Read Alouds

All over India and the world, good librarians understand that children who have been read to are more likely to read themselves. There is a mountain of robust research on this, and it has been a central part of what we do at the library since the start. In fact, this project started as a read aloud book club, and it was only later — as children began to ask for books to take and read at home, that it grew into a library.

We’ve never stopped reading aloud, and we think that is one of the reasons why we issue hundreds of books every week to members whose experience with reading would, at best, otherwise have extended only as far as textbooks and test papers.

In business terms, you might say we’ve created the demand for our product: people who are read to read more books.


The Why And The How

It is worth thinking about why and how read alouds work, because there are as many ways to read aloud as there are readers and books. There is not one right way to read to children, there are many ways. Each has it’s own strengths and limitations, and each will accomplish different things.

At the library, we think there are at least four general categories of read alouds, each with a different purpose:

  • Read aloud to tell a good story;
  • Think aloud to show reading is thinking;
  • Read to build a culture of reading (Member-to-member read alouds);
  • Read to build second language skills.

There is a great deal of overlap between these four kinds of read alouds: no read aloud works if there is not a good story behind it, and good storytelling often invites and models thinking about the story--regardless of the language it happens in. A good read aloud will accomplish several things at once.

However, there can be too much of a good thing. Experience has taught us that even a well-planned read aloud will fail if it tries to do too many things at one time. For example, it’s possible to scaffold a good story written in English in a way that hold the interest and builds the second language skills language of our members, but if we also stop on each page to review and model how to infer, question, predict and synthesise, we may kill the story completely!


Kinds of Read Alouds

Below are four basic kinds of read aloud, each with a different purpose. We’ve outlined some of the things each type of read aloud accomplishes, and given tips about how to do each one. (Note: Given our membership, read alouds generally work best in Hindi. But there are times when we read in English, and we’ve included some notes on how to do that effectively in read to build a second language section.)

Read To Tell A Good Story

Many, if not most, of our members, come to us having already experienced a rich oral tradition of storytelling and songs. That is a wonderful thing, and the library’s job is never to replace this tradition, but to build on it in a way that allows members to access even more stories and ideas.

But whether they’ve heard stories, poems or songs at home or not, members who have not been read to have little idea of how wonderful a book can be. Simply handing them a one and telling them to read it is asking them to engage in a difficult, confusing task, alone. Good readers know that a book is a wonderful companion, but we were not born knowing that. Unlike a story told in the home, in the beginning, at least, reading a book can be lonely.

TCLP's Sumit Parewa does a Read Aloud

Why Read To Tell A Good Story?

Reading to tell a good story can accomplish many things. Importantly, this kind of read aloud provides a bridge between oral traditions and literature that is written in books. Reading to tell a good story teaches other things as well:

  • Meaning matters: Young members learn that written words have meaning and all members are reminded that the point of reading is not just to call out words, but to understand.
  • How books work: Young members learn which way we turn pages and how pictures and words can work together to tell a story. Older members may learn that a book has an author and a publisher, a table of contents, etc.
  • Reading is fun and social: When we model our enjoyment of a good story, we are teaching students that reading books can be fun, and members who go away feeling good about books are more likely to read them on their own.
  • How stories work: The books we read introduce students to a wide variety of story structures and voices. There is a reason why good readers can often predict the ending of a story: they have read and heard many other stories before and have internalized the way stories work.
  • Vocabulary development: Though numbers vary by language, in day-to-day speech we generally use only 3,000-5,000 words. Educated people often know 20,000 or more words in their first language. Where did they learn them? In most cases, they learned them by reading. Even picture books for young children tend to use a more varied range of words than we use in day-to-day speech.

Tips For Telling A Good Story:

Before Reading

  • Choose a good story! This is so important, and it depends on many things, including your audience and your own taste as a reader. This can be trickier than it seems!
  • Practice, so you can read the story smoothly, like a storyteller.
  • Consider what parts of the story might be difficult for students and what you would like them to think about during the read aloud. Try to address this in your introduction, so the story itself is less about confusion and more about discovery.
  • Consider seating: A read aloud can happen in a traditional classroom, but if you can sit students on a chatai on the floor, the energy often changes in a good way.

