The Research Files Episode 74: The power of reading aloud in school and at home

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Zoe Kaskamanidis.

How can we support reading aloud in the early years, at school and at home? And how does reading aloud affect our lives in the long term?

In this episode of the research files, I’m joined by Professor Emerita Rosemary Johnston AM from the University of Technology in Sydney. Today we’ll be unpacking some of the research on the benefits and joys of reading aloud, how it impacts our learning, and how we can continue to support reading aloud at school and at home.

Zoe Kaskamanidis: Professor Rosemary Johnston, thank you for joining us for this episode of the Research Files.

Rosemary Johnston: My pleasure, Zoe.

ZK: Now last time we spoke with you was all the way back in 2016 about the Scholastic survey, and you raised some really fantastic points in that podcast episode about reading aloud for pleasure, and mentioned that there’s a lot of research on this topic. And so this is something we wanted to delve back into today, and I wondered if you can start us off by catching us up on some of the recent research about the benefits of reading aloud?

RJ: I’ve set in in the context of some of the broader research as well. Literacy is prismatic. It’s got many definitions, it’s part of connection, and not only to community, but to ourselves. It’s fundamental in growth, human development, and human interaction. I love Kofi Annan saying ‘literacy is actually the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can reach and realise his or her full potential’. Barak Obama said it’s the most basic currency of the knowledge economy. And I wanted to place what I’m going to talk about in that broader context because listening and speaking of course is a part of literacy. And it’s something that reading aloud somehow gets swamped over a little bit, I think, and we don’t always realise the contribution it makes. Literacy involves the skills of reading and writing, speaking and listening. These four elements are profoundly interrelated, and particularly when we read aloud because we’re reading the signs – that is, arrangements of letters and words – that are created by writing, and speaking what we read to others who are listening. And that’s I think very important for teachers to be assured of.

ZK: Absolutely, and it does talk to the fact that when we think about literacy, it’s actually a much broader picture, isn’t it?

RJ: That’s right. Look I’ve organised my thinking into those three categories: reading aloud to our young as parents and family, and caregivers; and reading aloud to our students as teachers in the classroom; and reading not only to infants and the very young but to older children, older young people, and even older people. I read aloud. I have read aloud many, many times to my university students.

So, why is reading so important? And why do we need to really stress and emphasise all aspects of it: reading and writing, speaking and listening. So, I want to contextualise it in the research. We all know the importance of reading.

‘Reading affects everything you do,’ said a little boy, who at the age of nine, was a researcher (it was Professor Stanovich) said, ‘this little boy was already feeling and sadly being disadvantaged. He was a poor reader, and had given up. Disheartened, discouraged, disempowered by a system that had let him fall through the cracks’. I’m sure some of you, in fact many of you, will have had a similar experience to me; of a young colleague, who finds herself this year in a primary class, in a middle-class suburb, and it’s a Year 4 class, that includes a number of children who can’t read.

Slow reading acquisition affects more than a child’s performance in a reading class and that is why I think it is so important that we highlight this. Stanovich wrote, ‘Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioural, and motivational consequences that slows the development of other cognitive skills, and inhibit performance on academic tasks.’ And I think that’s a damning indictment of what happens to so many kids.

Research reveals unsuspected, related problems for poor readers. A 2017 study by Tiina Turunen and others found that reading difficulties are easily noticed by classmates (we can all see that), that they cause frustration in the affected students, and that they are often accompanied by what Stanovich called ‘the emotional, behavioural, and interpersonal problems at school’. Turunen and her team tested the association of self-reported reading difficulties with peer-reported involvement in bullying. In a nationally representative sample of 17 odd-thousand students (Grades 3 to 8) from over 1000 classrooms in about 150 schools. So that’s a really good sample. And they found that students reporting reading difficulty are involved in bullying more often than others, and actually considerably more often. That one-third of students reporting reading difficulties are victims, bullies, or bully-victims – in other words they’re both in certain circumstances according to [the research]. And that reading difficulties increase victimisation risk, and of course self-esteem. I think that’s a pretty telling study.

One way of growing and demonstrating reading skills, and a natural pathway into developing reading skills is of course the topic of this talk; reading aloud. There is now a growing wealth of research emerging from a range of disciplines and (you’ll love this, Zoe), it’s not only literacy, it’s not only literature, it’s not only education, but, it’s diverse fields such as neuroscience – which is completely fascinating on this issue – psychology, paediatrics and biology. And this is confirming the significance and the importance of reading their studies looking at this.

