Every day is a great day for reading aloud to children, but with the celebration of International Read to Me Day on March 19, now is a great time to give some thought to the importance of reading aloud in preparation for the Day’s celebrations. by arming yourself with a basket of books to read.
To help put us in the mood and assist our preparations, Jennie Fitzkee is here to tell us why reading aloud to children is important.
Jennie, a passionate and inspirational teacher, has been teaching preschool in Massachusetts for over thirty years. She is considered by many to be the “book guru” and the “reader-aloud”. She is also a writer and her work is often posted by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. This is what Jennie says of teaching:
“I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It’s the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That’s what I write about.”
Jennie is highlighted in the new edition of Jim Trelease’s bestselling book, The Read-Aloud Handbook because of her reading to children. Her class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital. Their latest quilt is currently hanging at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. In 2016, Jennie was one of seven teachers in Massachusetts to receive the Teacher of the Year Award.
I’m sure you’ll agree that there is much we can learn from Jennie.
Welcome to readilearn, Jennie. Over to you.
This story is far more than reading aloud; this is about academic success, learning to read, and loving to read. It’s about young children and older children, and what happens along the way. Here are worrisome statistics and great stories. You should feel empowered.
Let’s talk about academic success.
Jim Trelease was spot on when he said “Reading is the heart of education. The knowledge of almost every subject in school flows from reading. One must be able to read the word problem in math to understand it. If you cannot read the science or social studies chapter, how do you answer the questions at the end of the chapter?”
Parents tell me all the time about their child’s struggles in school, and it boils down to reading, whether it’s reading the homework assignment or a chapter in assigned reading. When the parent has to step in to help with homework, it often is because of struggles with reading. I think of how much more difficult the work must be in the classroom with the expectations of independent work. I wish those children had been in my classroom when they were younger; I could have helped them and their parents.
Now, let’s back up from reading to reading aloud. In order to read, and more importantly to want to read, it all starts with parents and family reading aloud to children, every day.
The statistics on reading aloud and its link to academic success in all areas is profound. If reading is a pleasurable experience, then school work is by far easier. Every child begins school wanting to learn to read. In other words, we’ve got 100 percent of enthusiastic kindergarteners when they start school. The National Report Card found that among fourth-graders, only 54 percent read for pleasure. Among eighth graders, only 30 percent read for pleasure. By twelfth grade, only 19 percent read anything for pleasure daily. Yikes! What happened? The better question might be, what did not happen?
The seeds of not only learning to read but loving to read were not planted early. Reading aloud to children for 30 minutes every day, starting at birth and continuing after they have learned to read, is the single best thing a parent can do to build a reader. I know this. When I read aloud in my classroom, it’s the time that children are totally absorbed. Totally. A good story, read aloud, is the best learning and pleasure experience I give to children. It opens the door to questions and discovery.
Now let’s talk about pleasure.
People often ask why I chapter read. After all, many of the children in my classroom are three-years-old. When we chapter read, the children don’t have an image from a picture book. They have to make the pictures in their head. That requires language development. The more they hear, the more they learn. Even the youngest children benefit enormously. For example, they may not ‘get’ the humor of the goose repeating everything three times in Charlotte’s Web, but they are still getting a huge dose of language. And, that language is sparking their imagination. No pictures; just words pouring into eager, young minds and creating their own images.
I read picture books as well, at least twice a day. That’s a given! As in chapter books, we stop to ask questions. That’s how we learn. Remember the five W’s and the H? Who, what, where, when, why and how? Those are the most important questions, because they are the foundation for stimulating language. We stop our reading all the time to ask these questions.
When I read Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky, it takes forty minutes to get through the book. Really! I ask, “How did he get in and out of the garden?” “This does not look like my house; does it look like yours?” “Where is this place?” “How did Rapunzel get into the tower?” “How was the tower built?” Questions prompt so much interest and dialogue, not to mention imagination.
Fairy tales seem to spark the most conversation. It’s no wonder that Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Billy Goats Gruff are consistently books that bring words to life and turn a magical golden key to open imagination. The world becomes an ocean and children sail with abandon.