While Reading

  • Be kind and welcoming. Show members you value them are happy to see them. This is good practice in all teaching and storytelling, because we learn better when we feel valued. And when students leave a read aloud with a good feeling, they’re more likely to read on their own, because they associate books with good things.
  • Introduce the story and provide ‘scaffolding’ before you start reading. Maybe you provide a little background; maybe you pose a question to think about (e.g., ‘This is a story about a fish who steals another fish’s hat--how silly. Do you think he’ll get away with it?’)
  • Stop and think. We’ll explore this more in the read to extend thinking read aloud. But all good storytellers stop from time to time and say, ‘O, I wonder why he did that?’ or ‘What do you think will happen next?’ You may ask members what they think, or you may model your own thinking. Both are good to do.

After Reading Aloud

  • Think, Learn and Grow yourself. After reading, think about what worked and what didn’t. Talk with somebody about how it went.

Think Aloud

At the library, we say, ‘reading is thinking.’ We recognize that all people are thinkers and have interesting ideas. But we also believe that the thinking we do when we read books is a particularly powerful kind of thinking, one that all people should have access to.

A think aloud is a kind of read aloud that highlights the idea that reading is thinking by making explicit something all avid readers understand if they think about it: good readers have two voices in their heads when they read; one that reads the words on the page, one that thinks about them. There is the reading voice and the thinking voice. The goal if the think aloud is not to explain the ‘lesson’ of a book, but to expose members to various strategies good readers use when they read.

Read Aloud Training at TCLP

Of course we will invite students into this process—they will insist on participating in most cases, and that’s good, because we want to build a community of thinkers. But without some modeling from us, members will lose an opportunity to learn new ways of thinking about text and ideas.

Elements of this approach can and should be used in a reading to tell a good story read aloud. But in-depth think alouds tend to work better with members who have some familiarity with stories, books, and the idea that a read aloud is a place where we can think together.

Why Think Aloud

Once students are are familiar with the idea that books contain stories and it is fun to hear stories, a think aloud can push their thinking in ways that will make it possible for them to access more challenging books and ideas in the future. A think aloud accomplishes many of the same things as reading to tell a good story, but it also introduces members to thinking strategies used by good readers. These include:

  • Predict: Good readers think about what’s coming next.
  • Connect: Good readers connect what we read to things we have experienced in our lives, things we know about, or things we have read about before.
  • Question: Good readers ask: Who…? What…? Where…? When…? Why…? How…? I wonder…
  • Visualize: Good readers imagine what things in books look (and smell and sound) like
  • Infer: Good readers use what they know about the world to figure out things that are not spelled out in the story.
  • Determine Importance: Good readers understand that some parts of a book are more important than others
  • Synthesize: Good readers look for the ‘big ideas’ or themes in texts.
  • Fix up strategies: Good readers know what to do when something doesn’t make sense.

Note: Bilingual (Hindi/English) translations of these reading strategies are linked below in several forms.


Tips for Think Alouds

Here are some basic tips for planning and conducting a think aloud. We have created model lesson plans (linked below) in Hindi and English for nine books available in India to show what this kind of lesson can look like. You might want to start there.

  • Choose a good story! Good stories always matter. Choose a good book that your readers will enjoy.
  • Consider what thinking strategies you want to focus on. Make notes!
  • Practice, so you can read the story smoothly, like a storyteller. In this read aloud you’ll also practice the points where you’ll stop and ‘think aloud’. You’ll want to watch the clock: if you stop too often, the story will become boring!
  • Consider what parts of the story might be difficult for students and what you would like them to think about during the read aloud. Try to address this in your introduction, so the story itself is less about confusion and more about discovery.
  • Consider seating: A read aloud can happen in a traditional classroom, but if you can sit students on a chatai on the floor, the energy often changes in a good way.

While Reading

  • Be kind and welcoming. Show members you value them are happy to see them.
  • Introduce the story and provide ‘scaffolding’ before you start reading. Provide context or vocabulary that might be difficult for members.
  • Explain what you are doing: ‘As I read this story, you may see me thinking aloud about the story. And sometimes I’ll ask you to help me. Good readers have two voices in their head: a reading voice and a thinking voice. Today you’ll hear my thinking voice and hopefully I’ll hear yours.’
  • Make sure you show the pictures!
  • Stop and think aloud. Model thinking strategies you use when you read. Examples of what this looks like can be found in our model lesson plans, linked below.
  • Remember pacing matters: If you are losing your group because you are ‘thinking aloud’ too much, cut your thinking short. Even a great book can be ruined by too much teacher and student talk. Read the room for signs members are losing interest. If this happens, it’s best to reduce your think alouds and begin reading to tell a good story.

