Here is the full transcript of Rebecca Bellingham’s TEDx Talk: Why We Should All Be Reading Aloud to Children at TEDxYouth@BeaconStreet.
15 years ago, I was a teaching artist in the New York City public schools, and one of my projects was adapting and directing a production of “Charlotte’s Web” with a group of third graders at PS 220, the Mott Haven Village School in the South Bronx. As a way to begin our work together, I read aloud the first chapter from EB White’s famous and beautiful book.
As some of us may recall, the story begins with Fern learning that her father, Mr Arable, is off to the hoghouse to kill the runt of the litter with his axe. “Please don’t kill it,” she sobbed, “It’s unfair.”
Mr Arable stopped walking. “Fern,” he said gently, “you will have to learn to control yourself.”
“Control myself?” yelled Fern; “This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself?”
Tears ran down her cheeks, and she took hold of the axe and tried to pull it out of her father’s hand.
Well, the pig is saved, and later that morning, Fern discovers a carton on her chair at breakfast. As she approached her chair, the carton wobbled, and there was a scratching noise. Fern looked at her father, then she lifted the lid of the carton. There, inside, looking up at her was the newborn pig. It was a white one. The morning light shone through its ears, turning them pink.
“He is yours,” said Mr Arable, “Saved from an untimely death. And may the good Lord forgive me for this foolishness.”
Fern couldn’t take her eyes off the tiny pig “Oh!” she whispered, “Oh! Look at him! He is absolutely perfect.”
She closed the carton carefully, for she kissed her father, then she kissed her mother, then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out and held it against her cheek.
Well, when I finished reading the chapter, the kids lined up for lunch, and a little boy named Joey tugged at my sleeve and he said, “Miss B, I felt like I was right there. Like, I could really see that little pig. I never got inside a book before like that.”
Well, I was thrilled that Joey was enjoying the story, but, to be perfectly honest, at the time, I was much more concerned with how in the world we were going to make all those farm animal costumes just using pillow cases, and whether the kids would memorize all their lines or not. They did. And we did.
And every time I visited that classroom, the kids couldn’t wait for me to read aloud to them again. For all the kids in the audience: would you raise your hand if you really like it when teachers read aloud to you or parents read aloud to you? Or adults? Do you remember being read to? And loving it?
Well, I’ve been an educator for almost 20 years. And I’ve read thousands and thousands of pages aloud. And I’ve never met a group of kids who didn’t love it, who were immune to the spell of a great book being read aloud. As a teacher and a mom, I can’t think of many things that matter as much as reading aloud to our kids. At all ages. At school and at home.
Because reading aloud gives kids a special kind of access to the transformative power of story, and the experience of what real reading is all about, which is to deeply understand, to think, to learn and discuss big ideas about the world, about the lives of others and about ourselves.
So, when I think back to what Joey said to me all those years ago, “Miss B, I felt like I was right there. Like, I could really see that little pig. I never got inside a book before like that.”
I’m struck by this idea that reading aloud for Joey made it possible for him to get inside a book; as though before that experience he was outside. Because Joey is not alone in feeling that way. Reading for a lot of kids can feel like a locked building. Without the right key or the right code, or the right experiences, they can’t get in. They feel like they’re outside.
Because for some kids, dealing with the code, the tangle of letters and sounds, tricky words and vocabulary, is a more difficult process for any number of reasons. The decoding of words takes up so much brain energy, they don’t have a lot of brain space left over to actually take in the story or the meaning.
For other kids, the decoding isn’t so difficult, but it can sometimes feel like they’re just translating words across a page, like how I might do with a medical textbook or a medical journal. I could translate or decode the words, but I wouldn’t be able to understand them, or think, or talk about them. How many of us here have found ourselves halfway down a page only to realize, “I have no idea what I just read.”
When teachers and parents read aloud, we do the decoding work. We deal with the print and the tricky vocabulary and words, and we free kids to think. So they can use all their brain energy to imagine the story and learn new information. So all children listening have access to the amazing reading party happening inside the building. And we want kids to get in the building and get to the party and stay there.
Even while they’re still strengthening their decoding or comprehension or vocabulary muscles in books they can read on their own. Because even when kids are reading on their own, reading aloud to them has a tremendous impact on their independent reading lives. Because when kids go back to their own books, they know that world should come alive in their brains as they read. They know that real readers pause to wonder, think, ask questions. They know that real readers let the stories affect them.
Maybe even change them. Because the way that we stop and react at something that we read aloud gives us an opportunity to model compassion, to wonder aloud in a genuine way about a choice, a character or a community made. When we read aloud, we can help kids walk in the shoes of people who might be radically different from themselves.
Or see reflections of themselves, which might make them feel less alone or more hopeful. What happens when we walk in the shoes of Kek, a young refugee from Sudan who comes to Minnesota after seeing his brother and father killed in a war? What can we learn from Auggie, who was born with a rare facial anomaly? Or Delphine, who is eleven years old and goes to Oakland, California in 1968 to meet her mom for the first time, who is active in the Black Panther Party? Or Annemarie, who helps her best friend escape to Denmark during The Holocaust? We can give kids access to stories, and books, and ideas, and information that they otherwise might not get a chance to explore, or explore as deeply.