As a literacy educator, the core of what I do every day is put my mind to the key question: “How do we inspire young children to read and to keep on reading?” In my work I spend a great deal of time leading workshops for educators, parents, and teachers, sharing literacy techniques and tools so that adults who are in a position to support very young and school-age children are better equipped. What emerges from doing this work is a common thread: The word “literacy” dredges up feelings of dread in many adults. Literacy is like going to the dentist. You better go, but it’s not going to be fun.
From workshop anecdotes it seems that many educators and parents associate reading with being tested and evaluated in school. They remember reading as something that was always assigned–there was not much room for individual preferences. Some participants talk about the lack of books in their homes–reading was something they only did in school.
Plenty of educators and parents enter my workshops with positive feelings about reading and writing. They remember being read to as young children. They can recall a favorite and beloved book. But overwhelmingly, the first hurdle to overcome involves winning over adults to the literacy team. I need to win theses adults over as the stakes are too high. Research routinely stresses that what educators and parents model sends the loudest message to children. How can I expect parents to read with their children, or support oral language development through talking and singing, if literacy has become a bad word?
How do we rekindle the literacy fire? A large focus of my work involves re-igniting the pleasure in reading with adults so it will flow down to children. In my workshops I typically begin by reading aloud to adults. I read aloud children’s picture books. I carefully select titles, appropriate for children 4-9 years of age that will engage and captivate my audience. My favorites include: “The Big Orange Splot,” by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, “The Clever Boy and the Terrible Dangerous Animal” by Idries Shah, “Hey Little Ant” by Phillip and Hannah Hoose, and “Bee-Wigged” by Cee Cee Bell.
Reading aloud is a powerful practice. Not only does it expose readers to new vocabulary and new background knowledge, but it is considered the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, Becoming a Nation of Readers, U.S. Department of Education Commission on Reading).
Although building reading skills is very important, the value of reading aloud truly lies in its power to enchant. When hearing a story read aloud, listeners of all ages become engaged. I’ve watched reluctant or uninterested readers turn a corner because they were touched by the magic of a story-line. A well-conceived and well-written read aloud book draws in readers. Here are the opening sentences of “The Big Orange Splot” by Daniel Manus Pinkwater:
“Mr. Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same. He liked it that way. So did everyone else on Mr. Plumbean’s street. “This is a neat street,” they would say. Then one day a seagull flew over Mr. Plumbean’s house. He was carrying a can of orange paint (no one knows why). And he dropped the can (no one knows why) right over Mr. Plumbean’s house. It made a big orange splot on Mr. Plumbean’s house.”
How delicious! What will happen next? Will the street remain a neat street or will chaos ensue?
And so in my mind promoting the pure enjoyment of reading is not an extra, but something precious. I read aloud and promote the practice to connect adults and children to reading. It is a muscle to be flexed again and again. The results are often spectacular. More often than not, after hearing a book read aloud, readers want to read the book independently.
The children’s writer Mem Fox, sums it up well, “My intention, when I write for children, is to amaze and inspire; to delight and comfort; to thrill and enchant…to make them want to come back, and back, and back to my books so they can learn from my words how words work.” (What Next in the Read Aloud Battle? Win or Lose? The Reading Teacher Vol. 67 Issue 1 2013.)
Of course, it takes practice to become skilled at reading aloud, and this often is the heart of our workshops at ReadBoston. I coach teachers and parents to read aloud effectively and this includes reading fluently, asking questions to engage children, and varying one’s voice to bring a story alive. I encourage adults to dig deep, to find the drama in a story, and to read with pleasure and enthusiasm. I encourage educators who work with older elementary and middle school students to integrate reading aloud as well.
Honestly, I do feel silly at first when I’m reading a children’s book to a room full of parents or teachers. But there is nothing better than watching a room full of adults smiling with their eyes and urging me to read on so they can hear the end of a good story. We can’t skip over this step. We can’t expect the adults who tend to our children to become their literacy champions until they feel it themselves in their core. Reading aloud is a powerful strategy in my literacy tool box that I return to over and over.
Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow by Susan A. Shea
Sergio by Edel Rodriguez
Madame President by Lane Smith
Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
Author Bio: An educator for over 22 years, Anna Adler brings a diversity of teaching experiences to her current focus on literacy leadership and professional training. Anna began her career as an early educator, spent years teaching school age children in public and private elementary schools, and most recently taught at the college level. Anna Adler currently works for ReadBoston, a non-profit children’s literacy organization. ReadBoston partners with organizations, schools, early childhood centers, after schools, and parent programs to provide literacy professional development, books and best practices. As Manager of Literacy Programs, Anna develops literacy curriculum and leadership training for teachers, directors, educational leaders, and parents. Anna has taught at city, state and national literacy workshops. During the summer Anna’s creative side takes center stage and she can be found storytelling as part of ReadBoston’s Storymobile, a citywide initiative that travels to 80 programs each week, providing storytelling and books to young children.