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.

-> Parents and other reading educators are advised to start reading aloud during baby time and to continue this in Primary and Secondary school

-> 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 and referring to the text.

-> Books with questions that invite interaction, result in more dialogue between parent and child.

-> Children’s reading proficiency benefits from their reading aloud to a dog.

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).

The benefits of reading aloud are visible in the structure of the brain. Infants and toddlers who have books read to them often show more activity in areas of the brain used for visual imaging and text comprehension (Hutton, Horowitz-Kraus, DeWitt & Holland, 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 of their parents or their parents’ social status. 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 specific advantages for temperamental children, who are quick to cry, become easily irritated or are easily distracted. It soothes 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 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 these competencies and attitudes (Duursma, 2008; Rodriguez, Tamis-LeMonda, Spellman, Pan, Raikes, Lugo-Gil & Luze, 2009).

An early start pays off and deserves to be continued

It is preferable to start reading aloud to children at a young age. The level of a child’s vocabulary at two years depends on how early parents start reading aloud to them. The earlier parents start reading aloud to their children, the greater the children’s vocabulary at the age of two (Debaryshe, 1993). Babies who have stories read to them are advanced with regard to language development at the age of 15 months and thereafter increase this headstart further (Van den Berg & Bus, 2015).

Reading touch-and-feel books to babies elicits more language sounds than playing with dolls and toys. During this activity, one-year-olds produce more vowel sounds and more combinations of vowels and consonants. This is due both to the language of books and the interaction. After all, mothers response to their baby’s prattle is more language based. They imitate the ‘ba ba’ or even extend it to ‘ball’. Apparently they think that their child is trying to talk and (consciously or unconsciously) adjust their response to that with a view to stimulating language development (Gros-Louis, West & King, 2016). 

In high schools, interactive reading aloud is also having a positive effect. Young people are making greater progress in vocabulary, reading skills and reading motivation when the teacher reads aloud than when they read silently by themselves (Olagbaju & Babalola, 2020).

Value of repetition

The result of reading aloud increases with the forms of repetition. This is the case if the same story is read aloud numerous times or when the same words occur numerous times in the text. Repetition not only ensures that children learn more words, but also that they have a deeper understanding of the words (Damhuis, 2014).

Supporting 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 reading aloud gives an extra boost

People who read aloud and seek to interact with children give an additional boost to language and reading proficiency. As is apparent from a meta-analysis of 38 studies, the vocabulary of infants who ask questions about images, characters and events in the story develops better than that of infants who have books read aloud to them without interaction (Flack, Field & Horst, 2018). A meta-analysis of 16 studies also shows that the positive effect of reading aloud interactively is greater if children are younger (2 to 4 years of age instead of 5 to 6 years of age) and have a limited risk of language and reading deficits (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 engage in 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 school. According to a meta-analysis of 33 studies, this explains 7% of the differences in the development of vocabulary, both in the case of toddlers and infants (Mol, 2010; Swanson et al, 2011).

Reading aloud interactively 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). 

Asking questions: from easy to difficult

People who read aloud can ask descriptive questions aimed at extracting factual information from the text (for instance, the name of a character in the story). 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 also be asked during or after reading the story aloud (Shealy & Cook, 2009).

By asking questions in these ways, toddlers learn more new words than children who have stories read aloud to them without questions. It makes no difference with regard to the effect whether the questions are descriptive or analytical and equally little if they are asked during or after reading aloud. It does help, however, if one begins with easy, descriptive questions about new words and makes these more difficult and analytical during the session. Toddlers are then better able to reproduce these words afterwards (Shealy & Cook, 2009).

Pointing to the text helps

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).

Built-in questions stimulate dialogue

Picture and children’s books may include built-in questions, such as ‘What will happen to Magpie now?’ or ‘Why is Duck sad?’ These questions help those reading aloud to elicit interaction with the child. In reading-aloud sessions using books like this, a richer dialogue occurs. More is expressed, both by the parent and by the child. In addition, the children make more predictions about the further development of the story and give more reasons or explanations for the events. They do not benefit with regard to their comprehension of the story. However, parents also read more interactively after the intervention (De Koning et al., 2018).

Reading aloud to dogs increases reading proficiency

Reading aloud to dogs is an intervention to promote reading in which children read aloud to a dog. The idea is that the pet relaxes them and increases their self-confidence. This enables the child reading aloud, in particular those with language deficits, to work on their reading proficiency.

An intervention with reading aloud to a dog that lasts 10 weeks has the predicted effect. Children from the fifth year of primary school who read aloud to a dog do so quicker and more accurately than children who read aloud to an adult or to a teddy bear. In addition, children who do so understand the stories better. This has a positive effect on the reading proficiency of boys, in particular, who are generally less proficient readers
(Le Roux, Swartz & Swart, 2014).

For the time being, this is the only study into reading aloud to dogs that was designed as an experiment. Further research is required to make statements with certainty about the effect of this intervention (Hall, Gee & Mills, 2016).

Leesmonitor (2021). Reading Aloud.
Reading Monitor (2021). Reading Aloud.