Many kids begin school already knowing how to read. They haven’t had formal lessons. Their parents haven’t been trained in the latest methodology. They haven’t used a single worksheet or text book. Yet here they are reading. Why?
What Does Brain Research Show About Fluency?
Consider for a moment how your own children learned to read. If they’re like many kids, they had a few favorites in their book bin. I recall my oldest boy latching on to Amos & Boris and a Sesame Street book entitled Don’t Forget the Oatmeal. As a preschooler, he would ask us to read these books over and over again. Soon, he started reading them to us. “He’s not really reading,” we’d tell ourselves, “He’s heard the book so many times, he’s just memorized the words.”
But based on brain research dating back to the days of psychologist Lev Vygtsky (left), some experts believe the difference between reading and memorization is slight. Kids get an emotional charge out of reading proficiently—whether memorized or not. The positive charge actually produces chemicals that form the neural pathways that make reading (and learning) possible. Because our son had consumed Don’t Forget the Oatmeal so frequently, he’d mastered the text, prompting his brain to construct new pathways.
Can Reading Physically Damage a Child’s Brain?
No, reading won’t damage a child’s brain, but could poor instruction? Consider what we often do in the classroom. We take a book, article, or story and ask kids to read it one time. We expect mastery on the first attempt. We ask kids to pass computerized tests, complete worksheets, and discuss content after just a single reading. We’ve assumed that language is language, that if they can decode they should be able to read anything at their grade level. It’s a fallacy and a tragedy. If Vgotsky was right, instead of experiencing a positive emotion that builds pathways, many kids in this situation suffer a negative emotion that causes them to withdraw and resist reading altogether, possibly even causing those neural pathways to shrink. And don’t assume it’s just your low-performing students either. Watch carefully when you ask students to read aloud in class; many of your brightest kids are just as reluctant as your poor readers. It’s not simply that they’re shy; they don’t want to risk experiencing the negative emotions they feel when they stumble over or mispronounce a word. There are, however, a number of ways teachers can prevent those neurons from shrinking, one being the use of “repetitive reading” techniques.
How is Repetition Beneficial?
Asking a young reader to read aloud a piece of text he or she is looking at for the very first time is akin to asking a musician to perform in public a piece of music he or she has never played before. Only the most talented can do it, and even they rarely do. Just as music is a language that requires repetition for mastery, so too does reading. Your students need opportunities to “sight read,” to practice, and then to “perform” the material you want them to master. Plays are the perfect format.
Because we’ve inadvertently trained kids that a book is something to be read only once, few third graders are willing to give James and the Giant Peach a second round. Few second graders will read Stellaluna more than once or twice. Give children a script and schedule a public performance, however, and they’ll be willing to read and reread it twenty to thirty times. Twenty to thirty times! By the time they’re asked to read it in front of the class, even your struggling readers will be able to read with reasonable fluency. Even your “shy” kids will be willing to read out loud.
Read Aloud Plays give you the opportunity to teach repetitive reading without the resistance you get when asking a child to re-read a traditional text. Students acquire mastery, which chemically changes the brain, making them superior readers who are better able to comprehend. If Mr. Vgotsky were alive today, I think he’d approve.
Are You Ready to Grow Those Pathways?
If you’re not already using read aloud plays in your instruction, this is a great time to start. Not only will all that repetitive reading help grow some neurons, but drama can be used to fulfill a significant number of Common Core State Standards. Kick off the school year with a trio of explorer plays such as Fly Me to the Moon, The Fountain of Youth, and Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl. Or consider a set of American Revolution plays such The Secret Soldier, A Bell for the Statehouse, and Fact or Fiction: The Legend of Betsy Ross. Or browse ReadAloudPlays.com to mix and match.