Reading Aloud to Independent Readers
Even for children who can read on their own, being read to has distinct benefits
By Diana Black
At Mia Learning, we strive to empower kids in their choices about reading, helping them select books and decide how to read them based on what they want to get out of reading. With Mia as their guide, elementary and middle schoolers can gain in confidence and engagement as solo readers. So why would we advocate for reading to those readers? Wouldn’t that undermine our most cherished goals?
Nope. This is a “yes, and” situation rather than an either/or one: “YES, we want to make kids stronger, more skillful readers, AND reading to them will help.” Part of what sets Mia apart is that she acknowledges that people read for all kinds of purposes, many of which are best accomplished interactively.
In conversations with your child, Mia will often ask about the context of their reading. She inquires whether they read the book in question by themselves or with someone else. If your child reports that one of her recommendations was too difficult for them to read alone, Mia might suggest that it’s worth another try as a read-aloud. In this, the first of three posts, we’ll endeavor to explain why reading to your kids is a vital part of supporting them as independent readers (and—spoiler alert—helping them become better-adjusted people in general).
Part 1: The Why
Maybe you started at the very beginning, when she was just a mewling newborn. You placed her carefully on your lap, guiding her tiny hands to the fuzzy lion’s mane. You slowly counted out how many spots were on the ladybug’s back. You read her Goodnight Moon every night, hoping dimly that she was getting something out of all this. Or perhaps you began when he was a toddler, answering every one of his seemingly endless questions and succumbing to the umpteenth demand of “Again!” But now that they are older and can read on their own, those days are sadly past…aren’t they?
Good news: they don’t have to be, and what’s more, the research suggests that they really shouldn’t be. That’s because even for independent readers, being read to helps them grow in ways solitary reading on its own cannot. Especially as your child’s social world and interior life gain in complexity, you don’t want to miss out.
The innumerable benefits of reading aloud to children are well-documented—at least, when it comes to very young children. Many excellent books and articles on the subject, like Mem Fox’s classic Reading Magic (2001), explain in detail how reading to preschoolers supports neural and vocabulary development, promotes physical and emotional closeness with parents, increases children’s empathy, and more.
But experts like Jim Trelease, author of the venerable Read-Aloud Handbook (in its seventh printing as of 2013), also know that reading to our children doesn’t have an expiration date. For one thing, hearing books read aloud appears to keep older children interested in reading outside of school individually. In a 2017 interview, Trelease pointed out that a child’s reading level may differ significantly from what he calls their “listening level” and explained why elementary and middle schoolers should still be read to even once they can read themselves:
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…[W]hen you get to chapter books…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.
In other words, the amount of sophistication a child can comprehend aurally (when you read out loud to them) is typically much higher than what they can understand when reading on their own. So, you can select more difficult books – think twistier, turnier plots, trickier vocabulary, and heavier, more discussable subject matter. But that’s for another blog post (coming soon). Also coming soon: the HOW of reading aloud to older kids. Stay tuned…