Recent months have featured alarming news about children’s books, reading, and literacy. We long for quieter times where children appreciate wonderful characters and stories and we support the joys of reading. The news also suggests, however, that sharing a well-told story with people you care about is more important than ever.
A recent study from Harvard and Stanford researchers has shined a bright light on the “learning loss” resulting from the pandemic. Questions persist about how or why the pandemic has led to drops in test scores – remote learning was less effective than in-person learning; many families suffered illness, job loss, or death; some schools struggled with pre-existing inequities – but the data is unequivocally clear. Students lost ground during the upheaval of the Covid lockdowns, and the loss is most acute for the most vulnerable students who were already behind their peers.
While pondering what to do, we are also reaching a turning point in the debate on how to best teach children to read. With new research on brain development and new data on the effectiveness of various teaching strategies, discussions about the “Science of Reading” are ever-present in literacy circles. Those discussions should help guide the remediation strategies to address declining reading scores.
With all of this focus on the decline in scores and the need for research-based teaching tools, there might be a tendency to shove reading aloud aside as a luxury, something schools can’t possibly spend precious instructional time on. But that would be a mistake. If we are going to make real progress in literacy for our children, we have to wrap them up in words, stories, and characters, the best that books can offer. And the best way to do that is with caring adults reading beautiful books aloud.
Taking the lead from the Science of Reading and adding what we know about the power of great books, we can recognize that sharing literature together within a family or classroom or across a community can help remediate recent learning loss. Let’s seize the day.
The research on the Science of Reading emphasizes two components. First, explicit instruction in phonics-based skills is essential. Instruction is tailored to support students as they learn the key strategies needed to decode letters on the page so they can read the words.
The second component is building the background knowledge and experience needed for reading comprehension– here is where reading aloud can really help. As children are learning the difficult task of decoding text, we can simultaneously be filling them up with the information needed to make that text meaningful. Here are just a few examples:
- J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard follows a young boy opening his own barber shop in the family backyard. The story gives students experience with financial literacy topics involved in starting a small business – advertising, pricing, profit, competition, licensing regulations – amid a playful competition in which readers root for J.D.’s success.
- Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper introduces us to Melody, a remarkable girl too often discounted by the world around her. The story expands understanding of the challenges and successes of living with a disability, using adaptive technology, and asserting your voice. Melody participates in a school knowledge competition, and readers learn with her that different well-meaning adults sport different skills, talents, empathies, and insights.
- Hoot by Carl Hiaasen shows young people taking on the establishment to protect some little owls. The wild romp includes alligators in port-a-potties and scrappy challenges to authority, while revealing important environmental issues like endangered species, habitat loss, and the effect of property development on sensitive ecosystems.
Students could sit through a lecture on financial literacy or environmental activism, but sharing a book with interesting characters and an exciting plot makes those lessons stick much better. A compelling story shared with others is one of the best ways to scaffold learning.
The Science of Reading focuses on teaching students how to read with fluency and comprehension, essential ingredients for building capable readers. But we cannot simply instruct our way to building enthusiastic readers.
Instead, if we want students to love reading, we have to inspire them. And the best way to inspire readers is by sharing titles that speak to them beyond the words on the page – books that touch the heart. Children can listen to stories that are far above their reading level, so reading aloud opens a world of possibilities for stories that are richer, more complex, and inspiring.
A few examples:
- The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz takes young listeners on a rollicking journey with a pig named Flora from a nondescript barnyard to the frozen tundra of Antarctica. The excursion requires quick thinking, tenacity, courage, and forging a team of unlikely members, inspiring young listeners to cheer for Flora as she saves the day.
- Ban This Book by Alan Gratz could be ripped from today’s headlines. An avid reader inspires her classmates to take matters into their own hands, creating an underground library in her school locker, as they advocate for the freedom to read everything from Captain Underpants to The Westing Game.
- Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan tells the story of a young girl thrust into a life she didn’t choose. Forced to leave her beautiful home in Mexico to become a farm worker in California, Esperanza finds the strength and will to fight for her family and to find hope for the future. Readers travel from upper class Mexico to a migrant camp in the southwestern United States, seeing the same world from a different perspective.
Once we show – rather than tell – students that books can feed your heart and your spirit, we add the critical desire to read to the essential ability to read, and we build readers.
The pandemic’s effects on mental health are still being understood. But we know that one key ingredient of good mental health is a feeling of connectedness – knowing that you are part of a supportive community who values your membership. Sharing a wonderful book together builds connections. Sharing the joys and heartbreaks experienced by the characters in the story, the reader, and listener create a mutual experience and acquire a common vocabulary for discussions that often range far beyond the final pages of the book. That feeling is magnified when the book itself deals with the power of finding connections with people important to you.
- Upside-Down Magic by the writing trio of Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins introduces us to Nory, the youngest child in a family of magical elites. But when Nory’s magic misbehaves, she is sent away to a school for kids with “wonky” magic. Through fits and starts, trials and mishaps, Nory ultimately learns that the key to happiness is surrounding yourself with people who accept you for who you are.
- Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate addresses homelessness as experienced by a young boy, his family, and a huge imaginary cat. Jackson has felt this uncertainty before and is determined to wall himself off from hurt, but Crenshaw, the giant skateboarding cat, shows him that by building connections with others he can face anything.
- Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of six remarkable young people who are given the gift of an hour each week with no adults – to talk, to share, and to bond. By sharing their own stories, they become a unique community, supporting each other through difficult times.
Reading aloud can help build that feeling of connectedness within a school, within families, and between schools and families, wrapping children in belonging.
The full accounting of the effects of the Covid pandemic won’t be known for some time, but our students can’t wait. And while the shouting is likely to continue, let’s do something that has always worked: put a basket of books by the sofa, choose a great book for a classroom read aloud, or get everyone involved with a One School, One Book program. Read aloud to our children, and fill them with information, inspiration, and connection.