The Magical Power of the Read Aloud

Dr. Bryan Powell discusses a weapon parents possess that has been proven by research to jumpstart a child’s academic career and start them on the road to academic success and lifelong learning – the read aloud.

“And so it began! The days turned to weeks, to months, to years, as Doctor Strange studied the long-dead mystic arts! Slowly he changed…slowly his life took on a new deeper meaning….slowly he prepared himself for the epic battles ahead, the battles which could only be won by Doctor Strange.” (Lee, Ditko, pg. 8)

Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorcerer Supreme is a great example of a comic book hero who had to read and study in order to prepare for the epic battles that he would have to fight. His battles were against the unseen threats that lurked in the darkness of the witching hour and haunted the dreamscapes of mortal men. His study of ancient texts, grimoires, tomes, and spell books girded him for the struggles that he would face as earth’s mystic protector. But what was Doctor Strange before he rose to the lofty heights of Sorcerer Supreme? He was a lowly apprentice. His master was the vaunted Ancient One. It was from the Ancient One that he received the training and discipline that he needed to eventually take on the role of Sorcerer Supreme. Although many parents are youthful, energetic sorts, to our children we appear as Ancient Ones. Embrace your role! You are the Ancient One, and as such, your children are your apprentices and you must imbue in them the discipline and desire to succeed in their studies!

Although they will not face the horror of the Dread Dormammu’s Dark Dimension, or banish vampires from the earth using the complex Montesi Formula, today’s child lives in a complex and swiftly changing world, and the education that he or she receives is one of the most important factors in determining his or her eventual success. How do I become the Ancient One in my child’s life you might ask? She is only two years old, what kind of studying can she do? Parents possess a weapon that has been proven by research to jumpstart a child’s academic career and start them on the road to academic success and lifelong learning. That secret weapon is the power of reading aloud!

Reading aloud to a child is a joyful experience that helps to bring parent and child closer together.

There is nothing better than hearing a child laugh uproariously when you have read a funny bit in a story or gasp in wonder when they see an incredible illustration that was just described in words on the page before. When you read aloud to your child, you sit close together and this close proximity serves to bring you closer. This intimate act of sharing stories literally draws you together both emotionally and physically. Lest a Mom or Dad think that reading aloud is merely reading a story to your child, there is clearly more to it than meets the eye.

During the course of a story, kids are making predictions, they are visualizing the story in their heads, and they are engaged in making meaning out of the narrative by thinking how it might connect to their lives. As adult readers, parents can aid in this process by doing some very simple things. When reading aloud to a child, stop and ask questions. Do not worry that this will interrupt the flow of the story. Often the story will dictate when you should pause for a question or two. A great example is from Roald Dahl’s The Minpins. In this story, Little Billy enters the forbidden Forest of Sin, and makes a frightening discovery. “Little Billy glanced back over his shoulder, and now, in the distance, he saw a sight that froze his blood and made icicles in his veins.” (Dahl, pg. 11) This sentence comes right at the end of a page so there is a natural pause. In this particular instance you can ask your child what they think Little Billy saw and allow him or her to let their imaginations run wild. Secondly, there is great language and imagery that Dahl uses here concerning “a sight that froze his blood and made icicles in his veins.” This passage presents the parent with a golden opportunity to get his or her child to start making meaning out of figurative language. In this case, you can ask your child what he or she thinks the author means by a sight that freezes the blood. Then once it is clear to you that your child understands this language, you can ask if they have seen something that made icicles in their veins. Honestly, we hope that they haven’t, but we want them to make connections with the literature. Besides, for a lot of kids a sight that freezes their blood and makes icicles in their veins might be broccoli on the dinner plate!

Although Roald Dahl’s The Minpins is a picture book, the language is advanced and it could be a scary read aloud for anyone below first grade especially if you are a dramatic reader. The next example comes from a book that is less intense and more palatable to children in kindergarten and below. Winnie the Witch is a character created by Korky Paul and Valerie Thomas. Winnie lives in a black house with black furnishings. Her familiar, a cat named Wilbur, is also black and this causes some problems because she is always tripping over him. “One day after a nasty fall, Winnie decided something had to be done. She picked up her magic wand, waved it once, and……” , (Paul & Thomas, pg. 9) At this point you can stop, and ask your child what kind of spell he or she thinks Winnie will cast and why.

By asking your child to make this prediction, you get him or her to actively think about the story. They are no longer passive, but actively making meaning out of the story.

You may also ask your child about the characters he or she likes in the story. They may be too young to articulate deep reasons for connecting with a character, but you might be surprised at what they have to share. Reading time takes on a different meaning now! You are not just reading the story. You are now interacting with your child, he or she is becoming an active participant in the reading process, and they are learning early on that when they read that they should be thinking about what they read. The most obvious benefit of reading aloud to our children is that it increases their vocabularies and improves their listening comprehension. Studies have shown that children from low income families come to school hearing 30 million fewer words than their peers from more affluent homes and much of this can be attributed to the amount the children are spoken to and of course read aloud to. The reading, the questions, and the conversations are important, but Moms and Dads must model good reading habits as well. Your kids have to believe that you love reading aloud. Your joy should be palpable. You have to sell it. A child is more likely to take to reading if a love for books and literature is modeled by their parents. Reading aloud is made more exciting if the reader uses expression, accents, different voices, and varies the cadence of his or her reading in order to add drama! Honestly, reading aloud is the low hanging fruit that helps to lead to positive academic outcomes. You don’t really need a lot of money just a library card, a little time, and the will to make it happen. Parents should have all of these!

There are many other things that parents can do to ensure that their children are ready for school, but reading aloud is the one thing that sets children on the path to acquiring one of the most important life skills that they will ever have, and that is reading.

Dr. Bryan Powell

Dr. Bryan Powell

With more than 25 years experience as an educator, Dr. Powell came to St. Paul’s in 2014. A thoughtful and experienced educational leader with extensive record of achievement as both a teacher and administrator, Powell is regarded as an outstanding role model for children, and a great listener who collaborates effectively with faculty and parents alike. He can be reached at bpowell@stpaulsschool.org

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