‘World Read Aloud Day:’ 7 benefits to reading aloud, especially for children

If your family is anything like ours, winter can inspire some of the best indoor activities of the year, including reading books aloud!

Some of my favorite childhood memories include resting against…

If your family is anything like ours, winter can inspire some of the best indoor activities of the year, including reading books aloud!

Some of my favorite childhood memories include resting against my mother’s shoulder on one end of the couch, listening as she read books aloud to us.

Although it started as a bedtime routine, it continued into our teens as the books reached college-level complexity. My mom read many classic novels to us before we studied them again in university.

Over the years, this evening tradition produced a lifelong love of reading that I’m hoping to cultivate in my own children.

In honor of World Read Aloud Day (Feb. 2), we’ve compiled a list of benefits that reading aloud can provide for you and your family – all ages included!

1. Reading aloud provides the foundation for literacy and future reading success.

In 1985 the U.S. Department of Education reached an astonishing conclusion in its extensive two-year report, Becoming a Nation of Readers.

“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,” researchers wrote. “This is especially so during the preschool years.”

The benefits of reading aloud go far beyond preschool, however. Since children typically understand words by hearing them before they can write them, researchers for the Reading Rockets project suggest intentionally choosing books at a higher level than your children could read on their own.

“It exposes less able readers to the same rich and engaging books that fluent readers read on their own, and entices them to become better readers,” researchers concluded. “Students of any age benefit from hearing an experienced reading of a wonderful book.”

This advice dovetails with the books my mom chose for us as children, which were often above our grade level. Over time I could read alongside her, silently, in my head. I still remember reading ahead (just a tiny bit, of course!) and waiting to hear her pronounce a new word so that I could associate the pronunciation with the spelling.

2. Reading aloud helps develop strong listening habits.

The part of our brain that processes language remains the same whether we are listening to or reading the text, according to the Audio Publishers Association. In this way, reading aloud can work in the same way as audiobooks to increase vocabulary comprehension, enhance literature enjoyment, and develop sustained concentration.

Active listening also helps us increase our attention to detail and patience as we wait for the narrative’s resolution. Crime novels and adventure series can be spectacular examples of our ability to listen breathlessly until the absolute end!

3. Reading aloud generates constructive conversations.

A popular maxim for parents today is to choose “experiences over gifts.” In other words, we should provide our children with shared, meaningful experiences instead of materialistic items that may not provide as much of a long-term benefit.

Reading great books as a family is one powerful way to choose both experiences and gifts – a shared memory-bank of characters, plotlines, and vivid language that you can revisit anytime.

For example, our mom read Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien aloud to us when we were children. This led to many animated evening discussions, particularly at the cliffhanger ending of The Two Towers.

Everyone in our family now has their own love of Middle-Earth and the many characters introduced to us through those books. That one experience provided many conversation starters throughout the years about how the books compare to the films, the theme of power as depicted by the Ring, and the everyday quiet heroism of hobbits like Sam, Frodo, and Merry.

4. Reading aloud models expression, tone, and fluency.

Sometimes we learn a new skill best by observing other people practicing it, and reading is no exception!

By hearing the way you read aloud, your child is actively learning pronunciation, emotion, inflection, and expression.

Literacy experts and educators also recommend using your finger to point to words as you speak them when reading to very young children, so they can follow along as you read. This helps them see how printed letters on a page translate into real-life stories, characters, and movement that they can relate to and understand.

5. Reading aloud associates reading with pleasure and enjoyment.

How many times have you needed to persuade your children to eat cookies and other sweet treats? (Never, right!)

Because we as humans tend to associate sugar with pleasure, we naturally gravitate toward sweet foods. 

Parents and educators can harness the way we associate things and activities with pleasure to reading aloud, introducing children to the idea that reading is something we can do primarily for enjoyment (and only later for learning).

For this reason, it may also be counterproductive to force reading as a chore or task onto your children in exchange for some other benefit. While this may help some students get over the initial hurdle of starting a reading assignment, it can also reinforce any negative emotions they have toward reading.

6. Reading aloud builds a more extensive vocabulary.

The garden was a very lovely place. Being upon a mountainside there were parts in it where the rocks came through in great masses, and all immediately about them remained quite wild. Tufts of heather grew upon them, and other hardy mountain plants and flowers, while near them would be lovely roses and lilies and all pleasant garden flowers. This mingling of the wild mountain with the civilized garden was very quaint, and it was impossible for any number of gardeners to make such a garden look formal and stiff.”

Did you know that the above passage comes from a 150-year-old children’s book? George MacDonald wrote this in The Princess and the Goblin, which Strahan & Co. published in 1872. 

While such a passage would probably not appear in many elementary schoolbooks today, reading aloud helps introduce words in context and broaden children’s vocabulary and language skills.

For example, young children may not be able to define the words “quaint,” “civilized,” and “formal” easily, but they can still listen and pick up many thematic elements about the passage (e.g. a pleasant garden, wild plants mixed with orderly ones, etc.).

7. Reading aloud enhances critical thinking skills.

Some educators use reading aloud to check on their students’ comprehension by asking the student quick questions concerning the passage. 

Some easy questions might include: “What do you think happens next?” or “Why did (character) want to do (action)?”

When reading aloud as a parent, you can pause the story at any moment to start a discussion. It may be as simple as asking your child what they think about the storyline or characters. 

Once this becomes a habit, it often leads to surprising depth or creativity in their answers. For example, I once read a board book aloud to a preschooler about a colorful elephant, Elmer, playing in the rain. I had read and reread the book multiple times and was desperate for any kind of change to the usual routine.

“Would you like to play in the rain?” I asked her.

She looked at me like I was crazy. “No,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. I was one of those kids who loved playing in the rain.

She gave her answer as if it was self-evident: “I’m not an elephant!”

This winter and throughout the year, set some time aside to read even a short book aloud to your children. You never know what treasured family memories may come from it!