Reading Aloud

I wrote this quick post Monday before I had a chance to see Daniel Willingham’s piece in the NYT on the same theme – please check it out.  It’s brilliant and balanced, as you’d expect.

Audio story-telling is blowing up.  According to a June 28 story from Forbes:

“Audiobooks are up 29.5% in net revenue over 2016 according to the Association of American Publishers and up 22.7% in unit sales over 2016 by the Audio Publishers Association’s estimate.”

And it’s not just audiobooks – according to the same story:

“podcast revenues clocked in a $314 million, still small but up 86 percent from the year before,”

Moreover, just take a look at what apps are doing – for instance, it seems “sleep stories” are having a moment – consider podcasts like Sleep with Me and the catalog of bedtime stories from the app Calm, both for adults and kids.

Does this phenomenon signal an end of literacy?

There is an academic controversy concerning whether it was a norm in the ancient world to read aloud.  Whether it was or not, it was certainly the case that private readings of poetry were a common form of entertainment, especially among the elite.  Public recitations, speeches, and of course, theater, were also forms of amusement for wider and more popular audiences.

It may be that we are simply rediscovering the power of the voice to make stories come alive.  Great audiobook narrators bring out meaning and flourishes that we may miss by reading words on a page.

Yet, undoubtedly, listening to a book does not give us as easy an opportunity to stop and ponder as reading the text.

Both modalities bring richness to our reading lives, and perhaps the next revolution will be a technology that can more easily coordinate the experiences (Audible’s WhisperSync is a great start, but it does require that you purchase the book twice – in audio and Kindle formats).  Perhaps head-ups displays synced to ear buds will be the next iteration of reading.

In the world of edu-speak, the books that teachers read to students, typically from kindergarten to 2nd grade, before most students can read text fluently, are called “read-alouds.”  I think there are few areas in education that need to be more carefully considered than the books presented to children in these formative settings.

Often the approach is to give them stories that are “relatable.”  And certainly, there is nothing wrong with sprinkling in these kinds of tales.  But the opportunity is wasted if children’s imaginations aren’t stretched a little to include magical or far-flung places and times.

Think about how powerful it is to read a book to a child  — you are communicating that not only have you chosen a book for a child, but that you think it’s so important that you are reading it aloud to them, allowing yourself and them a chance to be immersed in a story.

That’s an awe-inspiring interaction.  Let’s approach these teaching moments with careful thought to the lessons, both implicit and explicit, that students pick up from the stories we share with them.

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