By Dr. Mark I. West, Professor of English, University of North Carolina Charlotte
Editor’s note: This article was originally published as an op-ed in the News and Observer on August 3, 2020, and we requested Dr. West’s permission to reprint it here. You may contact Dr. West at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The leader of a local civic organization recently asked me if I would give a Zoom talk to his group about what parents can do to help their children develop their literacy skills during this coronavirus pandemic. He mentioned that the parents in his group are worried that their children will fall behind in their reading abilities given the cancellation of library story hours and the increasing number of public schools that will move to online instruction in the fall. As a children’s literature and literacy specialist, I share these parents’ concerns, so of course I agreed to speak to their group. During my talk, I will focus on one activity that all parents and childcare providers can do to help address these concerns, and that is to read aloud to the children in their lives.
Dr. West, at the annual Seuss-a-Thon he organizes in Charlotte, N.C.
For me, the act of reading aloud to children has a deep connection to my own childhood. I went to a very small, rural school that did not have the resources that were generally available in larger schools at the time. As a result, my dyslexia went undiagnosed. My third-grade teacher told my parents that she thought I was “mildly retarded,” but the school did nothing to help me overcome my learning disability. Luckily for me, my father did. He read aloud to me practically every night, and this experience helped me develop a love of literature even though I found it difficult to read on my own. By cultivating my interest in books and stories, my father provided me with the incentive to persist in my efforts to become a proficient reader despite my dyslexia. I am sure that I would not be an English professor today if my father had not read to me during my childhood.
In recent years, researchers have studied the impact of reading aloud to children, and their research findings are consistent with my own experiences. Ralf Thiede, a colleague of mine at UNC Charlotte, summarized these findings in his new book Children’s Books, Brain Development, and Language Acquisition. As Thiede points out, the act of reading aloud to children plays a major role in helping children build their vocabularies and learn how language works.
Another benefit to reading aloud to children is that it provides a safe structure for children and adults to talk about the stresses that children are experiencing during this pandemic. Sometimes it is easier for kids to talk about how the characters in a story respond to stress than it is for them to talk about their own scary feelings.
Often the experience of sharing stories facilitates meaningful communication and helps children and adults form lasting bonds even in the most stressful of circumstances. In the late 1980s, Nancye Brown Gaj, the founder of Motheread (a literacy program headquartered in Raleigh) demonstrated how the act of reading children’s books aloud helped incarcerated mothers build better relationships with their children. As she once said, “We start with children’s literature for a couple of reasons. A parent and child can read the entire piece in one setting, and the books are full of tremendous lessons that can help them to be better parents.”
For parents and others who are interested in learning more about the value of reading aloud to children, I highly recommend that they check out the section of Read Charlotte’s website that deals with “active reading.” As explained on their website, “In active reading, an adult shares a picture book with a child and provides the child with multiple opportunities to talk about and engage with the pictures, words and ideas in the book.” For more information about Read Charlotte and their active reading program, please click on the following link: https://www.readcharlotte.org/active-reading/
Reading aloud to children is not a panacea for our current pandemic, but it offers at least one way in which parents and childcare providers can help children develop their literacy skills no matter what the coronavirus has in store for us.