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04.25.17 Why 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 a reminder of 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 emphasis and inflection help communicate a lot about how the word is working in a given situation. It expands the amount of usable context.

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 appear only in written texts… they are rarely if ever used in oral conversation.

So 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–and ensured 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 and thus enhances meaning. In fact even hearing a word pronounced correctly increases the likelihood that a student will use the word or attend to it when she encounters it next.

In other words, reading aloud to students–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.


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