Dr. Don Vu is a former elementary school teacher and principal, member of the Scholastic Book Fairs Principal Advisory Board, and the author of Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness, slated for release April 2021. In this post, he explores the power of the read-aloud, particularly for immigrant and refugee families in school communities.
I try to read with my daughter as often as possible. The last time I went out of town (before this pandemic), I used my iPad to take pictures of pages from our only copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix so that I would be able to read with her over the phone. I’m guessing that if you’re an educator, you also value reading aloud to children—in the classroom and/or at home.
Research tells us that reading aloud to children is critical in their development as readers and thinkers (American Academy of Pediatrics 2014; Bernstein 2010; Cunningham & Zilbulsky 2014; Mol & Bus 2011; Needlman 2014). In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease, the godfather of read-alouds, asserts that reading aloud to children can “condition the child’s brain to associate reading with pleasure, create background knowledge, build vocabulary, and provide a reading role model” (Trelease 2006, 4).
Reading aloud is not only important in building literacy skills and a lifelong love of reading, but it’s also fun and gives us time to bond with children. In the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 7th Edition, parents and children say that they love read-aloud time because “it is a special time with each other.”
My Childhood Story
Even though I am a passionate read-aloud advocate, ironically, I have no childhood memories of being read aloud to at home. It’s not that my parents were neglectful or absent. It’s not even fair to say that they didn’t believe in the importance of reading aloud to their children. They just couldn’t read the books. As refugees of the Vietnam War, they had to learn a new language and culture. On top of that, they had to survive. Being in survival mode doesn’t allow for many opportunities other than making ends meet. If given a choice between paying the electricity bill or buying a children’s book, my parents chose what any parent would, so we didn’t have too many books at home. On the occasions when I would bring home a book from the school library, they deferred the reading to my brother and me because our limited English skills had already surpassed theirs. While read-alouds were not a part of the equation for my family, I was lucky enough to learn how to read fluently. But it wasn’t easy.
Where We Stand Today
Luckily, times have changed and educators today have gained knowledge and created tools to help recent immigrants and refugees overcome some of the barriers my family and I faced more than four decades ago.
First and foremost, read-alouds should be happening in every classroom and school because all students benefit from it. But students who are not read aloud to at home benefit the most from listening to fluent readers read and speak to them at school. As a principal, I would make an effort to go into classrooms and read to students often. Not only was it one of the highlights of my job, but it also sent a message to everyone that read-alouds are important. Our teachers would often encourage one another to read books to their students by sending “You’ve Been Booked!” cards with book recommendations written on them. After the teacher read aloud a recommendation, the class would send a book recommendation to a different class, and so on. It was fun, engaging, and especially important to those emergent bilinguals who were hearing English read and spoken only at school.
So, what can we do for our students when they go home? If the parents and caregivers in your school community, like my parents early on, aren’t able (or don’t yet have the confidence) to read to their children in English, encourage them to read aloud books in their home languages.
After all, associating reading with pleasure doesn’t need to happen in English. Building background knowledge can be done in any language. Building vocabulary in one’s primary language can help him or her learn vocabulary in a second language (Goldenberg 2011). And finally, a reading role model can be anyone who loves sharing a good book, regardless of language. Reading aloud in their home languages engages parents and caregivers in their children’s learning and your efforts to promote literacy. It also helps promote a culture of inclusivity and respect for all members of your school community.
At our school, we established a parent resource center that included a library of multilingual children’s books. We also counseled parents and caregivers on reading aloud to their kids—letting them know it was okay to ask questions and have discussions while reading. In some instances, recent immigrant and refugee families may not have the financial resources to purchase books in their home language. Therefore, it’s important to allocate funds to provide books for them to borrow for reading at home.
When I was a child, there were few children’s books published in my home language. A few decades later, when I was a classroom teacher, there were more than a handful of bilingual books published for my emergent bilingual students. Today, you can do a search online and easily find fully translated copies of so many books, including the Harry Potter books, in your students’ home languages.
Think about families that have just arrived to America from their war-torn country. They are building a new life in hopes for a better future. They are learning the language and culture. Now, imagine if you had a copy of Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, translated into their home languages, for them to borrow and read aloud as a family in the evening. As they read and talk about this migrant story, and the gifts people bring with them when leaving their home countries, consider the impact on the child and his or her family. I wish that book was available to me and my parents decades ago, because it would have made a huge difference in our lives.
The read-aloud can make a difference in the lives of all students. But, to our immigrants and refugees, it can help open doors and windows towards the realization of their American Dream.
American Academy of Pediatrics. “Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice.” 2014. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/2/404.
Bernstein, Henry. “The Importance of Reading to Your Child.” A Parent’s Life (2010). Harvard School of Medicine.
Cunningham, Anne, and Jamie Zibulsky. Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Goldenberg, Claude. “Reading instruction for English language learners.” In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. IV, edited by Michael Kamil, P. David Pearson, Elizabeth Moje, and Peter Afflerbach. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011.
Mol, Suzanne, and Adriana Bus. “To Read or Not to Read: A Meta-Analysis of Print Exposure From Infancy to Early Adulthood.” Psychological Bulletin 137 (2011):267–296.
Needlman, Robert. “How a Doctor Discovered Reading.” In Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading, edited by Lois Bridges. New York: Scholastic, 2014.
Scholastic. “Kids & Family Reading Report™: 7th Edition.” 2019. https://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/home.html.
Trelease, Jim. The Read-aloud Handbook. London, England: Penguin Books, 2006.
Image courtesy of Dr. Don Vu