I went to a play a few weeks ago. By myself.
It was a play with dark content. I had wanted to see it because I liked the actors who were in it and thought the story sounded interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining. So, I went.
I was one of the only people there by myself. I didn't think it would be a big deal and it wasn't...
Until it was.
As I was leaving the theatre, I saw pairs of people around me discussing the play. I could overhear snippets of conversation - "I didn't buy the love story part..." - "I liked the set design - that made it more believable as a story..." - they were all debriefing the play.
I so badly wanted to jump into anyone's conversation - I needed to discuss and debrief too!
Alas, no one I knew could debrief with me because I didn't share the experience. Even now, as I reflect, there is still a void. I couldn't fully analyze the material and therefore couldn't come to appreciate the play as much. I realized, it's part of why you don't see people going to the movies on their own very often. Part of the value is being able to share the experience and then talk about it afterward.
Reading is no different.
We read out loud to our kids from birth on. Sometimes before. But something happens when kids get a bit older and it seems like.....we suddenly stop. At first, it might seem like a fantastic adventure into independence. We're proud of our kids when they can read on their own - and they want to. After all, isn't this exactly what we've wanted?
Hooray, we cheer! And, we savor those few stolen moments on our own - now not having to shoulder reading every night to our kids. Or when our kids aren't tired for bedtime, but can sit and read their own book triumphantly, it feels awesome.
But, we miss things too. Our kids, who we know so well when they are young, start to become a little strange to us. We might miss what their favorite book is, because we're not reading it together night after night. Or, we don't know what they are reading because we haven't read the book at all - so there is no dynamic way to talk about it together.
There is a part of them we stop knowing when we stop reading with them.
But of course, this is part of growing up. Right? Yes, it is. But we can and should hold on longer.
Let me make my case based on research.
The reason for reading aloud to our kids when they are little are many. It helps build confidence and motivates young ones to want to grow up and be able to read on their own. But, it's also to support a love of reading, to build a reading community at home and to be able to allow you to spot any gaps in your child's understandings as they read. When you read and think aloud with your kids, you are showing them how good readers ask questions about what they are reading. You are exposing them to vocabulary and explaining new words.
You are helping them to understand. And you are showing them that reading is important and enjoyable. You are giving them someone to talk about the book with - you have a book club of two.
None of this changes when they learn to read on their own.
As Nancie Atwell, a prominent reading researcher, notes about middle school students, "Everyone is enthralled by good read-aloud...it becomes a bridge for kids, taking them into territories they might never have explored because they don't yet have schemas for a genre, subject, author or period...And they provide a communal reading experience in which we enter and love a book together."
She follows this up with mentioning that she only reads literatures she, herself likes. I am a big proponent of this - Read joyfully. Together.
In a recently published study, researchers compared comprehension levels of students after they have read through passages silently, on their own to valid comparisons from kids in 1960. The findings reported were a little startling. Kids in 2nd grade comprehended more or less on the same level as their counterparts in 1960. After 2nd grade, the growth curve for kids now is less than that of the kids in 1960. In other words, our kids now are not doing as well as kids who were in school in 1960 when it comes to reading comprehension.
The present research adds to evidence suggesting that the silent reading efficiency of U.S. students, especially older students, is declining, stagnant, or at least inadequate to meet the current literacy challenges faced in schools and the workplace.
And we've known this. In 2000, the National Reading Panel concluded that there was not enough evidence to support sustained silent reading as a practice on its own in classrooms to effectively increase comprehension. This would extend to its use at home, too.
The add-on conclusion to this is that it can be difficult to gauge comprehension when kids engage in silent reading. Teachers know this and they use silent reading time to conference with kids, check-in and track progress. Teachers ask their students to keep reading journals and reflect on their reading. Silent reading in school is not usually just silent reading - it's packed with extras.
There is usually a class read-aloud in your child's classroom all the way up to 8th grade and sometimes into high school. Sharing books allows for discussing together - and for evaluating comprehension. Reading aloud allows teachers the opportunity to model good fluency, explain vocabulary, ask questions and have a shared, bonding experience with their students.
This is not to say that silent reading is not at all useful. It is. It allows for choice, a little experimentation and independence in reading. Those are all important for motivation - a key component in creating happy readers.
But having stories read out loud to kids, is still one of the best evidence-based ways to teach good reading habits to kids. Even as they get bigger.
P.S. This is not a stand-alone post. There is a companion post with suggestions on how to do great reading with your older kids at home so that it's not overly burdensome and enjoyable for you both.
Alexandra N. Spichtig, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Christian Vorstius, Jeffrey P. Pascoe, P. David Pearson, Ralph Radach (2016). The Decline of Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Efficiency in the United States: A Comparison of Current Data With Performance in 1960. Reading Research Quarterly, 51(2), 239–259.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.