Research has highlighted the importance of providing ongoing opportunities for children to read aloud in class to teachers and friends, and at home to parents, siblings and even pets.
A safe and supportive environment and a conscious effort by teachers to dissociate reading aloud purely with some form of testing or task were also seen as key to helping youngsters improve their skills.
Dr Margaret Merga interviewed Year 4 and 6 students (aged eight to 11) from 24 schools across Western Australia about their attitudes toward ‘interactive reading' – reading aloud to others and being read to. The Murdoch University academic reports her findings in the Australian Journal of Education (AJE).
Merga says there's little research into older children's experiences in this area, once they've moved beyond initial independent reading skill acquisition. She adds teachers can struggle to find time for interactive reading beyond the first years of primary school, despite the many benefits to students. ‘Reading aloud to an interested audience can provide opportunities for children to improve their oral fluency and pronunciation, and to allow for opportunities to check comprehension.'
The AJE paper – Interactive reading opportunities beyond the early years: What educators need to consider – reports that some of the children interviewed had no one reading to them at school or at home. ‘… not all students in this sample were being read to at school. For example, Max's teacher did not read to him at all, and Samuel's teacher “only reads books when it's for a task or something”. Zac really enjoyed his teacher reading to him, but reading was discontinued, with The Hobbit remaining unread on the teacher's table.'
Discussing school contexts, Merga says shared reading has been associated with increasing student learning engagement, motivation and enjoyment. Some students interviewed used reading aloud to solidify friendships and enjoyed the social aspect of it, while others found listening to others read relaxing, good for their mood and a chance to learn new vocabulary.
At home, children were involved in different social exchanges, reading aloud to pets –including dogs and birds – sometimes because it was a more relaxing and less stressful experience than reading to a sibling or parent.
However, not all the children's experiences and attitudes were positive. ‘Embarrassment and fear clouded the prospect of reading aloud when children in this study lacked the confidence and skills to read well,' Merga writes. ‘Naomi explained the distinction between errors in independent reading and reading aloud, as “if I mess up everybody hears it. If I mess up in my head I just smile and just go back and read it”. She did not like reading out loud at school or at home due to its perceived difficulty, illustrating the relationship between anxiety and skill level.'
Other children said they were scared they would be laughed at if they made a mistake reading aloud to classmates, or were anxious about their lack of fluency and expression.
Merga tells Teacher that educators can support students by providing them with continuing opportunities to practice their skills in a safe space. ‘Some children in the study were legitimately terrified, and it was interesting to note that they were usually children who were not having the opportunity to practice the skills at home. This is why it is so important that we provide safe spaces for children to practice their reading aloud in front of a small and friendly audience, not just in front of the whole class in a test situation. Pair practice, friendly volunteers and education assistants can all play a valuable role in providing this opportunity.'
Asked why some teachers are reluctant to read aloud in class, other than in a test or study situation, Merga says it's something she'd like to explore further but based on the research already done there could be a number of reasons.
‘Firstly, even though the Australian Curriculum places some value on an aesthetic response to books, reading for pleasure is not something it strongly promotes, so if we want teachers to place a greater emphasis on reading for pleasure in the classroom, this needs curricular support.
‘Secondly, research in the US and the UK suggests that not all teachers necessarily read for pleasure; we can't assume that all of our reading teachers love to read. My recent research in this area suggests that there can also be a strong focus on skill acquisition related to test preparation in contemporary classrooms, which can be approached in a way that excludes pleasure and enjoyment, leading to children deciding that reading is a thing done for the purpose of measurement and testing.'
Merga advises that, where possible, interactive reading should happen both at school and at home and, indeed, teachers may have a greater responsibility as parents could face challenges such as low literacy or not being at home because of high workloads. She says her research provides a clear model that teachers can share with parents in order to support their capacity to read with their children at home.
‘As I was lucky to have a mother who read with me as a child, I might tend to take for granted that this is a universal experience, but sometimes as educators we're asking parents to do something that they've never had modelled themselves while they were children, which is not really reasonable or fair if we fail to provide adequate support.
‘The key points of shared responsibility, frequency, continuance and quality are really important, and need to be foregrounded in our home/school communications. We may also need to literally show them how it is done in workshops, as reading to siblings across multiple ages can pose real challenges for parents, some of whom are inexperienced, having never been read to.'
Merga and colleagues hope to investigate the issue further in a national study.
Merga, M. K. (2017). Interactive reading opportunities beyond the early years: What educators need to consider. Australian Journal of Education, 0004944117727749.
The full paper – Interactive reading opportunities beyond the early years: What educators need to consider – is free to access in the Australian Journal of Education until the end of November.
When was the last time you read aloud to your students? If you used to read aloud to your students but no longer do it, why did you stop?
Do you provide safe environments for students to practice their skills? Is it usually in the context of a test or task? Are they reading to the whole class or do they have the opportunity to build confidence and enjoyment by reading in a small group or to a friendly listener?
How can you support parents to read with their children at home, or listen to their children read at home?