time conjures up warm and fuzzy memories of milk and cookies for many parents, teachers and children alike. Whether it’s a bedtime rendition of “The Lorax” or “Charlotte’s Web” in the classroom, most people love hearing stories read aloud. However, reading aloud is not just about the charm of a rich oral tradition, a pleasurable pastime. It’s also an effective academic tool that parents and teachers often overlook as children age out of the footie pajama stage, experts say. Once children know how to read on their own, there is a tendency to cut back on reading aloud to them.

“Reading aloud to students in K-3 is a super way to build knowledge and vocabulary and should be a regular staple in classrooms,” said Sue Pimentel, a literacy expert perhaps best known as lead writer of the Common Core state standards.

“Reading aloud to students models fluent reading. It builds knowledge and vocabulary. Students can hear and discuss new words. It also improves listening comprehension. Notably, the texts should be two to three grades above their complexity level.”

Amid the escalating national literacy crisis, with its grim statistics and deeply entrenched ideological battles, this one is an easy fix, experts say.  Read aloud to your children and students. It’s not only an enjoyable way to bond, it may be part of the secret formula to boost reading comprehension. 

However, when parents and teachers get busy, they often scuttle story time entirely, perhaps unwittingly limiting the child’s access to more complex words and ideas. Jess Hutchison, a mother of two, misses reading to her children, Sawyer, 8, and August, 14, but notes that it’s harder and harder to make it happen as they age.

“I still love to read out loud to my kids, especially my younger one,” said Hutchison, who recently moved from Piedmont to Connecticut. “I do find, however, that I have less and less time for it, and that my kids like it less and less every year. They’d rather watch YouTube videos or movies.” 

That’s a pity, said Pimentel. In fact, if she had to do it all over again, she would codify the fact that students of all ages benefit from reading aloud. Even teenagers. 

“If I were writing the Common Core standards again, I’d have fluency practice go all the way up to grade 12, not stop at grade three.”

Part of the benefit of having a teacher or parent read a sophisticated piece of writing aloud is that it behooves both strong and weak readers alike. Even a child who is lagging behind in reading skills will benefit from exposure to advanced vocabulary and complicated concepts. This way they will not miss out on learning just because they aren’t yet avid readers. They can still partake in the classroom discussion of the subject at hand. That’s vital to building a strong base of knowledge.

Of course, that does not mean that children don’t need to read on their own. They do, but the assumption that story time is only vital in the early years, experts say, is mistaken.

“I have no idea why teachers stop reading aloud to kids,” said Pimentel. “It’s a mistake — a big mistake, a lost opportunity. Students can learn so much more, and at higher levels, when teachers read to them what they can’t read themselves.”

On the other end of the pendulum, some teachers may read aloud to the class instead of teaching them how to read deeply, and that’s also a mistake, experts say. You have to be strategic about which books you read and which books you help them read.  

“I worry about read-alouds in schools taking the place of reading,” said Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago. “Teachers don’t know how to deal with text that students can’t read easily. Their point of view is that kids can’t learn anything from a text that they can’t already read reasonably well on their own.” 

That’s simply not true, said Shanahan, who helped lead the influential National Reading Panel. With help, students can learn to tackle the denser type of texts they will inevitably encounter later in their academic life. Otherwise, they may fall even further behind, languishing on the easy reads shelf of the library while their peers zoom ahead to the classics. 

Certainly, many of us comprehend rich and intricate text better when we hear it spoken aloud, at least initially. Think of a Shakespearean soliloquy or a Milton poem. As long as it’s not a substitute for doing it themselves but rather a steppingstone on the path to mastery, reading aloud can be a smart academic strategy that also builds social-emotional connections between the adult and the child.

“I read to my own kids, and now grandkids, to older ages,” said Shanahan. But, “I want kids to be able to read Shakespeare themselves, and that means guiding kids to read it, not just reading it to them.”

For Hawley, the bottom line is that children are exposed to the richness and wonder of high-quality literature. Stories can be a compelling way to broach lessons about life, loss and the dizzying range of the human experience, she says. In a world rife with hardship and distress, from school shootings to pandemic trauma, stories can be a path to better understanding ourselves.

“Stories reflect us and our lives while at the same time showing us other lives and other ways to contend with the deep emotional, psychological, ethical, social and historical issues in all our lives,” said Hawley. “Stories allow us to grapple with those issues from a slight distance even as we can connect our own lives to them.“

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