‘Litpert’ Shailaja Menon on reading aloud to independent readers

Have any questions related to literacy or language? Shoot your questions to hippocampus.librarian@gmail.com right away and have literacy expert Dr.Shailaja Menon answer them. Big questions, tiny questions, serious questions, silly questions, soft questions, hard questions – any questions that have been lurking in your mind! See Dr.Shailaja’s response to this month’s inquiry.

We often think of reading aloud to young children who are yet to read independently. But how important is reading aloud to older children? Until what age should a child be read aloud to, and how often?

Consider that as a species, we love listening to stories – at all ages! Then ask: why is it that we think of reading aloud as a practice restricted only to younger children who can’t yet read independently? There is really no reason to limit reading aloud in that way – while there are plenty of reasons for continuing to read aloud to older children!

First, as adults, we have the very important task of building and maintaining relationships with our students/children. Sharing books, stories and ideas, and talking about them together is a wonderful way to do so! It is also a subtle way in which to share life lessons with older students who may not like being overtly preached at, or moralized to. The read aloud may raise moral, ethical, conceptual or relational issues that are worth discussing together.

Second, by reading aloud, you model joyful reading. Older children, in particular, are likely to be distracted away from books in contemporary urban, middle-class society with a variety of technological and other gizmos. In less privileged contexts, they may be distracted by other concerns. In either case, older children will benefit tremendously from having access to mentors who are lifelong readers and who are willing to share that love aloud with them.  As Shirly Brice Heath, an eminent sociolinguist has suggested, “The single most important condition for literacy learning is the presence of mentors who are joyfully literate people.”

Third, reading aloud books to older children permits them to access books that they can’t yet access conceptually on their own. When children start reading independently, we often assume that they can now be left to their own devices. This is far from the truth! Children who appear to be independent readers may struggle with denser or longer books. By reading aloud, you not only free them (for a while) from struggling through the text on their own, but you also get opportunities to model what good readers do when they read challenging texts. An adult who is reading aloud can pause at strategic points and “think aloud” about the challenge posed by that portion of the text, and how they might solve that problem. This can be woven seamlessly with the read aloud (short pauses, brief sharing of strategies) such that the children listening to it can pick up the strategies used by more fluent readers, even while gaining access to a book that they might not have attempted on their own. Reading together also permits collective meaning-making – which enhances both comprehension and enjoyment of the text!

So, in short, I would encourage parents and teachers to continue to read aloud to children of all ages, but at the very least, until the eighth grade. The frequency would vary depending on the context and purposes – but please make the sharing of good literature a weekly part of your classroom/home routines!

Dr. Shailaja Menon currently works as faculty in the area of Language and Literacy, School of Education, Azim Premji University. She has her Ph.D. in language, literacy and culture from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and degrees in human development and psychology from MSU, Baroda, and Delhi University, respectively.

Literacy expert Shailaja Menon

Literacy expert Shailaja Menon

Shailaja has worked in various educational settings in the US and in India. She has an abiding interest in imparting a love for language, literature and literacy to children, teachers and teacher educators and engages in a variety of initiatives that help promote these.

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