The Hidden Benefits of Reading Aloud — Even for Older Kids

Educator Jim Trelease explains why reading aloud to your child, no matter what her age, is the magic bullet for creating a lifelong reader.

Jim Trelease is the author of the respected, Read-Aloud Handbook, which some parents have called the “read aloud Bible.” The book is packed with information — from what really makes kids love reading, to tips for luring kids away from electronics and onto the page, to hundreds of read aloud titles. The Handbook’s seventh edition will be published in the spring of 2013 and, at 71 years old, Trelease says it will be his last.

Can you explain the link between reading aloud and school success?

It’s long established in science and research: the child who comes to school with a large vocabulary does better than the child who comes to school with little familiarity with words and a low vocabulary.

Why is that? If you think about it, in the early years of school, almost all instruction is oral. In kindergarten through second and third grades, kids aren’t reading yet, or are just starting, so it’s all about the teacher talking to the kids. This isn’t just true in reading but in all subjects; the teacher isn’t telling kids to open their textbooks and read chapter three. The teaching is oral and the kids with the largest vocabularies have an advantage because they understand most of what the teacher is saying. The kids with small vocabularies don’t get what is going on from the start, and they’re likely to fall further and further behind as time goes on.

How does a child develop a large vocabulary even before school starts?

Children who are spoken to and read to most often are the ones with the largest vocabularies. If you think about it, you can’t get a word out of the child’s mouth unless he has heard it before. For example, the word “complicated.” A child isn’t going to say the word unless he has heard it before — and in fact to remember it, a child probably has to hear it multiple times. (That’s not true with swear words, of course. If a child hears his parent swear he’ll remember it the first time, and happily repeat it whenever he gets the chance.) But kids have to hear most words multiple times, so it’s important that their parents talk to and around them from the time they are very young, because that’s how they learn words.

Reading aloud: an advertisement for books

So parents need to talk to their children — but reading aloud is important, too. Because where are children going to be hearing the most words? In conversation, we tend to use verbal shorthand, not full sentences. But the language in books is very rich, and in books there are complete sentences. In books, newspapers, and magazines, the language is more complicated, more sophisticated. A child who hears more sophisticated words has a giant advantage over a child who hasn’t heard those words.

Reading aloud also increases a child’s attention span. Finally, reading aloud to your child is a commercial for reading. When you read aloud, you’re whetting a child’s appetite for reading. The truth is, what isn’t advertised in our culture gets no attention. And awareness has to come before desire. A child who has been read to will want to learn to read herself. She will want to do what she sees her parents doing. But if a child never sees anyone pick up a book, she isn’t going to have that desire.

Why do you think it’s important to read to older kids, too?

People often say to me, ‘”My child is in fourth grade and he already knows how to read, why should I read to him?” And I reply, “Your child may be reading on a fourth grade level, but what level is he listening at?”

A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until eighth grade. You can and should be reading seventh grade books to fifth grade kids. They’ll get excited about the plot and this will be a motivation to keep reading. A fifth grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than she can read herself, and reading aloud is really going to hook her, because when you get to chapter books, you’re getting into the real meat of print — there is really complicated, serious stuff going on that kids are ready to hear and understand, even if they can’t read at that level yet.

Reading aloud to your kids is also are good way to grapple with difficult issues. For example, you can tell your child, “I don’t want you to hang out with so and so,” but that’s a lecture that will probably go in one ear and out the other. But if you read a book about a kid who gets in trouble by hanging out with the wrong crowd, your child is going to experience that directly, and she’s going to experience it with you at her side, and you can talk about it together. You can ask questions like: “Do you think the boy made the right choice?” “Do you think that girl was really her friend?” When you talk about a book together, it’s not a lecture, it’s more like a coach looking at a film with his players, going over the plays to find out what went right and what went wrong.

Books to blow your mind

Someone once said that books allow you to examine explosive situations without having them blowing up in your face. Books allow you to develop awareness of people outside your experience and develop a sense of empathy. When I was growing up, I wasn’t rich, but by reading books I learned that there are kids out there who are a lot worse off than me, kids growing up with real disadvantages. The wider your world, the more you understand and the more you can empathize.

Another advantage of reading aloud: if you weren’t a reader yourself growing up, reading to your kids gives you the chance to meet the child you used to be and read the books you never read. I hear from people all the time, especially fathers, who say, “Wow! I never read The Secret Garden as a child, and I had no idea what I was missing!”

I’ve had that experience myself, and I was an avid reader as a child, but I mostly read boys’ books, like The Call of the Wild. I didn’t read the classics like The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, so it was great to have the chance to read them with my kids.