Listen to this book!

The value of reading aloud to your kids at any age

“Kids need to be bombarded with books. Through books they can go anywhere, be anyone.” — Lauranne Billus, librarian

Lauranne Billus and I sit on tiny wooden chairs in the library of Violet Avenue Elementary School in Poughkeepsie where she has been the school librarian for 12 years. We are both laughing as she reads aloud to me from “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” by Mo Willems. She is clearly enjoying herself and so am I. I had forgotten how much pleasure being read to brings.

 “Reading has to be seen as fun,” Billus says. “Too many things compete for kids’ attention. If they don’t enjoy it they won’t become readers.”

And becoming readers is integral to succeeding in school and in the world.

“The biggest gap I see academically between students who read at home and those who do not is vocabulary,” says Billus. “The amount of words they know increases kids’ ability to keep up at school, and reading books aloud builds vocabulary.”

Lauranne Billus, librarian at Violet Avenue Elementary School in Poughkeepsie displays some of her favorite books to read aloud. “Reading has to be seen as fun,” she says. “Too many things compete for kids’ attention. If they don’t enjoy it they won’t become readers.”

Start early

Stanford University found an “intellectual processing gap” that appears in children as young as 18 months and is directly related to vocabulary and the number of words kids hear. By age 3, some children heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their peers.

“Children who are read to in utero by their parents will recognize and turn toward their parents’ voices at birth,” says Billus. Reading aloud to kids stimulates their brain development as well as speech/language development.

Reading aloud also increases story comprehension.

“Reading allows kids to see things in sequence, anticipate, learn about the world and themselves,” says Lisa Prentiss, children’s program coordinator at the Staatsburgh Library.

Prentiss spent the summer reading aloud to kids at Adventure Day Camp at Hackett Hill in Hyde Park. Every Wednesday, kids in two age groups were treated to library time with her or a volunteer school librarian. The program, made possible by a grant through the Mid-Hudson Library System, incorporated read-aloud time, craft time and a satellite library at the camp.

“When kids are at camp and parents are at work, it’s hard to get library time,” Prentiss says. “So we brought the books to them.”

Lisa Prentiss, children’s program coordinator at the Staatsburgh Library, spent the summer reading aloud to kids at Adventure Day Camp at Hackett Hill in Hyde Park. “When kids are at camp and parents are at work, it’s hard to get library time,” Prentiss says. “So we brought the books to them.”

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Medical benefits

Reading aloud has proven so important in childhood development that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council instituted a policy this year stating that literacy promotion should be part of residency training for medical students entering pediatrics.

Checking on families’ reading habits, it has determined, is an essential component of primary care pediatric practice. The policy, aimed at immunizing children against illiteracy, recognizes that more than one of every three American children starts kindergarten without the language skills needed to learn to read. In fact, children’s reading proficiency by third grade is a good predictor of their success later in life.

In addition to increased vocabulary and comprehension, reading allows kids to navigate the world and their own emotions better. When children suffer a loss, say a grandparent dying or parents divorcing, the right book can help them process their feelings.

Librarians are expert resources for this. From dealing with loss to food allergies, if there is a situation a child faces in life, there is likely a book dealing with the issue.

“Kids can learn so much from books,” says Billus. “Our teachers [at Violet Avenue] are especially attuned to students’ emotional lives and will ask me which books will help address particular issues. Books provide a way for parents and teachers to relate to their kids.”

‘Read-Aloud’ movement

Jim Trelease has been at the forefront of the Read-Aloud movement since authoring his instrumental book, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” in 1982. By 1985, the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on Reading was calling "reading aloud to children" the single most important activity one could do to raise a reader.

The seventh edition of “The Read-Aloud Handbook” was published in 2013 and included a chapter devoted to technology and its challenges for literacy: iPads, e-books, and online reading and learning.

Trelease points out that while teachers, librarians, and now even doctors, are recognizing the importance of reading aloud to kids, it’s the parents who can have the biggest influence on their children’s reading behaviors.

Trelease calls children “little sponges” who absorb the world around them. He points out that children will replicate what they see. If they see you reading, they will want to read. It is at home, and as Billus points out, way before kids ever set foot in a school, that the love of reading is born.

“Kids need to be bombarded with books,” Billus adds. “Through books they can go anywhere, be anyone.”

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Model behavior

“If we want our kids to be readers, we need to model that behavior and be reading ourselves, and be reading to them,” says Printess. And not just before bed for either of you. “Reading should be interactive,” she adds. “Think about reading the story together. You can have your child read the pictures and learn to associate pictures with words. Even memorizing stories is a step in learning to read.”

Don’t know what to read to your child? You can start with the books you loved as a child. Your love will come through in the reading. But don’t force your child to read what you think they should be reading. Let them discover. Billus urges parents to consult with librarians. “We are book experts,” she says. “We know what kids respond to and each book’s subject matter.”

As a parent, don’t think you are simply reading to your child. You are teaching your child to love reading, to build a strong vocabulary, to ignite imagination, to learn about the world and themselves, to learn how to deal with difficult situations and most of all you are creating a nurturing environment and associating pleasure with reading and being with you.

Six-year-old Abby Foley, of Middletown, loves to read to her dolls.

Interconnectivity of reading

Yuly Martinez-Foley of Middletown has been working one-on-one with her 3-year-old son Zachary, using read-aloud techniques recommended by his speech therapist.

“Among the benefits of reading aloud to Zach is the synergy, visual connection, improvement of his pitch, pronunciation and vocabulary. But even more important, it sets up time for the two of us to be together as mother and child in the midst of my hectic world."

It is that bond that is perhaps one of the most emotionally satisfying elements of reading aloud with your child.

“Kids are experiencing the world for the first time,” says Billus, “Not only is your child learning but you are learning about your child. Reading aloud and talking about the story opens the door to conversations. It is sharing, it creates bonds.”

Part of the fun of reading aloud is interconnectivity. Some readers use accents or inflection to animate the story, but you don’t have to be a drama major to make the story come to life. As Billus reads me the Willems book, she demonstrates how she engages the kids in the story, asking them what they think will happen next, allowing them to take a stake in the story’s unfolding. It is this engagement that makes the story exciting and memorable, and creates lifelong readers.

“As a mom, it is so gratifying to see my daughter who is 6 now reading to her little brother and to her dolls,” says Martinez-Foley. “It shows that any effort we do to teach our kids will be converted into amazing results." 

Linda Freeman is a freelance writer living in Marlboro

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