After Reading Aloud

  • Think, Learn and Grow yourself. After reading, think about what worked and what didn’t. Talk with somebody about how it went.

Think Aloud Resources

Member-to-Member Read Alouds

We know read alouds work. But read alouds are labour intensive: there is little lasting benefit in a single read aloud; real growth happens when a children are read to hundreds of times over the course of their childhood. For some time, we have searched for a delivery model that is scalable with limited resources.

In middle class, educated families all over the world, parents read to their children at home, if not daily, then at least weekly. In communities where parents are literate and comfortable with books, it makes sense to train parents to read to their children at an early age. In European and North American communities, where there is near universal literacy and access to books, this approach often works.

Where parents have not been read to themselves or do not know how to read themselves, the responsibility of reading to children tends to fall on schools and libraries. That presents problems in places like Delhi, where teachers don’t have the time or training to read to children, and where libraries and books are scarce.

Why Teach Members To Read To Each Other?

In working class Delhi communities, where literacy and experience with books is not given, we’ve had success with member-to-member read alouds. In addition to the benefits members get from any read to tell a good story read aloud, we’ve found that member-to-member read alouds have several added benefits. These include:

  • youth leadership development;
  • increased member and community ownership and participation;
  • more capacity to reach more members with read alouds;
  • growth in the ‘culture of reading’ in our libraries.

Members who read to other members quickly see themselves in a new way. They are no longer just the recipients of learning, or volunteers who do important, but low-skill work, such as dusting or even issuing books. They are part of the highest mission of the library: they are helping to engage members in reading and thinking. The community around the library also begins to see the library in a new way: it is not a gift given by outsiders, but a part of the community, run by the community.

Just as important, once members begin to read to each other, the library’s read aloud capacity grows exponentially. For us this experiment is only a few months old, but already we are seeing the benefits: one day a week is dedicated to read alouds by members. One day, two months after we began the program, four members read to a total of 68 members over the course of a couple of hours. Other children were observed informally reading to peers throughout the week.

While adult volunteers at our library continue to be key to our read aloud program and collectively read to more than 150 members in a typical week, we see a time coming soon when member-to-member read alouds will be as important or more important than adult-to-member read alouds.

Finally, as members see other members reading, their idea of reading itself changes. When a member reads to another member, the message is very clear: books and thinking are for everyone, not just those with degrees or special training. In the past few months, we’ve seen a growth in the number of spontaneous read alouds by students who have not been formally trained, and we have seen an increased willingness on the part of elder siblings to read to younger siblings at home.

Member-to-Member-Read Alouds: Nuts and Bolts

Like all people who read aloud, our members use a variety of strategies when they read to each other. Generally, members start by reading to tell a good story (see above). That’s the kind of read aloud we focus on when we train members, but members also also incorporate elements of the think alouds.

In addition to the training we give to adult volunteers, we’ve found four things go into a good member-to-member read program:

  1. Model. Before training members to read aloud to each other, members must have extensive experience being read to.  We don’t learn how to talk before we’ve been spoken to. No writer can write well before reading. Adults who have been read to (or have been told stories) as children find it easier to read to children. The same is true for children. Many of our members do have experience with storytelling at home, and this is important. But it’s not enough by itself: there is no shortcut: first, adults must read to members many times.
  2. Train. Once members of all ages have been read to and have experienced joys of reading and thinking on their own, those who are interested are ready to be trained. The training we conduct is based on the ideas outlined above. But it must be stressed that a key part of any read aloud training is to give participants an opportunity to practice reading to each other in pairs or groups of three.
  3. Support and Practice. Students who have been trained to read aloud need a chance to practice their skills in a supportive but real environment. Each week on Tuesdays, we open the library for member-led read alouds. We support member readers in choosing books and preparing their read aloud, and we insure they have a quiet space and a small audience of interested members. (There are many ways to make this happen. In our program, we hold member-to-member read alouds on the day when we do Arts and Crafts at the library; this ensures an audience, because there are always members waiting for a turn in the art room!)
  4. Watch it Grow and Celebrate! Since we started our member-to-member read alouds, we’ve seen an increase in the confidence of our member readers. We’ve also seen other members who have not been formally trained reading to their peers spontaneously. We celebrate this and see it as a sign of a deeper shift in the culture of reading at the library.

Read To Build A Second Language

It is always easier to read to children in a language they understand. But learning a second language is important, and read aloud is one way to help support that. And there are times when we want to share a wonderful book, but we don’t have it in Hindi.

