How does reading aloud help students to develop literacy skills?
Did you celebrate World Read Aloud Day as a student? Is it a tradition you’ve kept going as an educator?
I have fond memories of World Read Aloud Day during my years as a high schooler. One year, we read Romeo and Juliet. The balcony scene performed by the captain of the girls’ basketball team and a tiny but fearless seventh-grader is forever tattooed in my memory. Another year, we read excerpts from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. So many students went home that day marveling over how much the Disney versions had sugar-coated or left out entirely.
These memories are still warm and fuzzy because something magical happens when groups of people read out loud together. It creates a shared experience, highlights the stories that shape our values, and places literature at the center of our lives, even if just for one day. Every year during my 16 years as an ELA teacher, my students and I looked forward to celebrating World Read Aloud Day.
But reading out loud isn’t just magical. It also builds important skills for readers at all grade levels. Here are five reasons, backed by research on the science of reading, that explain how reading aloud helps students to develop literacy skills.
1. Reading Aloud Builds Vocabulary
When we read aloud, students encounter new words. They also learn to pronounce unfamiliar words, which isn’t something they’d necessarily learn while reading silently. You can also pause at challenging words and ask for definitions. If no one has one, look them up as a class. This shows students that it’s worth seeking out new knowledge when reading independently. Several studies on literacy skills have shown that a well-developed vocabulary is linked to better school performance.
2. Reading Out Loud Improves Comprehension and Active Listening
When reading aloud or listening to others do it, your mind concentrates on both the sounds words make and their meanings, and this is a hefty cognitive workout that strengthens comprehension.
In a study led by researchers at the University of Perugia, students read out loud to adults with dementia over a total of 60 sessions. The listeners performed better in memory tests after the sessions than before. “It seems that listening to a story leads to more intense and deeper information processing,” the researchers concluded.
Reading aloud cultivates active listening, which goes beyond just hearing words to truly internalizing them. Active listening allows students to collect information deeply enough to analyze and reflect upon it. As a bonus, new research suggests that learning how to listen is a critical element in learning how to read well.
3. Reading Aloud Reduces Stress and Makes Us Happy
Building SEL competencies has recently taken center stage in most classrooms, and reading aloud has quantifiable benefits for our mental and emotional health. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, writes that “every time we read aloud to a child, we’re sending a “pleasure message’ to their brain.” Trelease says that this reaction is partially sparked by feelings of happiness and self-worth caused by someone else investing time in our enjoyment.
Dr. Keisha Siriboe similarly notes that reading out loud reduces stress and generally makes us feel more appreciative and relaxed. One way it does this is through narrative transport, which happens when we become so absorbed in a story that we forget our surroundings and engage in visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and emotional time travel. Think back to the last time you cried during a movie, and you’ll get the idea. Not only are we more receptive to deeper learning when in this state, but we’re also practicing empathy and building emotional resilience.
And with stronger SEL skills, our students are better equipped to develop their literacy skills, too.
4. Reading Aloud Strengthens Fluency
Fluency is a word we hear a lot, but it can be hard to define when applied to literacy skills. Reading fluently means reading effortlessly, at the proper rate, accurately, and with appropriate rhythm and expression. Fluency is often considered the bridge between decoding (understanding the relationship between letters and sounds) and comprehension. When we read aloud to our students, we provide a model for fluent reading they can emulate. They’ll also learn by listening to each other read. According to social learning theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, observing others plays a vital role in how we acquire new knowledge and skills.
5. Reading Out Loud Can Improve Working Memory
Working memory significantly impacts how we develop literacy skills, and reading aloud has been shown to improve memory in multiple studies. Colin MacLeod, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, has researched the impact of reading out loud on memory and has repeatedly shown that people consistently remember words better if they read them aloud.
These findings have been replicated in numerous studies spanning more than a decade. In one study, a group of seven-to-10-year-olds were presented with a list of words and asked to read some silently, and others aloud. Afterward, they correctly recognized 87% of the words they’d read out loud, but only 70% of the silent ones. In another study, adults aged 67 to 88 were given the same task – reading words either silently or out loud – before then writing down all the words they could remember. They were able to recall 27% of the words they had read aloud, but only 10% of those they’d read silently.
Make Reading Out Loud Easier for Struggling Readers
Despite all the benefits of reading aloud, struggling readers might feel intimidated by the challenge. I remember a student telling me that as soon as his teacher asked someone to read aloud, he’d calculate the number of sentences until it would be his turn so he could start practicing his line. He wasn’t focusing on the story, building vocabulary, or benefiting from a shared experience.
Especially for students with dyslexia and other learning differences, reading aloud can be a challenge, a chore, and a confidence killer. But it doesn’t have to be.
Reading Assistant Plus™️, a guided reading tool that uses patented speech recognition technology to deliver real-time feedback, helps students read out loud with confidence and joy. Unlike other digital reading resources that only allow learners to record themselves, Reading Assistant Plus actually listens and helps learners whenever they struggle or mispronounce a word—helping them develop literacy skills such as vocabulary and fluency.
Stories are powerful. Let’s work towards a future where all students feel comfortable sharing them!
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author
Learning how to listen is a critical element in learning how to read well.