Bringing Read Aloud into the 21st Century

"I Weren't There That Day"- Reflections on Reading Aloud and Student Engagement

Mrs. H., the reading specialist, stopped at the door of the First Grade Classroom. She smiled to see all the children gathered around their teacher as she read aloud the story of The Little Red Hen. Each child had his or her own copy of the book to follow along. Mrs. H. waited until the story was finished and then picked up her student. "So," she said, as they walked along the hallway to her room, "What did you think about The Little Red Hen?" "Oh, no Miss," said the little boy, looking up at her with big brown eyes. "I weren't there that day!"

What Are We Hoping to Teach with a Read Aloud lesson?

Reading aloud is widely practiced in Kindergarten and First Grade classrooms and is believed to be a powerful way to stimulate language and cognitive skills, building vocabulary and background knowledge. But a long term study, The Effects of Reading Story Books Aloud to Children, found that the positive effects of reading aloud happen at home, before the child starts school. Surprisingly, they found a negative correlation in Kindergarten and no relationship in First Grade between reading aloud to children and the development of reading skills and vocabulary. The researchers suggested that reading aloud might be displacing more active engagement with print and effective reading activities. They concluded:                     "Children learn about reading through an active interaction with adults about books, rather than passively observing others read. Our results certainly support this conclusion: it is through active involvement in reading that children acquire the print-related knowledge and skills needed to become good readers. Being read to is not enough".

Reading aloud to young children at home is a very different experience from being read to at school. At home, the read aloud is child-driven and highly interactive. Kids get to choose what they want to listen to, picking old favorites to hear over and over again, or a new book with a topic or characters of interest. They can snuggle up and ask hundreds of questions about the book, the meaning of words and about life.

What are Children Learning in the Whole Group Read Aloud Session?

The magic of the read aloud is difficult to reproduce successfully in the classroom, especially in a large group setting. Children with strong vocabulary and language skills, familiarity with the story and an ability to focus may find the experience enjoyable. Many more children get left behind.                                                 In a large group, there are less opportunities for adults to notice when a child is not understanding and participating, and even fewer for a child to speak up, ask questions or make comments.                                 How many children are "not there" when we read aloud to a large group?

What Can We Do Differently to Include All Children in the Fun and Learning?

  •  Set up cozy and comfortable reading areas.
  • Divide the class into small groups and have some groups led by peers, older children, paraprofessionals or volunteer readers.
  • Make time to "Turn and Talk" or "Think, Pair, Share".                                                                  
  • Have students buddy read, or read independently from "just right" books while the teacher leads small group Read Aloud sessions.
  • Set up listening centers with books on Kindle, tape or CDs, computer based programs such as Epic or Big Universe, or mobile apps such as Reading Rainbow, or Reading Train.


Epic is a huge library of over 10,000 children's books that can be read and listened to on the computer, Android devices, Kindle Fire and iPad . Epic is free for teachers to use in school and is available to families for a small monthly subscription fee. There are read-to-me books, videos and books at multiple levels. You can set up individual or class accounts, save books to the favorites page and read offline. With a wealth of high quality non-fiction, Epic is ideal for research, collaboration and independent small group use.

Reading Train apps are available for iPad and Android on the Google Play Store with an Amazon Fire version coming soon. There are both paid and free versions with in app purchases. The apps have a huge collection of leveled picture books with audio and visual support so kids can read and record them independently, along with a built in dictionary, songs and text based quiz games.

Reading Rainbow is a subscription based app available for the web, Android, Kindle Fire and iPad. The app is a collection of quality children's literature with a "read to me" feature and related videos. Beginning reader texts are limited and follow up activities are very weak, consisting of a matching memory game only.

Summer Update


We hope all our Northern Hemisphere readers are enjoying their summer.

Our latest update of the Free/Subscription version of the app now has every book at Levels 1, 2 and 3. Previously the story and animal books didn't have corresponding books at all 3 levels. The Free/Subscription app now has the same books as the paid version which can be purchased outright.

Since the Alphabet books were removed from the main app, we are offering subscribers a free code to download Reading Train: Alphabet Books, Songs and Games. This stand alone app includes brand new illustrations and we added Level 2 and Level 3.

The next update of the Reading Train will include We Like Ice Cream at levels 2 and 3. Evan, our musician and voice-over artist, is hard at work at the moment working on some new songs that will be coming soon, including a longer version of the Reading Train theme song and a sea shanty: "What Shall We Do with the Mucky Puppy?"

Our other big news is that we are in the process of developing the Reading Train for Android.  We hope to have it ready to go for the beginning of the school year.

And finally, stay tuned for a very big announcement next week...

Reading Train Holiday Offer

Greetings and Happy New Year! We would like to thank all of our subscribers for supporting Reading Train apps in 2014. We have a special offer for the holidays, a free download of our new app, Reading Train Alphabet.

Please send us an email at and let us know what you like best about the Reading Train. The first 50 people who respond will receive a promotional code to download Reading Train Alphabet for free.

Thank you again for a great year!

- the Reading Train staff 

Our Story

When Libby Curran began working in an under funded school in rural New Hampshire, she found that many of her students were struggling to learn to read. Growing up in generational poverty, with few books in the home, these children started school with huge language deficits and the gaps seemed to grow wider every year. Libby knew her children needed to read more, but books for the earliest readers are not readily available in bookstores or libraries; educational publishers charge high prices; and trade books are often poorly written, boring or hard to read. So Libby began to write the books herself. Using repetitive sentence patterns, simple pictures to illustrate the concept words, and including topics and humor that appeal to young children, she has created hundreds of "little books" which she prints and staples at a cost of pennies per book. Children read the books over and over again, by themselves, with a buddy, and at home with their families. Children's self confidence grows along with their reading skills, vocabulary and background knowledge and best of all, the children love to read.

Over the years, Libby's "little books" have garnered state and national awards. In 2002, The Committee for Teaching About the United Nations presented Libby with a Best Practices Award. In 2006, she received the prestigious Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical Award, and spent a year sharing her books and methods with low income schools throughout New Hampshire. And in 2012, Libby was named a People Magazine Teacher of the Year.

Searching for a way to make her books available more widely, Libby began contacting iPad App developers. She had a series of Skype conversations with Joseph Chen and Andrew Friday of revSquared Studio: a team of Americans working in Beijing, China. Andrew brought a background in the gaming industry, while Joseph offered his programming expertise. They decided to create The Learning Station, a joint company to make an innovative early literacy app, which would make quality, easy to read books fun and accessible for every early reader. 

RevSquared contributed "Edify", their prize-winning quiz software platform, which generates custom questions. They also do the design and programming work. Libby recruited her son, Evan, also a teacher, and a talented children's musician, to do the voice-over narration and create song books and original music. Libby provided the illustrations and text for over a hundred books in the first version of the app. Working collaboratively- in late night conversations over Skype- (negotiating the 12 hour time difference) the app has grown in depth and complexity to provide early readers with a comprehensive learning experience, which builds confidence, reading skills and background knowledge to take every child from pre-reading to independent reading. 

The original version was extensively test piloted in pre-school, elementary and special education classrooms. Daily feedback from students and teachers has helped fine tune the app. With a custom made font, smart tutorials, visual and auditory cues to ensure success, The Reading Train is built to make learning to read as easy as 1,2,3.