ZK: And so reading aloud can be something we do at home with kids (or adults for that matter) and it can also be something that teachers can continue to support in school. But I wanted to start off maybe by thinking about the significance of reading aloud at home, so how can we support this? So, how reading aloud at home can build literacy skills, but also prepare younger children for school too.

RJ: Susan Greenfield – you might have heard of her, she’s a very popular neuroscientist – says, and she’s talking about books and stories and reading, and making kids read. And she says, ‘Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. A structure that encourages our brains to think in sequence. To link cause, effect and significance. It is essential to learn this skill as a small child while the brain has more plasticity. Which is why it’s so important for parents (she says), to read to their children’. And that’s so, so true. She says that ‘such reading helps to expand children’s attention spans, encourage sequential thinking, link cause, effect and significance, and therefore meaning making’.

ZK: Mm, that is very interesting, and I think, you know, when you talk about that sequential thinking, you know that’s something that we want to start thinking about for younger kids maybe before they can read to themselves at that level so yeah, very impactful at a young age too.

RJ: Yeah, the other study that I looked at was New Zealander Dorothy Butler, and you’ve probably heard of this one but it’s so pertinent. She told us this back in 1980 in one of her books Cushler and her Books, she wrote about how her severely handicapped granddaughter responded positively, and beyond medical expectation to books. And only a little book, but powerful and inspiring. And from the age of four months on, books were held close in front of baby Cushler’s eyes. She couldn’t focus on distant objects, and they were read about and talked about with her. The results were amazing. By the age of three, Cushler could ‘read aloud.’ That is, she could remember and say, to the right page – I mean, I think that’s phenomenal really – whole pages verbatim, including all of the poems of A.A. Milne. So, that’s what can be done.

Now, the next lot of research – there’s stacks of research in all of these little categories – but I’m now moving on to talking about how important it is to try to help children develop reading early.

The results of a study called Early Reading Matters led by Carolyn Cates from the Department of Paediatrics at New York University School of Medicine etcetera, funded by US Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health (which is really great) has shown that reading books with infants can boost vocabulary and reading skills – wait for it – four years later. This is exactly now, a quote, ‘These findings are exciting because they suggest that reading to young children, beginning even in early infancy, has a lasting effect on language, literacy, and early reading skills. Book reading quality during early infancy predicts early reading skills, while book reading quantity and quality during toddler years appeared throughout strongly tied to later emergent literacy skills’. I get excited about that. Because, I mean, obviously reading to baby, you might think that’s not going to help but it does. It exposes the child not only to the sound of the language, the sound of words, the sequence of words, but also the melody of words, you know. And also the reader, probably the mum or dad or grandma or whatever – his or her excitement about the words, and I think that’s lovely as well.

ZK: And I think too, just on that – you know you talked quite a lot about reading for pleasure, reading aloud for pleasure last time and also today, and I think when you talk about the melody, and you think about the kind of rhythm of children’s books and you know that rhythm becomes more complex as we read beyond there, but it becomes so ingrained in our memory at that age as well even if we can’t communicate that.

RJ: It helps us, it helps us as we grow into understanding what the signs mean, what the words are. Because we’re used to that sense of the melody and the music even, of the words. And you can play with that as a parent, as a teacher.

There’s so much work that’s helping us understanding reading on the physiology of the brain. And we never looked … well, in the earlier days, reading research didn’t go into physiology, didn’t go into those sorts of areas. But now it’s interesting. And I don’t quite know what to make of this, but we do know that the skill of reading only developed about 5500 years ago, and scientists tell us that that’s not enough time for evolution to reshape the brain. Yet the brain has a region exclusively dedicated to this human skill, and it’s a unique human skill, and I think that’s really interesting.

A 2016 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute for Brain Research, suggests that this brain region has connections to other parts of the brain that are in place even before a child learns to read, and that the visual word forms area, which in their language they call the VWFA – and that receives visual impact – that area has pre-existing connections to regions associated with language processing. The evidence of this study, which scanned children at five years who were pre-reading (they weren’t readers) and then again at eight years when they were readers, suggests that these connections exist before reading is learned and are not the result of learning to read. Make what you will of that. Yeah, it’s exciting.

ZK: It’s very interesting.

RJ: Yeah. Zeynep Saygin – the lead author of this research, says ‘it’s likely that the region involved in some kind of visual high-level object recognition is just taken over for word recognition as a child learns to read’. And I think, I wrote down in great big letters when I read that, ‘This of course highlights the importance of picture books, and of teacher, parent, carer reading chat.’ You know, reading aloud and reading chat. Because there must be, we don’t understand it but there must be some connection. I think it’s interesting what neuroscience and technology are telling us about this reading brain. The activity of reading (and I love this, Zoe, and you will too) – the activity of reading can physically influence the brain. Get that? It can physically influence the brain.

