Research into reading, the promotion of reading and literature education

Reading Aloud

-> Children’s language proficiency, their socio-emotional, cognitive and creative development, and their school careers benefit from reading aloud.

-> The benefit is even greater if the story is read aloud repeatedly, is supplemented by illustration and if the person reading aloud elicits interaction, for instance by asking questions, referring to the text or, in the case of babies, responding with language.

Boosting language and reading

Babies, toddlers and infants, whose parents read aloud to them, have a head-start in relation to language development. Reading aloud explains 8% of the differences between children with regard to vocabulary, emergent literacy and early reading proficiency. This is apparent from a meta-analysis of 33 studies (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, Pellegrini & Terpstra, 1994). Toddlers who have a book read to them daily for 15 minutes perform better later at school in language and arithmetic tasks. They also have a head-start in their socio-emotional, physical and creative development (Millenium Cohort Study, 2010).

Reading aloud bears fruit, particularly in the first years of language and reading education. If children have come into contact with letters and words, this helps them to learn to read (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, Pellegrini & Terpstra, 1994). The effects, however, extend to later years: at the end of primary school, children who had books read to them as an infant are still at an advantage with regard to reading proficiency and broader cognitive skills (Kalb & Ours, 2013).

It pays to start reading aloud at an early age. The younger children are when their parents start reading stories aloud to them, the larger their vocabulary at the age of two (Debaryshe, 1993). Babies who have been read to are at an advantage at the age of 15 months with regard to their language development. In addition, they will be able to increase this advantage further (Van den Berg & Bus, 2015).

All children benefit to the same degree from having books read out to them aloud. It makes no difference what the level of education or the social status of their parents is. Their mother tongue, which they speak at home, also makes no difference (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, Pellegrini & Terpstra, 1994; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). Reading aloud, however, does have additional advantages for temperamental children, who are quick to cry, become easily irritated or are easily distracted. It sooths the child and improves the interaction between parent and child (Van den Berg & Bus, 2015).

Reading aloud has an effect on the various components of language and reading proficiency. Children learn to hold a book, to recognise letters as well as to learn about the relationship between the spoken and written word. Reading aloud is also stimulates the development of phonological awareness, verbal skills, vocabulary growth, understanding stories and a positive attitude towards reading. Above all, it is the rich, multifaceted and complex language usage in books that contributes to this (Duursma, 2008; Rodriguez, Tamis-LeMonda, Spellman, Pan, Raikes, Lugo-Gil & Luze, 2009).

The effect of reading aloud is even greater if this occurs repeatedly. This is the case if the same story is read aloud numerous times or when the same words occur a number of times in the text. Repetition ensures not only that children learn more words, but that they have a deeper understanding of the words as well (Damhuis, 2014).

The achievements of reading aloud are visible in the structure of the brain. Toddlers and infants who have books read aloud to them often show more brain activity in relation to visual imagination and narrative comprehension (Hutton, Horowitz-Kraus, DeWitt & Holland, 2015). 

The value of illustrations

Many children’s books are embellished with pictures and illustrations. These provide additional information in the form of visual details and serve as a support for the story that is read aloud. Young children are therefore able to remember difficult and unfamiliar words, and to understand the story better. Pictures offer even more support if the text and image are situated close to each other, both spatially (on the same page) and in time (in the chronology of the story). This makes it easier for children to integrate the verbal and non-verbal information (Sadoski & Paivio, 2004).

Interactive book reading

Interactive book reading gives an even greater stimulus to the development of language and reading proficiency. A meta-analysis of 16 studies shows that the vocabulary of infants who were asked questions about images, characters and events in the story (“dialogic reading”) develops better than that  of infants who have books read aloud to them ‘in the normal way’. The positive effect decreases as the children grow older (five to six-year-olds compared to two to four-year- olds). Children who are at risk of language and literacy impairments also benefit less from dialogic reading than children not at risk (Mol, 2010)

In the case of children at risk, the cause may be their parents, who often have language problems. As a result, they are less able to have a dialogue around the story. Children at risk, however, do benefit from the teacher’s reading aloud interactively in the playgroup, nursery school or lower primary school. According to a meta-analysis of 33 studies, interactive reading explains 7% of the differences in the development of vocabulary, both in the case of toddlers and infants (Mol, 2010; Swanson et al, 2011).

Interactive book reading at school works best in small groups of one to three children. This generates more questions, responses and comments than reading aloud interactively to the entire class (15 children or more) (Morrow & Smith, 1990). Teachers who read the same book aloud repeatedly stimulate comprehension. This is also the case if they explain difficult words (for instance, with the use of synonyms) (Swanson et al, 2011).

Type of questions

People who read aloud can ask descriptive questions aimed at extracting factual information from the text (for instance, the name of a person). In addition, more analytical questions are possible which focus on establishing links and drawing inferences (for instance, about the characters in the story). These questions can be asked during or after reading the story aloud. It makes no difference with regard to the effect, since toddlers learn approximately as many new words under all four conditions. In addition, they learn more words compared to toddlers in a non-interactive reading condition. It does help, however, to start with easy, descriptive questions about new words and to increase the difficulty of these and to make them more analytical during the session. Toddlers are then in a better position to reproduce these words afterwards (Shealy & Cook, 2009).

Pointing to the text

Children hardly look at the written text at all when it is being read aloud. For this reason, while reading aloud, references can be made to the text explicitly by making comments and through hand and arm gestures. By doing so, children will start their school career with more knowledge of written language. Even after two years of school, they still benefit in relation to technical reading, spelling and text comprehension in comparison to a ‘normal’ group to which a book is read aloud (Piasta, Justice, McGinty, Kaderavek, 2012).

Referring to the text has a preventive effect. It helps to narrow the gap between proficient and poor readers which arises at an early stage (Piasta, Justice, McGinty, Kaderavek, 2012).

‘Language-like’ baby sounds

Reading aloud from baby touch-and-feel books elicits more language-like sounds than playing with dolls or toys. While doing so, one-year-olds produce more vowel sounds and more combinations of vowel sounds and consonants. Not only book language, but also interaction is key. After all, mothers give a more language-based response to the ‘‘language-like’ jabbering of their babies. They imitate the ‘ba-ba’ or even extend it to ‘ball’. Apparently, they think that the child is trying to talk and adjust their response accordingly (consciously or unconsciously) to stimulate language development (Gros-Louis, West & King, 2016).