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March 16, 2022

The Hidden Power of Read Alouds

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Instructional Strategies
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Credit: Copyright (c) 2018 Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock. No use without permission.
Mrs. Griffin, my 3rd grade teacher, made me fall in love with reading. We sat on her carpet every morning while she read to us from her rocking chair. I don’t remember what books she chose or what reading strategies she modeled for us, but I remember the comfort of listening to her stories. It was this feeling of community that first inspired me to become a teacher.
At the start of this school year, I pulled Front Desk by Kelly Yang from the bookshelf, and the sibling of a former student squealed when she saw what we were about to read. “Amelia told me the best thing about Mrs. Brooks’ class was the read alouds,” she said. “And Front Desk was her favorite book!” Interactive Read Aloud, or IRA, time in my classroom is the highlight of my day, too.
An interactive read aloud is a “systematic approach to reading aloud where the teacher models vocabulary development, reading fluency, and comprehension strategies, and requires the students to interact and become participants in their own learning” (Johnston, 2016, p.40). The Commission on Reading has said that “the single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children" (Fisher et al., 2004, p.1). Read alouds should be an integral part of every classroom, beginning in preschool and continuing through high school.
I teach English language arts to 5th grade students, who bring their unique perspectives, prior knowledge, and experiences to enrich our classroom community. Ten of my current students speak English as their second language. I see creating positive reading experiences for them as one of my greatest responsibilities. I chose interactive read alouds specifically because they are an opportunity to build community and establish lasting literacy skills—especially when the selected texts grow students not only as readers, but as people and engage them in meaningful conversations using vocabulary in context.

The Case for Making Time

Teachers always need more time. I’ve never met a teacher that didn’t know what they couldn’t do with five extra minutes of instructional time. In my experience, this is why interactive read-alouds may not be prioritized or occurring on a regular basis. However, read alouds have become a staple in elementary literacy classrooms for good reason, and it is time well spent. And while some may think read alouds should be reserved for students in the primary grades, there is research to support the idea that students should be read to daily in all K-12 grade levels (Layne, 2015).
Read alouds support all areas of literacy development, exposing students to new words and grammar, increasing students’ interest in reading and writing, and expanding skills like phonological awareness (Lennox, 2013). They also strengthen students’ syntactic development, vocabulary acquisition, fluency, comprehension, writing, emotional intelligence, teacher-student relationships, engagement, and cultural awareness in the early grades.
In fact, read alouds are such an integral part of literacy instruction in my district that during the pandemic’s online learning shift, teachers in my district looked for ways to recreate the experience remotely, such as CANVAS discussion boards and FlipGrid video responses. I recorded myself reading to students and posted links to my YouTube videos for students to watch at home. Teachers in my school also collaborated in a school-wide read aloud, signing up to record different chapters of one book that students and families could watch online. This practice is valuable even when school is in person; educator Rachel Spenn implemented recorded read alouds so that her students who receive pull-out services are still able to engage in them, an accommodation that increased student-led participation (Spenn, 2019).
Regardless of where it happens, literacy instruction in general is stronger with read-aloud inclusion (Stoetzel & Shedrow 2021).  I have seen students check out books from the library by a particular author because they fell in love with a text that was read aloud to them. When students read what they love, they naturally increase the quantity of their reading and are more likely to engage in conversations about texts.
And while all students benefit from read alouds, I have seen how they can be especially helpful for multilingual learners. Context is critical for vocabulary development, especially for second-language acquisition. When English language learners encounter new vocabulary in context, they can more easily form connections between language, form, and meaning. Research indicates that teachers can maximize their impact by teaching new words to students in context, as opposed to in isolation (Calderon and Soto, 2017). Before the day’s read aloud, I take a few intentional moments to identify vocabulary that I will teach from the text; a read aloud increases not only vocabulary breadth, but also depth as students make in-text connections (Roessingh, 2020).  
Read alouds also provide students with access to words that they may not encounter on their own. Reading texts aloud to students before they can successfully read these texts independently provides students with access to vocabulary words that can aid English learners in language development, as they expand their vocabulary bank for listening and speaking (Santoro et al., 2008).

Effective Read Aloud Strategies

Before teachers launch headfirst into a text with their students, they should engage in conscious planning to benefit students’ comprehension (Santoro et al., 2008).  To comprehend a narrative, students must have an appropriate amount of prior knowledge to draw inferences and construct new and deeper understandings. Kaefer cautions that while background knowledge is essential to comprehension, pre-reading discussions to activate prior knowledge can fluctuate in effectiveness based on students’ individual differences.
One suggestion for building students’ background knowledge before a read aloud is through integration of other subjects and careful text selection based on what teachers know about their students (Kaefer, 2020).  For example, in my classroom, I closely integrate social studies and reading units. When learning about Westward Expansion in social studies, our read-aloud text is Dear Levi by Elivira Woodruff. That way, students are already familiar with the historical setting and can more easily imagine the struggles that the main character faces throughout the story.