In a 2014 study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that reading about the actions in a chapter of a book involved the same brain regions as those you would use in a real-life experience, such as watching someone move in the real world. So that’s the first thing.

And the second thing, is that cognitive scientist, Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France led an experiment in which the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences. The scans showed that the words describing motion stimulated regions of the brain that are distinct from the language processing areas. When the participants read sentences such as, ‘John grasped the object,’ and ‘Pablo kicked the ball,’ not only did the scan show activity in the motor cortex, the part of the brain that coordinates bodily movements, but the detected activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when it was about the arm, and another part when it was about the leg.

And then thirdly, a team of researchers in Spain led by Gonzales used functional magnetic resonance imaging – that is FMRI – and asked passive subjects to read odour-related words like garlic, for example. They write ‘When subjects read the Spanish for say, “perfume” and “coffee”, their primary olfactory (smell) cortex lit up. When they saw the words for “chair” and “key”, this region remained dark’. In other words, the brain is stimulated in a different way. And reading about a perfume or a smell or whatever it is, can actually stimulate that olfactory part of the brain that reacts to smells.

ZK: And do you think reading aloud, when we talk about these really sensory words, do you think that is increased in that experience?

RJ: Yeah, because you know, when you read to kids, you always – whether it’s your own kids when they’re at home or whether its kids in school … I’ve taught right across the spectrum. And especially when you do as I did, which was I had a reading cloak as I was trying to show them the power of the word when it was spoken.

I’m also very interested in muscle memory, and I think this is something else that is very interesting when we’re talking about the spoken word and reading aloud and empathy. And Professor Gregory Berns, who is a neuroscientist in the US, has published the findings of the study using MRI scans to track the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. The scan results show that there was heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, which is associated with language. This suggest that reading a novel may cause persisting changes in resting state connectivity of the brain and improve brain function.

And Berns says, ‘Even though the participants were not actually reading a novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a “shadow activity,” almost like a muscle memory in sports science’. We already know that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that someone may also be happening biologically. This relates to the idea of muscle memory in science.

Berns writes a bit further on, ‘This study does not directly draw these conclusions, but it seems like common sense that if we encourage our children to read as opposed to tuning out through television, [what he calls] theory of mind and the ability to be compassionate in another person’s suffering will improve.’

We’ll hear more from Rosemary after this quick message from our sponsor.

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RJ: So when we’re reading aloud to a class, there is an intimacy in sharing story together. There’s usually a propinquity – a sharing of physical space – that encourages reactions to the words being read. And, of course, we as readers can play on that and have fun with that. So, stories encourage reaction, thinking, and imaginative involvement and emotions. And there’s also research – a whole other field of research in this area – which shows that emotion can encourage learning, that how we feel will motivate, activate and influence both our mind and brain.

So … we want to, I suppose, when we’re reading aloud what we want to do is convey how [the reader] interprets the emotions that are being read about, whether it’s a formidable figure or whether it’s a little chicken or something – whatever it happens to be. So, in all sorts of ways, contemporary research is showing how important it is to immerse young people in words and language and story, amplifying their sense of the world and imaginatively engaging with possibilities.

ZK: Mm, I think it’s so interesting, you know, when you talk about all of these different research projects and the knowledge that has come out of them from these different disciplinary areas. I imagine them not as separate but all interlinked, really, because I guess when you were talking about empathy too, that came up, just now talking about the muscle memory, and you know, if we talk about reading the word ‘garlic’ and reading about ‘grasping’, the way that that can then effect empathy if we know what something feels like, and then linking that back again to say what you were talking about with, say, behavioural issues at school, it is quite interesting to see all of these different thoughts come together.

RJ: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. One of the lovely things about reading aloud is that, for example, you can convey your feeling, your emotion, your understanding, or an interpretation of it. You know? You can say this sentence in this way, which is a bit timid, or you can say it in this way which is aggressive, because the words are fairly innocuous. You know, there’s so many spots for reader interpretation. And it’s good for students to learn that, to understand that the written word can be interpreted in so many different ways. And sometimes I even say to a primary school group, ‘How would you say that sentence if you’re feeling scared?’ and they love to do that. ‘How would you say it if you wanted to scare people?’ You know, that’s another one. ‘How would you say it if you didn’t understand what it meant exactly?’ You know, you can play with all sorts of different scenarios, which gives a lot of fun.