With very short, simple books, it sometimes possible to simply translate the book on the spot. That can give members access to the story and the ideas in it, but it won’t support second language learning.

We can also read the text in English and then translate much of the important parts into Hindi to support comprehension. That will support language learning, but if we rely on this too much, members simply stop listening to the English.

Why Read To Build A Second Language?

When done well, hearing a story read aloud in a second language can do much of what other read aloud methods do. But it can also expose students to more complex vocabulary, syntax and grammatical structures. When properly supported, students can also gain confidence that they might try reading an English book on their own. Though not enough on its own, reading is a very effective and way to learn new languages. Through reading in a second language, students:

  • Internalize the way the way a language works: There is a growing understanding among second language educators that it’s not enough (or even always effective) to teach language by focussing on having students memorize lists of vocabulary and rules of syntax and grammar. More and more, reading is becoming a key part of second language instruction in many of the most effective schools in the world. Students internalize how the language works when they read, just as young children learn to speak by listening to spoken language.
  • Learn new vocabulary: though numbers vary by language, in day-to-day speech we generally use only 3,000-5,000 words. Even picture books for young children tend to use a more varied range of words than we use in day-to-day speech. Books are a great place to acquire vocabulary.
  • Confidence. When we support students with a good introduction and scaffolding (pictures from the book and drawn by us) so they can follow a story read in a second language, their confidence grows and they are more likely to try reading on their own in a second language.

Tips For Reading To Build A Second Language

The key when reading to students in a second language is to provide enough support, or comprehensible input up front, before the reading begins. The pictures in picture books do part of the work, but they are seldom enough.

With proper support up front, or ‘front-loading’, many students will be able to listen to a story in a second language (e.g., English) with a minimum of first language (e.g., Hindi) translation and/or explanation during the reading. They won’t understand all the words, but they will follow this important parts of the story if supported well before they start. During the reading, their brains will be working hard to understand the text, and if they follow the story, their confidence and language will grow.

Before Reading

  • Choose a good story! This is important, and it depends on many things, including your audience and your own taste as a reader. When reading in a second language, such as English consider finding books with:
    • Pictures that effectively support the text;
    • A relatively small amount of text works best for our members;
    • Pattern books, with repeated phrases work very well for young readers.
  • Practice, so you can read the story smoothly, like a storyteller. Identify words and plot points that may be difficult.
  • Consider what parts of the story might be difficult for students and what you would like them to think about during the read aloud. Try to address this in your introduction, so the story itself is less about confusion and more about discovery. This is very important when reading in a second language like English. See notes about introducing the book, below. You may want to draw some pictures.
  • Consider seating: A read aloud can happen in a traditional classroom, but if you can sit students on a chatai on the floor, the energy often changes in a good way.

While Reading

  • Be kind and welcoming. Show members you value them and are happy to see them. Acknowledge you are going to be reading a story in English and this may be difficult for them. Challenge them to stretch their brains. This works especially well for older students.
  • Introduce the story and provide maximum ‘scaffolding’ before you start reading. This ‘front-loading’ is very important. You may want to:
    • List the main characters (and sketch them on the board if you can).
    • List the main characters (and sketch them on the board if you can).
    • Draw a picture or two on the board of major events or turning points  in the story. Discuss these in a mix of second and first language so members have a sense of what the story is about. It’s better to over-support than to run the risk of losing members as you read. Once our brain turn off or stop paying attention, they seldom turn back on in the same story. And overwhelmed brains tend to turn off.
    • Present a question or two you want members to focus on. You can use as much first language (Hindi) as you need.
  • Stop and Think. At key points, you’ll want to stop and have short discussions.. It’s OK to shift into Hindi here if you think doing this in English would be difficult. Ideally we provide enough support up front to make it possible for most members to follow the story in English. But we don’t want to lose anyone. Watch your audience. The goal of these discussions is to check and support comprehension, but try to avoid making them into examinations. Rather than ask, ‘What did Sal do just there?’ Ask, ‘Why do you think Sal likes blueberries so much?’

After Reading Aloud

Think, Learn and Grow yourself. After reading, think about what worked and what didn’t. Talk with somebody about how it went.

The Community Library Project
Dharam Bhavan, C-13 Housing Society
South Extension Part -1
New Delhi - 110049
Donations to The Community Library Project are exempt from tax under section 80G of the Income Tax Act. Tax exemption is only valid in India.

Illustrations provided by Priya Kuriyan.
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