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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Reading Aloud to Kids and Why Lessons Need Purposes

June 15, 2017

Teacher question:

Teachers in grades 3, 4 and 5 spend weeks and weeks (like 5-6) reading aloud chapter books to their students. In some classrooms, students have a copy of the book.  Is there research that speaks to the effectiveness of a read-aloud over a period of time?

Does student interest wane after two weeks or so? 

Are there ways to think strategically about read aloud time ... to incorporate instruction? 

What do we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a read aloud in this context? 

How can we structure close reading of passages for struggling readers along the way? 

Shanahan's response:

I’ll answer this one with a proverb: “Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.” 

You might be surprised by how often I get this kind of question from educators: We are doing something as part of reading instruction … could you tell us why it is good to do that?”

This is backward. Professional action needs to be purposeful. As the proverb suggests, instructional action with no clear learning purpose can be a nightmare for kids!

I know this isn’t a new point — but it is a darn good one. Years ago, Walter Doyle (1983) gathered the research revealing how activity-bound teachers tend to be, and how purposeless these activities usually are. He argued for a greater focus on learning than on implementing particular instructional routines.

Even earlier, Benjamin Bloom advanced his soon-to-be-famous taxonomy to focus attention on learning within teaching — to guide teachers to focus their lessons on specific, meaningful learning objectives. Accordingly, his objectives emphasize outcomes, not inputs; the idea being that once you were committed to teaching a particular objective you would select activities that would have a reasonable possibility of accomplishing that objective.

Or, how about this quote from a school superintendent from the minutes of the National Education Association … (in 1909!):

“The teacher must have an objective point in every lesson . Inattention is too often encouraged by inefficient, aimless, purposeless teaching. The lesson without a definite purpose may well be omitted. (J. Koontz, 1909, p. 191).

With great regularity I am asked why teachers are being read to, why kids are reading aloud in class, why reading workshop is being used, why guided reading is a good idea, why teachers need 20 minutes per day of free reading time, why teachers need to use end of lesson basal reader tests and so on … Nothing wrong with any of those questions, but so often they are being asked by the teachers who are doing these things or by the administrators who are ordering them to do them.

Reading directors who have decided to commit their teachers to an instructional practice frequently contact me to find out if there is any research supporting that practice. They have already decided the practice must be implemented — a decision made without any evidence. But they want evidence to fend off any naysayers who don’t want to implement the particular practice. Research to them is apparently not a light, but a bludgeon.

The question being asked in this case is whether reading chapter books to upper elementary students is effective. My question back is, “Effective at what?

Effectiveness can only be evaluated against a clear purpose and as readers can see, there is no such purpose specified. The teachers are already committed to such reading, and they would sure like some research support. (Or, someone is trying seeking evidence to try to persuade them to be less committed to the unexplained activity).

If the question is, does reading books to older students improve their reading ability? I can answer definitely that there is no research either supporting or rejecting this idea, but that is rather unlikely. There are studies with primary age kids that indicate having kids read rather than being read to is the better way to improved reading achievement (Sénéchal & Young, 2008).

Studies show that reading aloud to preschoolers increases their vocabulary (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). This makes sense (even with older kids) since meaningful exposure to new words — reading on one’s own, watching media, having new social experiences — all contribute to that. (The one study of reading to older kids that I know of, found that they were more familiar with words from the texts than were kids who were not exposed to those texts).

However, none of the studies with younger children showed transfer from vocabulary improvement to better reading, and the tests that showed vocabulary improvement are not particularly related to reading achievement.

That shouldn’t be too surprising since the vocabulary gains would be with words from the particular books — rather than a general improvement in vocabulary. Such learning would only impact comprehension when students were reading texts that used these particular words.  

Of course, reading aloud to kids certainly must expand their knowledge of the world, if the texts include information or ideas that the kids don’t yet know. If someone reads a science chapter to me about genetics, I am likely to gain some info on genetics. This is so stunningly obvious and so consistent with experience (e.g., television news commentators read news, sports and weather “stories” to us on a daily basis) that no one has ever bothered to test it.

Reading aloud can also stimulate an interest in reading. Kids sometimes hear their teacher reading a book and then try to read it on their own. We don’t know how much this really happens, but I certainly have experienced it as a teacher and parent. Having kids following along with such reading can have some impact on reading fluency, but that is typically done with shorter pieces and involves the kids in trying to read the modeled text aloud. That doesn’t sound like the case here.

If you are requiring that teachers read aloud books with the idea that this will improve student comprehension or build their knowledge of the world or expand their vocabularies or increase their fluency or even foster improved reading motivation in some measurable way, then I suspect that reading a chapter book aloud to the kids over several weeks may not be the best way to go — since there are so many more powerful alternatives towards each of those outcomes. 

I would suggest that you figure out what you are trying to accomplish, then consider the alternative ways that this might be done … selecting the most powerful avenues you can find. Sometimes that might be reading a chapter book to the kids, but other choices might win out as well.

Personally, I never taught a day in the primary grades in which I did not read aloud to kids. I didn’t do this as part of my reading instruction, however.

It was just an effective way of fostering a positive tone in my classroom; a closeness between the children and me. I didn’t do this in place of strategy lessons or what is now referred to as close reading. I did it because I love books and wanted to share a bit of that love with the kids I was teaching. (There are other ways of accomplishing that goal as well, but reading aloud to the kids was a way that I could do this.) If I were back in the elementary saddle again, I would probably make the same choice; but that activity would in no way be allowed to reduce my instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, or writing. I hope it doesn’t for your teachers either.

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"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." — Lemony Snicket