Why both children and adults can benefit from reading out loud, writes Shane Green.
‘Will you look at us by the river?… Unless you knew, you’d think they were a whole group, an earthly vision. Because, look, even the missing are there, the gone and taken are with them in the shade of pools of the peppermints by the beautiful, the beautiful the river. And even now, one of the here is leaving.’
You’ve just read the opening of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel Cloudstreet, winner of the Miles Franklin Award.
Rosemary Johnston would now like you to do something different. Read the paragraph again, but this time, read it out loud.
Notice the difference – the rhythms, cadences, imagery and alliteration (‘pools of the peppermints’). It surprises and provides different insights.
Professor Johnston, Director of the Youth Futures Centre at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), is a powerful advocate for reading out loud and the benefits it delivers for both adults and children, proficient readers and beginners.
For children, it’s part of creating that critical experience about the power of reading, from the moment they are on a parent’s lap. ‘They hear the sounds of the words, they get the feel of the words, they grow an idea of what language does,’ she says.
It’s a parent and child doing something together, two minds sharing.
‘When your mind and a child’s mind come together in the reading of a story, and you’re captivated into that story together, that has a sort of special magic of its own.’
But as the Cloudstreet reading aloud exercise shows, it also applies to adults. When lecturing to university students, Professor Johnston would often read aloud complex or challenging texts, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon.
‘Those beautiful books are the sort of books that unless you’ve been used to reading, a young person’s not necessarily going to pick up and read.’
Take, for example, Beloved, the 1987 novel set after the American Civil War about an African American slave who escapes slavery in Kentucky. Professor Johnston would read the first one or two chapters to her students.
You can’t read Beloved aloud, she explains, without expressing the emotion, feeling, mystery and anger that are part of the book. ‘Straight away, the students are into it, with all its mysterious narrative, and they want to read on,’ says Professor Johnston.
Fewer Reading for Fun
The discussion of reading comes at a critical time, with concern that fewer children are reading for fun, a trend that continues into adulthood.
‘What it boils down to is that kids are not reading,’ says Professor Johnston, who is Professor of Education and Culture at UTS.
She was at a recent conference in the United States where a keynote speaker said it did not matter if children did not read, so long as they were playing computer games.
‘The point she was making is that computer games can be creative, you need literacy to navigate around whatever it is, and they carry a narrative, all of which is valid,’ says Professor Johnston.
‘But what wasn’t valid is that she went on to say that you don’t have to worry if your kids don’t read. And I think children absolutely need to read.’
Reading requires complex mechanisms of thought and imagination that don’t have visual cues or clues. It is vigorous exercise for the imagination – building mind pictures and worlds, starting from scratch from black marks on a white page.
You have to picture the setting, you have to picture the characters, you have to picture the events, says Professor Johnston.
Key to the Future
Reading also has other lasting, positive impacts.
Research conducted by the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London found that children with strong reading skills were more likely to have higher intelligence levels as young adults.
‘Since reading is an ability that can be improved, our findings have implications for reading instruction,’ noted researcher Dr Stuart Ritchie School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.
‘Early remediation of reading problems might aid not only the growth of literacy, but also more general cognitive abilities that are of critical importance across a person’s lifetime.’
For Professor Johnston, who has devoted her career to literature and literacy, especially for children in challenging circumstances, there is still the excitement of the creative process that reading activates.
‘Reading unlocks creativity, and breeds agile minds’ she says. ‘And this is what employers are looking for.’
She quotes a research project about the most popular children’s books. The winner was Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree, but the interesting thing happened when children (and adults remembering childhood reading) were asked to choose their favorite magic land at the top of the tree.
About 50 per cent of the lands they mentioned weren’t actually in the book.
‘They had created their own imaginary lands at the top of the Faraway Tree,’ says Professor Johnston. ‘I think that’s amazing – and very, very exciting.’
Rosemary Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture at UTS and the founding Director of the International Research Centre for Youth Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). She leads several large research projects, has held three Australian Research Council Grants, a UK Leverhulme Grant and is widely published in the fields of literacy and children’s literature and culture.