Creating Community by Reading Aloud

The COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed so many challenges for our loved ones and our communities. In my work as a literacy advocate, I think about our children who have been so deeply affected by school closures, remote learning, and social isolation. One of the most powerful ways we can bring children together to experience a sense of community during this unprecedented time is through shared stories in the form of reading aloud. And nearly everyone enjoys it—in fact, the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report: 7th Edition™ shows that more than 80% of both kids and parents love or like read-aloud time because they consider it a special time together.

The beauty of a read-aloud is that it can happen anywhere, any time, and with anyone. One of the largest read-aloud moments happens each year on World Read Aloud Day. This year, the celebration will take place on Feb. 3, 2021, and will call attention to the importance of sharing stories by challenging participants to grab a book or share a story of their own, find an audience, and read aloud.

World Read Aloud Day was founded twelve years ago and it has remained relevant and needed more than ever. The day was founded from an experience I had in a classroom when I was reading aloud to a group of children. They were fully immersed in the read-aloud experience, full of joy and responding enthusiastically to the story I was sharing with them. The read-aloud truly created a feeling of warmth and fellowship among us. Afterwards, one of the children approached me. “Mrs. Allyn,” he said earnestly, “why can’t we do that every day, all day? It feels so good to be read aloud to.” I said to him, honestly, with the glow of his heart motivating me, “I think sometimes we forget how important the read-aloud really is. It helps us to feel good and learn about empathy. It should be celebrated by everyone.” He smiled. And then he said these momentous words: “Well, when it’s my birthday I get a lot of attention and people are reminded about why I’m important. Let’s have a big celebration for the read-aloud to remind the world why it is so important.” These wise words from an inspired reader mark the moment World Read Aloud Day was born.

Now, as an annual tradition in over 173 countries and counting, World Read Aloud Day is a global movement that brings people together around stories. This year’s celebration will be especially critical, because the shared experience and connection of reading aloud is so needed in all of our communities.

This is because the experience of reading aloud is a profound exchange—the company of one another in the experience, to talk about the text, to marvel over a riveting excerpt, to laugh together over a funny part, or to cry over something sad. These are all emotions that, when shared with someone else, create a bond wrapped in empathy and a love for reading. It is part of a lifelong journey of reading and sharing experiences to learn about the world.

I have read aloud to students in every corner of the globe, traveling with books in my hands and on my phone to share stories with children of all ages. I’ve found that younger children enjoy the storytelling experience when I animate my voice and bring all of us into the story. I’ve seen older children respond by bringing complex and deep thoughts and emotions into the read-aloud experience by asking questions and taking a piece of the story with them as they move about their days. For some children, regardless of age, my read-aloud is the first storytelling moment they’ve had, and they experience a profound response to the feelings it evokes and the sense of safety and comfort it inspires. For all children, read-alouds create community through a shared experience, but they also help bolster literacy skills and our understanding of the complex aspects of language: grammar, vocabulary, structures, and punctuation. All of this is brought to life through the read-aloud.

What I love to see most is when the read-aloud becomes important to a family, to a class, or to a community. Something begins to happen. Trust builds, and the human voice carries a feeling of joy and a sense of caregiving. Now, perhaps more than ever before, the read-aloud can bring us closer to one another, even in socially distant virtual spaces. This summer, I carried The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy with me as I read aloud to groups of children over Zoom. It was extraordinary to see the children joining into the world of the story. Even as socially distant as we were, the read-aloud brought us together, and this is a very real and authentic way to promote social-emotional learning.

Research shows the importance of prioritizing social-emotional learning in our teaching and learning. For example, findings from the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report: 2nd Edition indicate that 98% of educators agree that for students to reach their highest academic potential, their social-emotional needs must be met, and nearly all educators (97%) agree that literacy is critical to students’ health and emotional wellness. In the same report, educators share that their top COVID-19-related concern is the impact on students’ social-emotional wellness (86%).

Literacy is a critical and inspirational way to link social-emotional learning to the education experience. Reading, writing, and storytelling bring a confluence of the social-emotional learning skills children need to grow and flourish. At the same time, they are building skills that help them comprehend text and build their own hypotheses and ideas around that work. Here, I identify seven social-emotional strengths we will bolster by providing children of all ages with plentiful access to read-alouds.

Belonging: The read-aloud can be a selection that is above, below, or at a child’s formal reading level, which creates a sense of belonging when students are not judged for taking risks or for staying comfortable, knowing that this is all part of being a reader and the experience is shared. The children can process and experience the beginning, middle, and end together; the challenge of navigating the plot and deconstructing characters; and analyzing the author’s perspective and point of view. In addition, joy is conveyed by the read-aloud. The joy in the experience is palpable and sends the message that everyone belongs here.

Curiosity: The read-aloud offers a platform for everyone to have a question or a wondering. The very nature of the interaction gives a rhythm to the experience, where voices are welcome and questions can be asked and answered.

Kindness: Point out the helpers in the stories you read. Focusing on acts of kindness can be a solace in this challenging time. There are many examples across all genres of characters connecting with one another or doing heroic or small things that transform the lives of others.

Friendship: Children will form a bond by experiencing and discussing a story together. Even during virtual read-alouds, children have the opportunity to “be together” and laugh together. We know children are craving these opportunities.

Confidence: Use the read-aloud as a chance to really engage kids in learning by asking for input, such as guesses for what will happen next, ideas for how a character may be feeling in a given moment, or what they liked most about the story. Celebrate their responses to affirm their confidence in reading experiences.

Courage: It takes courage to overcome fear and navigate this new world. Read-alouds create space to talk about courage, to see simple, ordinary efforts as courageous, and to invite children to name their own acts of bravery. Read-alouds also help children see that we are all navigating texts with our own strengths and that getting through the hard parts requires courage too.

Hope: A child’s imagination is a powerful tool that allows them to create a story, build a new world, and solve problems. The read-aloud will nurture a child’s imagination. Encourage children to draw and write about the story they have just heard to practice creative thinking and envisioning new worlds.

Reading aloud and sharing stories is one of the most powerful ways to support our kids in this challenging moment because the shared storytelling experience brings us together. This is key for developing the social-emotional skills needed in life, especially now. As Feb. 3, 2021, approaches, let’s come together with our colleagues and our children to select a story, find an audience, and read aloud together, on World Read Aloud Day and beyond.

Pam Allyn is a literacy expert, author, motivational speaker, and founder of the literacy nonprofit LitWorld. Pam is also the creator of World Read Aloud Day, which calls attention to the importance of sharing stories, hosted by LitWorld and Scholastic.For free resources for teachers and families and to learn about how to get involved in World Read Aloud Day, visit scholastic.com/worldreadaloudday. Find out more about Pam’s work or connect with her at pamallyn.com.


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