Now Eric Kandel, I love this fellow, he doesn’t know it. He’s Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the College of Physicians at Columbia University. And he’s a neuroscientist. In a paper on the molecular biology of memory, he describes a gene which can be switched on with thoughts. And thinking about memory as a vast and complex network of branches. I understand that the gene is switched on when we need space to house a new thought. This creates a protein synthesis etcetera. And in the gap between two nerve cells or neurons, this little new thing develops and grows a little twig or branch to accommodate and place this new thought.

ZK: Well I think that’s, you know, almost testament to what you’re talking about with stories, because we’re using these narratives to understand new concepts. And you know you do talk about that, well you talked about that in the last podcast you did with us too. Reading aloud to older kids or kids who might have more advanced reading skills, you know, you can still introduce them to new narratives and more complex stories through reading aloud.

RJ: The older kids, the really good readers like to be read to. They actually like it. It’s beautiful to know. I think it’s a lovely thing to be read to and I just think that’s a lovely thing as well to do. To read, to soothe and read or to read to soothe.

ZK: Absolutely. And you know, reading to children when you’re trying to settle them down to sleep – I still listen to audio books when I’m going to sleep at night. I think it might be the particular experiences that we’ve had, but I do see being read aloud to as something that communicates a sense of love and safety and security. You know? And I think when our brains feel safe in that experience it does kind of open up the potential to learn.

RJ: It does, it really does. Reading aloud can be soothing, it can be invigorating, it can be inspiring. It depends on the moment and the book.

In another research study, a six-month daily reading program, scientists Timothy Keller and Marcel Just from Carnegie Mellon University found that intensive instruction to improve reading skills (and I think this is great too) causes the brain to physically rewire itself, increases and improves the value of white matter (we need that in the language area of the brain), and helps to expand children’s attention spans, encourage sequential thinking, link cause, effect and significance. That sort of idea can’t come through in a lot of the research – that ability to, it’s a sort of ability to be logical, an ability to try to work out things, an ability to try and understand cause and effect and it’s really important.

So, reading aloud releases a lovely cascade of benefits for infants, for children and even for old people. And as I’ve said to you, I have read sometimes to my university classes. Just because I want them to know and grow the power of their voice, and because doing this can relieve anxiety for less confident readers or speakers, and because one’s own voice, and own emotional dynamic can inspire the imagination of others.

Listening is also a skill. Listening is part of it. Reading and listening, speaking and listening. Being free of the worry of how to pronounce some words. And I’ve found this with people who are from language backgrounds other than English. They worry about mispronouncing words but you’re free if you’re being read to, if you’re in the story and you can hear the language being spoken and you’re developing a compassion and understanding of others. So there’s so much research. And actually you can probably tell I’m writing about this in my new book which is coming out soon. Plug – Growing Young Minds. That’s all I’m going to say.

But I want to summarise a few practical tips about shaping, when you are setting up a reading aloud, shaping a creative and productive environment. And the first – this is the bare bones – you need to observe, you need to watch, you need to see what interests people and what doesn’t interest them. Observation I think is one of a teacher or a parent’s greatest skills. Watching and seeing.

And then we need to connect. We observe and then we need to connect with something that we have observed about the child, or the person, the young person or the group, with something that they know. You don’t come in and just read something that people don’t know anything about. So, it’s good to think about a sequence of books sometimes. It gives an example of modelling; they hear somebody else reading and it’s a model. It encourages, and it connects again and again and again. And I want to stress the importance of expressing and demonstrating and living out wonder, and questioning and imagining. You know, those lovely things that really can stimulate all the little buzz lights that happen in your brain when you’re listening to something.

Then obvious things, comparing similarities and differences, exercise and articulate thinking, and talk and chat. I cannot stress more the importance of talk and chat, and just that sort of backwards and forwards because that’s both liberating and educating. Encourage a sense of play, encourage wide reading obviously. Seek out new and different perspectives.

So, these are my top tips. Talk, talk, talk, talk, verbalise. Okay, because it’s in talking that you’re creating an atmosphere that you are letting other people say what they think, letting a child say what he or she thinks. In talking we simulate each other. You know? And we grow the conversation. And we talk instinctively to our babies, don’t we? Our babies can’t talk back but we say, ‘Oh, look it’s raining!’ Or, and we maintain a constant chatter with them. And that’s alright because that’s exposing that baby, that child, that toddler to the rhythms of language. You know? And, ‘Oh the rain! Look at the rain, its wet!’ And you can even put the water on the child’s hand. There’s so many opportunities for the child to learn about their world by talking about the world. Even though they can’t respond, they don’t have the language to respond yet, but you’re helping them gather that language, get that language. You can create all sorts of little chants that you can repeat over and over, playing with rhythm and rhyme, and that builds up a verbal environment that encourages attention, listening, observation and demonstrates that sound, and these things called words have meaning.

