15 March 2023

Read-Aloud: A Powerful Tool Towards a Learning Culture

By Cassandra Eva Lau

Read-aloud is a powerful tool to be adapted to the learning culture. (Photo by Alex Green / pexels.com)

Every one of us experienced being read-aloud during our childhood. It is only now that we have a name for these reading sessions.

My earliest memories of oral storytelling were sitting beside my grandma and being charmed by her stories. I remember being mesmerized by her facial expression and voice modulation as she narrated the tumultuous journey of migrating from Fujian, China to Sibu, Sarawak. The impact of the stories was imprinted in my mind that even after some thirty-odd years, it flooded back vividly. I could still recall the feelings her narratives evoked.

Across many cultures, oral storytelling is a form of ensuring the survival of folklore, being passed from the older to the younger generation. It is only later that these stories are recorded in written form. When the stories are published into books with text and imagery, contents become vivid and imaginations turn almost real. It works as if readers are transported back to that particular time and setting, being engrossed in the plot of the stories without noticing the passing of time.

Oral storytelling may not be so commonly used in classroom settings now but reading out loud or now known as ‘read-aloud’ still has its place in modern society.

Differences between oral storytelling and read-aloud

In oral storytelling, the narrator focuses on the main message(s) of the story, using creativity to improvise, vocalize, and mimetic action. Stories might change halfway through the narration depending on the reaction of the audience or the decision of the narrator.

Read-aloud on the one hand is when a reader, usually a teacher or parents read aloud the exact words from a story by focusing on the text and pictures and highlighting them to the audience.  The attention to voice modulations, certain details in the texts, and illustrations help the imagery process. It is a useful and powerful tool for emergent learners and learners of every age group and size. It can be used in any domain, be it in a classroom for a specific learning objective or in the domestic realm for bonding and discussion.

Careful selection of books ensures you achieve what you set out to do

In read-aloud, the selection of storybooks could vary according to the interest of the readers. Boys could be interested in dinosaurs, mysteries, thrillers, or scientific ventures. Choosing a topic of their interest for read-aloud could ensure they are engaging with the text. Teachers who wish to introduce the theme of conservation or the environment could break the ice by reading a story about them. Extensive questions of “Who, Why, How, What, Where, and When” could be asked so that the learners’ prior knowledge is raised or new knowledge is formed.

With a bigger audience, big books or stories could be projected to the screen where features such as voice recording, underlining, or highlighting could be utilized to focus on either content, text, or imagery. For a smaller audience, a normal size book is sufficient.

The many benefits of read-aloud activities

One of the major benefits of read-aloud is the powerful impact on cognitive development. With a shared meaningful text, purposeful after-reading activities can be designed with specific attention to spelling, vocabulary, and other cognitive processing information, like sequencing or problem-solving.

Stories can be referred to repeatedly, each time drawing attention to different aspects of the lesson. Read-aloud works on the principle of Dual Coding Theory which uses verbal associations, visual imagery, and gestural connections to facilitate the memorization of new vocabulary.

The vocalization to bring forth the message of the story leads learners to be sensitive to the pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm of the written form, thus associating sound with letters, letters with words, and words, forming meanings.

Read-aloud not only helps in the language development of learners, but also enhances their imagination by the grappling focus and details on the characters which are sketched with vivid words, using different tones of voice, gestures, and onomatopoeia to accentuate certain stress or impact of the characterization. 

These “imagination techniques” are used to communicate and connect with the listeners. Read-aloud is a powerful tool to connect thinking and feelings.

Similarly, read-aloud assists in developing second language acquisition. Reading stories in the second language provide a shared meaningful context for comprehensible input that could potentially generate discussion and thus increase social interaction. It not only has a strong power to retain learners’ attention but also, invites them to recall or retell similar experiences and develop deeper concrete thinking skills. It links to the students’ histories.

The written text, narrated through multisensory media could be steep in cultures, values, and beliefs; whether folklore, fairy tales, or imaginative works which may send subliminal messages to the listeners, giving them a chance to reflect on the moral messages or resolve an imagined conflict. This builds their social and emotional quotient and raises awareness of their own culture and the culture of others.

Read-aloud is also a therapeutic activity to restructure and bond families with children in building and re-building relationships. Communication with children during read-aloud creates a state of shared fantasy in space and time, detached from reality. Parents reduce their authoritarian role to communicate with their children, act as emotional play partners or participate as active constructors in the child’s imaginary space.

This brings the family together through shared media where everyone is approachable.

Read-aloud is indeed a powerful tool to be adapted to the learning culture and deserves its attention.  Who does not like to be read to? As old as I am, I certainly do!

Cassandra Eva Lau teaches in the School of Foundation Studies at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at celau@swinburne.edu.my The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus.