3 Steps to a Science of Reading-Aligned Read Aloud

Make the Most of Your Storytimes and Boost Reading Development

Dr. Molly Ness Headshot

By Dr. Molly Ness, Author

Let's begin with a snippet from the beloved children's classic "Miss Nelson is Missing" (Allard, 1977). In this story, the sweet Miss Nelson gently aims to discipline the "worst-behaved class in the whole school," (p. 3). They send spitballs whizzing through the air, make rude faces, and whisper and giggle through storytime. In her soft-spoken voice, Miss Nelson reminds the students to settle down. When she can no longer tolerate their antics, she disappears with the triumphant declaration, "Something will have to be done!" (p. 7). The next day, the class meets Miss Swamp, a no-nonsense substitute teacher. Ever the disciplinarian, Miss Swamp sets the students to work. She punishes with an authoritarian, "We'll have no story hour today!" (p. 14). And with that declaration, the children lose out on one of their favorite parts of the day – a teacher-led read aloud.

Though I love this book for many reasons, I simply cannot get behind eliminating the read aloud as a form of punishment. Yet, across classrooms today, read alouds are happening less and less in the classroom – not just for reasons of behavior management, but because of students' increasing age, a lack of understanding about its instructional value, or even because of a concerted focus on foundational skills (see Gooch & Lambrith, 2011). In fact, read alouds are an essential component in reading development and an integral factor in the longstanding body of research known as the Science of Reading.

Defining an Interactive Read Aloud

An interactive read aloud is a shared literacy experience engaging children and adults in conversation and engagement around a high-quality text.11 When we read aloud across various genres, formats, and content areas, we build students' background knowledge and expose them to sophisticated vocabulary – all necessary components in language comprehension. Though read alouds may be a cornerstone of literacy instruction in early childhood classrooms, their frequency declines in both older grades and content area classrooms.2

Exploring the Effectiveness of Read Alouds

Read alouds across all ages support students' multifaceted reading development.11 In particular, read alouds deepen students' vocabulary,3 strengthen their independent writing,6 increase the likelihood that they engage in independent reading,7 and develop their content knowledge and vocabulary.4 Read alouds are particularly beneficial for multilingual learners, contributing to increases in vocabulary and comprehension.5 Read alouds foster social-emotional development, including helping students control emotional outbursts14 and improving children's ability to empathize.13 Lastly, we cannot overlook the joy that read alouds evoke for both students and teachers.7, 15

Maximizing the Potential of Read Alouds

Despite the well-documented benefits of read alouds, a recent survey of elementary teachers revealed that 50-70 percent of respondents didn't allot intentional planning time for their read alouds.8 The following steps are readily applicable to any read aloud across content areas and grade levels. With this explicit planning process, we can unpack the instructional richness of read alouds and maximize their potential.

A Three-Step Planning Protocol

Step One: Evaluate

Prior to reading, your role in the evaluation step is to act as a detective, sorting out what might be problematic so you can set up your students for success. We might consider the background knowledge that the text assumes the reader brings. If readers need some familiarity with a concept or topic in the text, think through how to intentionally front load their knowledge to eliminate a potential comprehension stumbling point. These reflective questions might springboard your planning:

  • What do students need to know about the topic before reading this book?

  • Are there locations, references, interactions, events, or experiences in the book that students are likely to be unfamiliar with?

  • What does the book assume readers bring to the page with them?

  • Where else in the text might readers struggle? What potential points of confusion are there? Be careful about multiple characters, changes in settings (locations and time frames), and additional tricky spots.

  • What experiences, knowledge, explanation, or exposure can I build, enhance, or lend my students in advance of reading?

Also, deliberately examine the text for instructional opportunities within the text – in other words, evaluate for both obstacles and opportunities.

Step Two: Explain

In the second step, we provide rich explanations of two specific areas: lingering comprehension roadblocks and unfamiliar vocabulary. Embrace the instructional opportunities of think alouds – the purposeful use of ‘I' language to model how you are making meaning from the text.10 Through first-person narrative language, use these think alouds to show how you are making inferences, synthesizing information, generating questions about the text, considering the author's purpose, and addressing comprehension breakdowns.

Additionally, explain new vocabulary words – both the words you choose to provide meaningful instruction on and the words you can simply explain so as not to hinder comprehension of overall content. Follow the Text Talk instructional model1 to state the word in the context of the book, provide a student-friendly definition, and connect the word to additional contexts. These reflective questions might guide the second step:

  • Which words can be simply explained and do not require additional instruction?

  • Which words are more complex and should receive follow-up instruction?

  • Where might I incorporate think alouds to model understanding and improve student comprehension?

Through this intentionality, the read aloud is replete with rich comprehension modeling and explicit vocabulary instruction, key elements in effective reading instruction.

Step Three: Engage and Extend

This final step occurs after your read aloud, where we engage students in critical inquiry and reflection about the text. Our aim is to further students' critical thinking through literacy-rich extensions and engage students in rich conversations. Three areas are particularly fruitful: using the text for (1) social-emotional engagement, (2) cross-curricular extensions, and (3) additional literacy extensions. Not every book offers all three, and these reflective questions might narrow your focus:

  • What social-emotional learning opportunities does the text present? Where might I enhance students' abilities to relate or learn from this text about ideas of identity, relationships, caring for each other, or community building?

  • With extra time, what might I showcase from this book to feature arts, music, social studies, math, science, or English language arts?

  • How might writing, listening, or speaking help students better understand the book? What engaging and literacy-rich opportunities does this text offer after reading?

Prioritizing Read Alouds in Your Instruction

Once we embrace the read aloud as an opportunity to build engagement, vocabulary, content knowledge, comprehension, motivation, and so many other academic skills, we increase students' development as readers, writers, and thinkers. Explicit planning of the read alouds offer these opportunities every day, in every classroom.

My hope is this research-based approach to read alouds challenges, inspires, or invigorates you to consider how you incorporate them into your daily classroom instruction. Maybe you include read alouds a few times a week, either when time allows or as an incentive for students. It could be you are a middle school teacher who has never considered read alouds as a part of your instruction. Regardless of your starting point, I hope this inspires forward motion for you in your read-aloud instruction, either with a renewed sense of purpose, more intentional planning, or even a commitment to increase the frequency or duration of your read alouds.

LIVE: Read Alouds and the Science of Reading: Don't Stop Your Storytimes!


Read Alouds and the Science of Reading: Don't Stop Your Storytimes!

In this free, on-demand webinar, Dr. Molly Ness, author of Read Alouds for All Learners, shares actionable strategies to apply the Science of Reading to classroom Read Alouds and talks about the dangers of dropping this beloved instructional practice from your literacy block.



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  3. Dowdall, N., Melendez-Torres, G. J., Murray, L., Gardner, F., Hartford, L., & Cooper, P. J. (2020). Shared picture book reading interventions for child language development: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Development, 91(2). doi: 10.1111/cdev.13225
  4. Dwyer, M., & Martin-Chang, S. (2023). Fact from fiction: The learning benefits of listening to historical fiction. The Reading Teacher, doi:10.1002/trtr.21.77/
  5. Giroir, S., Grimaldo, L. R., Vaughn, S., & Roberts, G. (2015). Interactive read-alouds for English learners in the elementary grades. The Reading Teacher, 68(8), 639-648.
  6. Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D'Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., et al. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U. S. Department of Education.
  7. Ledger, S., & Merga, M. K. (2018). Reading aloud: Children's attitudes toward being read to at home and at school. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 43(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2018v43n3.8
  8. McCaffrey, M. & Hisrich, K. (2017). Read-alouds in the classroom: A pilot study of Teachers' self-reporting practices. Reading Improvement, 54(3), 93-100.
  9. Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 267-296.
  10. Ness, M. (2018). Think big with think alouds, grades K-5: A three-step planning process that develops strategic readers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  11. Ness, M. (2023). Read alouds for all learners: A comprehensive plan for every subject, every day, Grades PreK - 8. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
  12. Smith, K. C., Young, C. A., & Yatzeck, J. C. (2022). What are teachers reading and why? An analysis of elementary read aloud titles and the rationales underlying teachers' selections. Literacy Research and Instruction, 61(4), 383-401.
  13. Thompson, E., & Melchior, S. (2020). Improving empathy in children: Interactive read-aloud as a counseling intervention. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 15(2), 199-211.
  14. Verden, C. E. (2012). Reading culturally relevant literature aloud to urban youths with behavioral challenges. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 55(7), 619-628.
  15. Vlach, S. Lentz, T., & Muhammad, G. (2023). Activating joy through culturally and historically responsive read-alouds. The Reading Teacher, pp. 1-9. doi:10.1002/trtr.2203

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