Long before they become literate, children already learn and develop their language skills by listening to adults read aloud.
Language development in childhood is a long and complex process that occurs from the baby’s first interactions, and builds up with all the different experiences with language. Children learn to speak from what they hear, from the words, expressions, and forms of communication of those around them. In other words, adults are an essential part of language learning in childhood.
Long before they become literate, children already learn and develop their language skills by listening to adults read aloud. However, in our daily lives, our language is limited and even more restricted when we address little ones. So, how can we ensure that children have enriching language experiences so that they develop their communication skills in the best possible way?
Researchers from Barcelona carried out a study on the importance of adults reading aloud to children. They confirmed that, in childhood, listening to written stories provides a learning opportunity that does not normally happen in everyday life. Find out more below!
“Learning from an adult reading aloud”
This is the title of an article written by researchers Ana Teberosky and Angelica Sepúlveda from the University of Barcelona. It is a study set to analyze the practice of reading aloud and its effects on children. We talked to one of the authors about the main findings of their research.
Angelica Sepúlveda began her academic career in the field of speech therapy at the National University of Colombia, specializing in Educational Psychology with a master’s and doctorate at the University of Barcelona. In researching the development of oral communication, reading, and writing, Angelica has been in Brazil for seven years and collaborates in the development of educational research and innovation projects at the Laboratório de Educação (Education Laboratory), which carries out actions intended to enrich and qualify language in childhood.
The role of adults in language development
For Angelica, language development in childhood is a fascinating process: the child is immersed in a continuum of interactions and gradually manages to understand what the language is and what it’s for. They use language to ask for food and water, to play, and both in contact with adults and with other children.
The quantity of interactions, as well as the quality of them, are important factors in order for a child to learn language properly. Angelica and Ana’s research cites a study that shows that, on a daily basis, most expressions are not great linguistically and do not require anything from the child.
“Only 15% of everything spoken to children has canonical constructions, that is, with a subject, verb, and object, which is a complete structure of the language. This is not enough for them to learn a language. In everyday interactions, our language is very limited, so we have to make a conscious decision to enrich what we are offering a linguistic experience for children,” says Angelica.
Why is reading aloud so important?
According to Angelica, to wait for the child to become literate in order to start having contact with literature is a waste of time and opportunities.
“When the child hears stories, they have the opportunity to read many texts before being an autonomous reader and that makes all the difference”, Angelica notes.
The child who hears reading aloud is also, in a way, reading, in the sense that they listen to the written language and understand what is being read. Children also exercise learning through repetition and imitation. Just as they like to watch a video or listen to a song several times, they also ask to hear the same story over and over again.
Even in the case of older children who already know how to read alone, it is still important to enjoy reading aloud from adults. They will be observing a more experienced reader and learning from them, always gaining knowledge and experience from this interaction.
How to make the reading experience richer
According to Angelica’s experience with language practices in childhood, two points are important to enrich children’s repertoire and encourage a positive relationship with reading: the diversity and naturalness of these experiences – in other words, to create varied opportunities for children to have contact with books and texts, which is neither mandatory nor unpleasant for children.
“Good children’s literature books are made for a dual audience: for adults who buy and read them aloud, and for children. When finding a good book, both adults and children have a good literary experience,” defends the researcher.
Here are some tips to make reading aloud an even richer experience:
1. Have time to spare
It’s not good to start reading if you need to finish in 10 minutes because of another appointment. Set aside a special time to read to the child, when you can be 100% present in that interaction.
2. Immerse yourself in the story
If the adult is willing to read, they will have an authentic interaction with the text: they will be surprised, laugh if it is funny. They will react in an authentic way. It makes all the difference for the child to be interested in the story too.
3. Watch out for interruptions
Reading does not have to be a lesson. Avoid stopping the story for explanations unless the child themself asks. This allows the reader to establish relationships on their own.
4. Encourage natural conversations
After reading, talk to the child about the story. Tell them about your opinions and ideas, what you liked or disliked, and listen to what they have to say as well.
5. Read it over and over again
One reading experience is never the same as another. Reading the same book several times will impact the child differently, especially over time, promoting new reflections and learning.
6. Explore new formats
The greater the diversity of linguistic experiences the child has access to, the better. Digital platforms offer new ways to listen to readings, such as videos and storytelling podcasts. They are usually readings made by specialists, with different intonations and gestures that may not happen in family readings, to further enrich the child’s repertoire.