Read aloud, not only just chatter, but read aloud from as much print as you can, for example, ads, letters, papers, or whatever. This encourages the putting together of sound and print, that sounds are related to print, that print has meaning. Point out the different shapes of letters on labels and placards when your child’s in a stroller or a shopping trolley when going along supermarket isles. Encourage observation, encourage the recognition of shapes, demonstrate that shapes of print relate to different sounds.

And breed a sense of respect for words, for the words on anything, whatever the words are. What they are doing, what are they telling you about, they’re telling you about this product, or they’re telling you this or telling you that or whatever.

Accentuate the rhymes and rhythm. I used to make up stories that rhymes and rhythms… and talk about assonance and alliteration. When your kids have got all that, they’re armed for school in a way that you know, some other kids aren’t. And it helps because, as you know, in Australia at the moment anyway, everyone has to do English for their finals. So, all of these things – rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, they all help, they give you a bit of a reservoir when you get into the more complex stuff.

So, talk to and with the presenters of children’s programs, like for example Play School. You can have a lot of fun with talking back to them. And participate with it. Obviously you can’t do it every day, but when you can, for a few minutes, if you can do that, I think it’s great to be responsive. Sing with the singing, and say the words clearly.

Develop a model and aural listening and oral speaking receptivity. Celebrate language and rhythm and rhyme. Make up shared poems and jingles and nonsense songs. And talk, talk, talk, talk, to your baby, to your children, to your students.

And encourage talk in the class as well, even though you can’t let it get out of hand, I think it’s wonderful to encourage that. So, then it’s, all of this is talking about wondering, questioning, imagining, connecting, comparing, considering similarities and differences. And this is all oral and a sense of wonder. And I love thinking about wonder. Wonder is questioning, I wonder why. ‘I wonder why the leaf is still wet from the dew?’. And then ‘I wonder at the amazing things that are happening in our world?’ So, wondering – both of those meanings – ‘Isn’t that amazing? What a beautiful bird.’ All of those things. Articulate the wonder of words, of reading, of speaking and of listening.

And to finish off, The Stars of Africa series of books for young children in South Africa, is badged with a lovely logo ‘Building a nation of readers.’ And that’s what we’re trying to do – talking about reading aloud, everything we’re talking about doing – is we want to build a nation who are good readers, who can participate in the community as intelligent readers.

But there’s one book in this wonderful little series. And I just want to finish with this. Tells a story of Mama Nozincwadi, and she can’t read. But she loved and collected books. One day, she hears of a village boy called Muzi, who has been sent home from school because his parents cannot afford to buy him a book that he needs. She takes Muzi to town, and she buys the book for him. And later, to thank her, he reads her the story. And Mama says, ‘Child, do you want to tell me that these books are like wise old people, who can take you by the hand and teach you many things about life?’ She asked him. ‘Yes, Mama. I like books for that. Also it feels like I am talking to the person who wrote that book. Sometimes, Mama, it makes me feel as if I can go with the eyes of my mind to the places in the book. And I thank you for your help.’

That’s all for this episode of The Research Files, thanks for listening. Links to the research mentioned in this episode will be in the transcript of this podcast available over at our website, If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can keep up to date with our latest episodes. If you want to keep listening now, you can access the 200+ episodes already in our archive. And, while you’re there, we’d love it if you could rate and review us.

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Further reading:

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017). Reading with children starting in infancy gives lasting literacy boost. AAP News.

Immodino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, Learning, and the Brain. W.W. Norton & Co.

Kandel, M. (2012). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. W. W. Norton & Co.

Mhlophe, G. (2001) Nozincwadi: Mother of Books. Gcinamasiko.

Raube, S. (2009). Carnegie Mellon Scientists Discover First Evidence of Brain Rewiring in Children. Carnegie Mellon University.

Stanovich, K. E. (2000). Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations. The Guilford Press.

Turunen, T., Poskiparta E., & Salmivalli, C. (2017). Are reading difficulties associated with bullying involvement? Learning and Instruction, 52, 130-138.

Wehbe, L., Murphy, B., Talukdar, P., Fyshe, A., Ramdas, A., & Mitchell, T. (2015). Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses. PLOS ONE, 10(3).

    In this podcast, Professor Rosemary Johnston shares some practical ways that teachers can support children’s learning and creativity through reading aloud at school. Which of these activities do you use in your classroom?

    As a teacher, think about opportunities to read aloud to students in your lessons. How can you use your voice and body language to bring a text to life in different ways to engage students in the content?