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.

10 Comments »

  1. My father once related to me that the only thing that was bearable about going to school when he was around 5th grade was that he could go to the non-fiction section of the library and get something that he actually cared about. Non-fiction reading may also be one of the keys to helping more boys. I use this great site to find non-fiction books for my kids run by two librarians.

    http://nonfictiondetectives.blogspot.com/

    Comment by DC Parent — February 17, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  2. Question for all: better to have kids read along as teacher reads aloud, or not? Seems looking at the page could slightly cloud kids’ understanding, as mental bandwidth is diverted. But seeing the words’ spelling could amplify vocabulary acquisition. (Of course insisting kids look at the page help assures they won’t be looking at peers or iPhones).

    Comment by Ponderosa — February 17, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

  3. Never thought they should be reading along with me. Most were usually quite attentive.

    Everything I read to my class was nonfiction except Robinson Caruso, Bridge to Terabethia, Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Stone Fox. Just some of my personal favorites.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 17, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

  4. Or, fiction with heavy elements of science, travel, history, etc. For example, I will never forget my 4th grade teacher reading Robert A. Heinlein’s The Red Planet. You could hear a pin drop.

    Comment by balsam — February 18, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

  5. I am all in favor of good read-alouds, including lots of non-fiction; science, history, poetry, classic fairy tales and fables, literature etc. It’s a great way to teach content and vocab to kids before they can read it on their own. I think that most kids benefit greatly from this, but I would recommend allowing those kids capable of reading the selections themselves to do so, if they choose. I was a voracious reader and was reading HS and adult material by 3rd or 4th grade and I really hated read-alouds, with the exception of poetry. My teachers allowed me to read the current book myself and I was most grateful. Of course, if the class is grouped homogeneously, most of that issue disappears.

    Comment by momof4 — February 20, 2012 @ 10:44 am

  6. I’ve been concerned now for a the last couple of years because my 8 year old son cares ONLY for non-fiction books and magazines. I’ve been feeling ‘lacking’ as a mother trying to force stories on him but he just loves to learn about things and isn’t interested in stories! This eases my mind, thank you!!!!!! (He will get plenty of stories in school still)

    Comment by Anna — February 20, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  7. Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are great. The historical novels, set in Roman Britain, would require some background first, but the stories, vocab and construction are first-class. AND, unlike much of historical fiction, the protagonists are young males. She also has great versions of the Odyssey, Iliad, Aenid, Tristan and Iseult, Boadicea and the Arthurrian legend. Many are out of print, but available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s used bookseller networks.

    Comment by momof4 — February 20, 2012 @ 10:48 am

  8. One more place of great out loud non-fiction is NPR. Programs like Radio Lab http://www.radiolab.org/ have been fascinating to my children.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 20, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  9. I agree with balsam, reading an engaging fiction book aloud will peak more interest in kids whereas reading alone could become frustrating if they’re struggling with words or comprehension.

    Comment by Lance — February 26, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  10. [...] Nonfiction Read Alouds: A Lost Opportunity? is by Robert Pondiscio. Here are some tips on using Read Alouds as an instructional strategy from our school’s consultant, and my mentor, Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs. [...]

    Pingback by The Best Resources For World Read Aloud Day | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… — March 7, 2012 @ 1:32 am

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