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.