While some may think read alouds should be reserved for students in the primary grades, there is research to support the idea that students should be read to daily in all K-12 grade levels

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Another way to effectively enhance the read aloud’s instructional impact is to be intentional with vocabulary instruction (Lennox, 2013). Try pre-teaching vocabulary that the text will introduce, going through the story to find which words might be new or challenging to students in either a small group setting or with the whole class. Explicit pre-teaching of a few words using supports like visuals or realia—objects and materials from everyday life—give English learners more opportunities to engage with vocabulary. This repeated exposure to words in numerous contexts (with additional visual reinforcement) can accelerate vocabulary acquisition (Roessingh, 2020). In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, the character Fudge complains about having to try on "saddle shoes" at the shoe store; I brought in a saddle shoe before the read aloud because I knew many of my students were unfamiliar with them.
Also, try employing proven successful aspects of quality vocabulary teaching (Neuman, 2011). First, think about the words children will need to make meaning and develop more sophisticated language (words to talk about unfamiliar objects, events, and ideas, as well as categorical terms to organize knowledge). Second, use a combination of implicit and explicit instruction, including making shared conversation a non-negotiable part of a classroom read aloud (hence the term “aloud”!). Research supports the idea that students’ engagement in sustained shared thinking using turn-and-talk or reading partners helps to extend their understanding and make worthwhile vocabulary gains, especially for English learners (Roessingh, 2020).
At the beginning of each school year, my students complete a reading-interest survey, which I use to establish reading partnerships among pairs of students. When I ask students to turn and talk, they are sitting near their partner, ready to participate. These relationships encourage students to expand speaking and listening skills in a low-risk environment that minimizes anxiety—they’re talking with someone familiar who has similar reading interests.  

Text Selections for Read Alouds

Teachers should take great care when selecting read aloud texts. Lennox states that “the repertoire should include a variety of well-illustrated, high-quality literature: fiction, poetry and information books” (Lennox 2013, p. 383).
In addition to genre, teachers should consider the cultural relevance by choosing books that align with English learners’ cultural knowledge, providing space for students to initiate discussion topics, asking students to share their multilingual knowledge to help others with word meanings, and intentionally planning for students’ spontaneous responses and questions to the text. This distribution of power creates literacy opportunities for all students to share their smart, resourceful, and reflective knowledge (Christ & Cho, 2021), which is invaluable encouragement for students acquiring a new language.
In addition to selecting texts that are culturally relevant to students’ languages, cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and interests, teachers should also consider the text’s reading level—ideally, it should be above the students’ own independent-reading level, so that students are exposed to rich vocabulary that will support literacy and language acquisition (Lennox, 2013). In my own classroom, approximately 40 percent of my students are reading below grade level. I generally select texts on grade-level to ensure my students are encountering vocabulary in context and practicing grade-level skills.
Some read-aloud texts that have recently worked for my students are Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks, Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal, and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting. To find culturally relevant texts, teachers can use sources like We Need Diverse Books, Booksource (which offers a classroom library resource to inventory your current library and receive suggestions to diversify in terms of genre and diversity), or #TheBookChat on Twitter.

Future Action Steps

Classroom teachers, regardless of grade level, should consider implementing a daily read aloud in their classroom schedule for the benefit of all readers. It continues to be my favorite part of the day in my upper-elementary classroom, a time where we take a few moments to intentionally connect over stories. Select meaningful and appropriate texts, introduce new vocabulary, provide time for discussion, and enjoy watching your students grow their language and reading skills.

Calderón, M. & Soto, I. (2017). Academic Language Mastery: Vocabulary in Context. In Academic Language Mastery: Vocabulary in Context. Corwin. Retrieved from 

Christ, T., & Cho, H. (2021). Sharing Power in Read-Alouds with Emergent Bilingual Students. The Reading Teacher. Retrieved from

Fisher, D., Flood, J., Lapp, D., & Frey, N. (2004). Interactive Read-Alouds: Is There a Common Set of Implementation Practices? The Reading Teacher, 58(1), 8–17. Retrieved from

Johnston, V. (2016). Successful Read-Alouds in Today’s Classroom. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 52(1), 39–42. Retrieved from

Kaefer, T. (2020). When Did You Learn It? How Background Knowledge Impacts Attention and Comprehension in Read‐Aloud Activities. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S173–S183. Retrieved from

Lennox, S. (2013). Interactive Read-Alouds : An Avenue for Enhancing Children’s Language for Thinking and Understanding : A Review of Recent Research. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(5), 381–389. Retrieved from

Neuman, S., & Dwyer, J. (2009). Missing in action: Vocabulary instruction in Pre-K. The Reading Teacher, 62(5), 384–392.

Roessingh, H. (2020). Read‐alouds in the upper elementary classroom: Developing academic   vocabulary. TESOL Journal, 11(1). Retrieved from

Santoro, L. E., Chard, D. J., Howard, L., & Baker, S. K. (2008). Making the Very Most of Classroom Read-Alouds to Promote Comprehension and Vocabulary. The Reading       Teacher, 61(5), 396-408. Retrieved from

Spenn, R. (2019). No More Read‐Aloud Roulette: Putting Read‐Aloud Texts on Audio Recordings. The Reading Teacher, 72(4), 531–531. Retrieved from

Stoetzel, L., & Shedrow, S. J. (2021). Making the Move Online: Interactive Read‐Alouds for the Virtual Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 74(6), 747–756. Retrieved from

Brittany Brooks is a 5th grade English language arts teacher in Concord, N.C.

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