Reading Aloud Boosts Comprehension, Vocabulary, and Retention

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After writing his million-copy bestseller, The Read-Aloud Handbook, in 1982, Jim Trelease lectured in all 50 states and abroad, advocating the benefits of reading aloud to children. In doing so, he won the applause of both teachers and parents for his pleas in behalf of literacy efforts that contain less "pain" and more focus on turning books into friends, not enemies.

Our parent company, Mrs. Nelson’s Book Company, was the bookseller at all of Jim’s Southern California lectures. We would set up a mini bookstore in the back of the lecture halls, listen to his presentation to parents and school faculty, and then sell the various books that he recommended. We followed Jim all around Southern California for years and years and we got pretty good about being able to quote his exact presentation to ourselves- kind of like watching Frozen for the 1,000th time. But every lecture was unique and captivating. He was energetic, enthusiastic and compassionate. A true believer.

One of the main points Jim would make regarding reading aloud to children is that a child’s listening vocabulary is much higher than their speaking, reading, or writing vocabulary. In order to raise a good reader and writer, you first need to focus on their Listening Vocabulary. You pour enough words into the child’s Listening Vocabulary and it will overflow and fill the Speaking Vocabulary pool— thus the child starts speaking the words he’s heard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever say a word if you’ve never heard the word. More than a billion people speak Chinese— so why not the rest of us? Because we haven’t heard enough Chinese words, especially in our childhoods.

The next is the Reading Vocabulary. It’s nearly impossible to understand a word in print if you’ve never said the word.

And finally there’s the Writing Vocabulary. If you’ve never said the word or read the word, how in the world will you be able to write it? All the language arts flow from the Listening Vocabulary— and that has to be filled by someone besides the child. This is where reading aloud comes in. As you read to a child, you’re pouring into the child’s ears (and brain) all the sounds, syllables, endings, and blendings that will make up the words she will someday be asked to read and understand. And through stories you are filling in the background knowledge necessary to understand things that aren’t in her neighborhood—like war or whales or locomotives.

Although Jim retired from touring in 2008, his books are still in print and updated for today’s generation of readers. “The Read-Aloud Handbook” offers proven techniques and strategies for helping children of all backgrounds and abilities discover the pleasures of reading and setting them on the road to becoming lifelong readers. “Hey! Listen to This” is a collection of 48 read-aloud stories aimed primarily at the kindergarten through fourth-grade levels. These books are available on our website in our Parenting category.

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