Nonfiction Read Alouds: A Lost Opportunity?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2012

Part of my required reading is the daily Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief, a summary of education news.  Yesterday’s email carried the subject line, “Are there benefits to reading aloud?”

This is roughly akin to a newsletter for doctors headlined, “Are there benefits to quitting smoking and exercise?”  I’d be mighty surprised to learn there are still teachers who need to be sold on the benefits of reading aloud to students.  But the SmartBrief headline links to a smart Edweek piece from Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade language arts teacher in Texas, on the benefits of read alouds, including “building community,” “exposing kids to new authors and genres,” and “supporting developing readers.”

“Reading aloud removes roadblocks to comprehension like unfamiliar vocabulary and contextualizes words developing readers do not know. Listening to a fluent reader gives students a reading role model for their own oral reading skills, too. Since listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension, you can read books that are a higher reading level than your students can read alone.”

She’s completely correct on all of these points, but further explication is worthwhile.  If anything, Miller undersells the value of reading aloud.  When students listen to a readaloud, cognitive bandwidth that might ordinarily be devoted to decoding is redirected toward the vocabulary and content of the reading.  We learn vocabulary primarily in context, not by memorization. Thus readalouds build language proficiency by exposing kids to sophisticated language well above their independent  reading level.

But I’d wager most teachers leave untapped a lot of the potential of readalouds.  Pop quiz:  how many of the last ten books you read to your class were nonfiction?   You probably answered either “zero” or “one.”  That’s a lost opportunity.  The same principles that make it worthwhile to read fiction aloud are even more true for nonfiction. Plus, nonfiction often has rich, domain-specific vocabulary.  You’re more likely to hear words like “orbit,” “zenith,” “solar,” or “celestial,” in a book on astronomy.  Readalouds not only grow vocabulary, they are the best way to build critical background knowledge, which is essential for later reading comprehension.

Read alouds also have value well past the primary grades.  It’s fairly obvious that oral language competence precedes written language proficiency (we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write).  What’s less well known is a fact my colleague Alice Wiggins likes to point out: reading comprehension typically doesn’t catch up until about 8th grade.  This means that a strong case can be made for read alouds to building knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency through and including middle school.

Miller’s piece touts “World Read Aloud Day” on March 7, 2012 and suggests every day should be read aloud day.  Agreed.  But read alouds should be for more than just stories and poems.  Tellingly, Miller suggests ten books for upper elementary students to hear out loud. The only one that’s not fiction and poetry is a memoir by Hatchet author Gary Paulsen.

Building knowledge and vocabulary remain the royal road to reading comprehension.  Reading to students across subject areas–not just stories and poems–just might be the most underutilized strategy in the teacher’s tool kit.