Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.25.17Why Reading Aloud to Students is So Critical to Vocabulary

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Last night, after reading aloud to my daughter and tucking her in, I was mopping up a bit of work from the day and came across this observation by Isabel Beck:

“The source of later vocabulary learning shifts [as students get older] to written texts–what children read [as opposed to what they hear].  The problem is that it is not so easy to learn [vocabulary] from written context.  Written context lacks many of the features of oral language that support learning new word meanings…”

Beck’s point is that hearing someone use a word helps kids learn the word better since the emphasis and inflection implicit in spoken language help to communicate a large amount of additional information about the word and how it is working in a given situation. It expands the amount of usable context for a young person to learn from.

On the other hand, as many researchers have pointed out, written language contains far more vocabulary words than oral language. In fact most of the words that comprise a student’s reading vocabulary will appear in their lives only in written texts… in one’s night’s reading from Island of the Blue Dolphins, my daughter and I came across glisten, befall and pelt. Like other vocabulary words they are rarely if ever used in oral conversation. They live almost exclusively in print.

So what do you do if the words that are hardest and most powerful for students to learn appear in a setting with less context to help them learn?

You read aloud to them. One of the great benefits of reading aloud to students is that they are exposed to vocabulary at maximum frequency–written text, especially difficult text, multiples the number of rare words they hear; it ensures exposure to a much wider range of words, with particular emphasis on rare words that only appear in print. 

But at the same time they hear those words infused with inflection and expression that communicates more about them about the words and thus enhances meaning. In fact, even hearing a word pronounced correctly is valuable in a way that’s often overlooked: it increases the likelihood that a student will use the word, attend to it and or connect it to the previous time she heard it, the next time she encounters it print. If she doesn’t know how to pronounce it, though, she will skip over it cognitively.

So reading aloud to–or with–students puts you in the sweet spot for vocabulary development: maximum number of rare words per minute; maximum degree of additional information to expand and cement meaning.

I’d just note that this function–the sweet-spot-ness of reading aloud–does not abate as students get older.  In fact, the more critical the vocabulary of a discipline, the more important for older students to occasionally hear it’s written discourse read aloud. If you teach high school science or history one of the most valuable things you can do for students is to read aloud to them from the literature of the discipline with expression every so often.


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