This isn’t a contention I’ve ever actually heard anyone make, I’d hasten to add. Most people are well aware that stories, and the time taken to read and share them in education is important. But it is nevertheless a reality that story time has been squeezed into the chaotic end of the day or has completely fallen off the end of a great many time tables. So, what is it about reading stories aloud that is so incredibly valuable, and should mean that it gets prioritised amongst other activities that are more commonly thought of as ‘rigorous’?
Hearing words aloud, spoken by a person that we can see and hear, is a far more direct route to comprehending the words than reading them written down. This is because the spoken words come with tone, intonation, facial expressions and body language - all of which give a rich set of supporting clues that help to build up an understanding of what’s being said.
So far, so good. But when we are seeking to expand and deepen children’s spoken language vocabulary, we’re faced with an obstacle - written texts are far richer in vocabulary than the spoken word. Without all those extra clues to meaning, our words have to work harder in writing to convey the sort of nuance that fewer words do in speech.
What’s the answer then, if the words that children need to learn are locked up in texts that they aren’t able to access? We read aloud to the children from the texts. Reading aloud to children from richly written, complex texts that contain words that they don’t already know is the best way to help them build up a broad vocabulary, with a depth of understanding. A good spoken language vocabulary is then a fundamental component of a child’s ability to read - if they know a word in speech, then they are better equipped to read and understand it in print.
Reading aloud to children also provides them with the model of fluent, expressive reading with intonation that they need - this model, alongside their vocabulary knowledge, gives them the example to follow when developing their own ability to read fluently and at speed.
And then there’s the fun part. For many people, reading aloud to children is fun, but this shouldn’t lead us to underestimate its value. A storytelling setting, whether it is a parent cuddling up with a child and a good book, or a teacher reading to a whole class, is an enjoyable shared experience of comfort, emotional warmth and security. It can be a quiet, calm time in an otherwise busy day at school or home. The effects of having this sort of time regularly have been shown to positively impact children’s wellbeing, but they also build up positive associations with the activity of reading. It is these associations that ultimately make children into lifelong independent readers, which has been shown to be a crucial factor in a child’s attainment and later life chances.
So, if reading aloud to children everyday can help do all that, then I think it’s time very well spent.
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About the author
Joe Brazier is a Senior Product Manager at Pearson, specialising in publishing primary literacy resources for the UK and beyond.
Joe manages Pearson's flagship literacy product, Bug Club, and he likes to get stuck into the research around how children learn and what works in schools.