Why we should all be reading aloud to children | Rebecca Bellingham | [email protected]

Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Robert Deliman 15 years ago, I was a teaching artist
in the New York City public schools, and one of my projects
was adapting and directing a production of “Charlotte’s Web” with a group of third graders at PS 220, the Mott Haven Village School
in the South Bronx. As a way to begin our work together, I read aloud the first chapter from
E. B. White’s famous and beautiful book. As some of us may recall, the story begins with Fern
learning that her father, Mr. Arable, is off to the hoghouse to kill the runt
of the litter with his axe. (Reading) “Please don’t kill it,”
she sobbed, “It’s unfair.” Mr. Arable stopped walking. “Fern,” he said gently, “you will have to learn
to control yourself.” “Control myself?” yelled Fern; “This is a matter of life and death,
and you talk about controlling myself?” Tears ran down her cheeks,
and she took hold of the axe and tried to pull it
out of her father’s hand. (Reading ends) Well, the pig is saved,
and later that morning, Fern discovers a carton
on her chair at breakfast. (Reading) As she approached her chair,
the carton wobbled, and there was a scratching noise. Fern looked at her father,
then she lifted the lid of the carton. There, inside, looking up at her
was the newborn pig. It was a white one. The morning light shone
through its ears, turning them pink. “He is yours,” said Mr. Arable,
“Saved from an untimely death. And may the good Lord
forgive me for this foolishness.” Fern couldn’t take her eyes
off the tiny pig. “Oh!” she whispered, “Oh! Look at him! He is absolutely perfect.” She closed the carton carefully, for she kissed her father,
then she kissed her mother, then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out
and held it against her cheek. (Reading ends) Well, when I finished reading the chapter,
the kids lined up for lunch, and a little boy named Joey
tugged at my sleeve and he said, “Miss B., I felt like I was right there. Like, I could really see that little pig. I never got inside a book
before like that.” Well, I was thrilled
that Joey was enjoying the story, but, to be perfectly honest, at the time, I was much more concerned
with how in the world we were going to make
all those farm animal costumes just using pillow cases, and whether the kids
would memorize all their lines or not. They did. And we did. And everytime I visited that classroom, the kids couldn’t wait
for me to read aloud to them again. For all the kids in the audience: would you raise your hand
if you really like it when teachers read aloud to you
or parents read aloud to you? Or adults? Do you remember
being read to? And loving it? Well, I’ve been an educator
for almost 20 years. And I’ve read thousands
and thousands of pages aloud. And I’ve never met a group of kids
who didn’t love it, who were immune to the spell
of a great book being read aloud. As a teacher and a mom,
I can’t think of many things that matter as much
as reading aloud to our kids. At all ages. At school and at home. Because reading aloud gives kids
a special kind of access to the transformative power of story, and the experience
of what real reading is all about, which is to deeply understand, to think, to learn and discuss
big ideas about the world, about the lives of others
and about ourselves. So, when I think back to what Joey said
to me all those years ago, “Miss B., I felt like I was right there.
Like, I could really see that little pig. I never got inside a book
before like that.” I’m struck by this idea that reading aloud for Joey made it possible for him
to get inside a book; as though before that experience
he was outside. Because Joey is not alone
in feeling that way. Reading for a lot of kids
can feel like a locked building. Without the right key or the right code, or the right experiences,
they can’t get in. They feel like they’re outside. Because for some kids,
dealing with the code, the tangle of letters and sounds,
tricky words and vocabulary, is a more difficult process
for any number of reasons. The decoding of words
takes up so much brain energy, they don’t have
a lot of brain space left over to actually take in the story
or the meaning. For other kids,
the decoding isn’t so difficult, but it can sometimes feel like they’re
just translating words across a page, like how I might do with a medical
textbook or a medical journal. I could translate or decode the words, but I wouldn’t be able to understand them,
or think, or talk about them. How many of us here have found ourselves
halfway down a page only to realize, “I have no idea what I just read.” (Laughter) When teachers and parents read aloud,
we do the decoding work. We deal with the print
and the tricky vocabulary and words, and we free kids to think. So they can use all their brain energy to imagine the story
and learn new information. So all children listening have access to the amazing reading party
happening inside the building. And we want kids to get in the building
and get to the party and stay there. Even while they’re still strengthening
their decoding or comprehension or vocabulary muscles
in books they can read on their own. Because even when kids
are reading on their own, reading aloud to them
has a tremendous impact on their independent reading lives. Because when kids go back
to their own books, they know that world should come alive
in their brains as they read. They know that real readers pause
to wonder, think, ask questions. They know that real readers
let the stories affect them. Maybe even change them. Because the way that we stop and react
at something that we read aloud gives us an opportunity
to model compassion, to wonder aloud in a genuine way about a choice
a character or a community made. When we read aloud, we can help kids
walk in the shoes of people who might be
radically different from themselves. Or see reflections of themselves, which might make them feel less alone or more hopefull. What happens
when we walk in the shoes of Kek, a young refugee from Sudan
who comes to Minessota after seeing his brother
and father killed in a war? What can we learn from Auggie, who was born with a rare facial anomaly? Or Delphine, who is eleven years old
and goes to Oakland, California in 1968 to meet her mom for the first time,
who is active in the Black Panther Party? Or Annemarie, who helps her best friend
escape to Denmark during The Holocaust? We can give kids access to stories, and books,
and ideas, and information that they otherwise
might not get a chance to explore, or explore as deeply. And finally, reading aloud
gives us a chance to look up from our screens,
our phones, our computers; to connect with each other through the simple act of reading
and talking together. When we read aloud at school
we’re often gathered together in one place and we’re teaching kids
how to talk together, how to listen, how to look each other in the eye and say:
“What do you think?” To say, “I think differently
and here is why.” But we’re also creating moments
of connectedness and joy in our classrooms, on a daily basis. And at home, it’s a chance to carve out a time
when we’re not on our phones, but we’re entirely focused on our kids. Or we pull up alongside them
and read and talk together. Even when they can’t sit
in our laps anymore. Even and perhaps especially
when they rather be on their phones. Even when they’re not three or four, but they’re eight, ten, twelve, a teenager and they might not be as inclined
to share so much with us anymore. Having a book to lean on
can help us get inside them. In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle reminds us
how esential face to face conversation is. She says, “We’re tempted to think
that our little sips of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation, but they don’t.” I believe that reading aloud together provides an opportunity for a big gulp. For a chance to connect and talk together,
in consistent meaningful ways. So the kids not only fall in love
with books and reading, and get better at it, but they also learn to think deeply, to consider other points of view. They learn to listen
and they learn to look up. Thank you. (Applause)

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