Our conversations during chapter reading are often powerful. Once when we read Doctor Dolittle’s Journey, a sequel to The Story of Doctor Dolittle, a child asked, “Are Indians bad?”. What an opportunity that question created to talk about acceptance and diversity. The classroom conversation felt intimate. It’s not easy for a child to ask a sensitive question in front of the whole class. Somehow, in the middle of reading aloud a good book, questions feel open, and we talk about everything.
Chapter reading is one of our treasured moments of the day at school. I know this, and so does Jackson. Books bring to life the imagination, the world, and the past. The anticipation of ‘what happens next’ stirs excitement every day. Children listen and talk. They ask questions. Jackson is first to remember what we read yesterday and ask questions about what we read today. When I ask children, “At chapter reading where do you make the pictures?” they answer “In your head.”
When we finish reading a good book and then start a new one, emotions run high and low. The end of a good book is so satisfying and pleasant, yet…it is over. That is the wonderful roller coaster of reading. And, with each chapter book we read, we ride that roller coaster again and again.
In the fall I begin the school year by reading “Charlotte’s Web”, always a favorite. When I chapter read, it is rest time, the lights are out, children are on their nap mats, and they listen. Boy, do they listen. Often, I stop and ask questions. We talk about Templeton and his unsavory character. We laugh about the goose that repeats things three times. Of course, we talk about Wilbur and Charlotte. Children are learning new words and using their brain to associate all that language with the story. More importantly, children are learning right and wrong, values and morals. They are beginning to develop character and goodness.
Jackson worried when Wilbur went to the fair. He became very fond of Charlotte. The more we read about Templeton, particularly when he refused to get Charlotte’s egg sac, the more Jackson became bitter towards Templeton’s character. Jackson ‘got it’; the language and literacy and learning for him now included the subtleties of morality. But, the best was yet to come.
Jackson was really learning. He was becoming ‘one’ with each book, and by now it was pleasure learning for him.
One of the characters throughout Little House on the Prairie is Jack, the dog. As the family travels in a covered wagon, Jack happily trots behind the whole way. Then I read the chapter, “Crossing the Creek”. The creek rises quickly; Pa has to jump in to help the horses get the wagon across the water. After they are on the other side, Laura says, “Where is Jack?”
I read this chapter with heart, and the passion of what is happening. I always read like that. When Laura says those words, the children are stunned. Shocked. They know. I finish reading aloud, sometimes standing and pacing, because this is a big deal. I, too, have a lump in my throat.
Jackson pulled his blanket over his head. His body was jerking in sobs, yet he was holding those sobs deep inside. I scooped him up, and we disappeared to a quiet place to read aloud, together, the next chapter. Jackson needed to know that Jack the dog found his way home. I think I was calm when I read the chapter to him. We were wrapped together in his blanket; perhaps we both sobbed a bit. It was my greatest moment in teaching. I had taught the most important values through reading aloud, and Jackson was moved to tears. He cried tears of the heart. So did I.
Reading aloud is the best thing I do with, and for, children. They are preschoolers. Yes, I chapter read to four-year-olds. It is marvelous. After three decades of teaching, I know this is “it”. Jackson is proof.
Learning can happen unexpectedly and reading aloud is often the catalyst. Children don’t need to sit and listen to a book in silence. Asking questions is a good thing!
Let me say it again: reading aloud is the gift of language, and language is the most important element in a child’s development and success in school. Wow! The number of words a child knows can be directly attributed to his or her success in school; not just in English, but in Math and Science as well. Perhaps these are the most important words a parent can hear. Reading aloud is a strong part of my classroom curriculum, and children love it! The more you read aloud at home increases your child’s development! The biggest bonus is bonding together. Nothing beats snuggling with Mom or Dad, one-on-one, reading a book. Life is good!
Jennie, thank you for sharing with us your wisdom about the importance of reading aloud to children every day. Your message is incredibly powerful and needs to be shouted from every rooftop into every classroom and every home. I would have loved to make a special image of almost every sentence. I very much appreciate your willingness to share with us to get this important message out there.
Thanks for having me.
You can connect with Jennie and get regular updates about her inspirational work on her blog
or on social media
Twitter: Jennie Fitzkee
Facebook: Jennie Fitzkee
What will you read aloud on International Read to Me Day?
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