The Power of Reading Aloud

Special Focus : Impact-Driven Innovation in Education
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership July 08, 2015

In today’s technology-driven era, reading a book is often considered boring and a chore. Reading for pleasure is an alien concept for many children around the world. A traditional book is lost amid a plethora of digital readers, iPads, and education applications. The fact that adults have very little or no time to read aloud to their young ones is also not helping the situation. But why is reading for pleasure so important? 
It’s as simple as this: reading hones a child’s creative and critical thinking skills. When a child picks up a book, he delves into the world of situations. Stories teach children valuable moral and life lessons. They also draw courage, confidence and inspiration from the protagonists. Legendary stories such as “Al-Sindibab Al-Bahriy” (Sindibad, the Sailor) are great examples of how to teach children patience, resilience and determination through story telling. Through his different adventures, “Al-Sindibad” inspires children to work hard and earn their gain, to find creative solutions in desperate situations and to never lose hope. Other stories like “Set Alkul” by Taghreed Najjar teach the youngsters to surpass challenges and defy social norms in order to accomplish one’s self.
On an intellectual level, reading allows children to build their vocabulary and improve their grammar skills. This helps them better express themselves both orally and in writing in a clear succinct fashion. For example, when children memorize the Quran by tradition, it helps them develop language skills and a rich repository of vocabulary to draw from.

Children need words to describe their physical surroundings both natural and manmade. This is very important for the development of identity and creativity. According to Bruce Hood, a professor of developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol, self-development comes from interacting with humans. The richer the interaction and the more vocabulary is used, the richer and more developed person you become. In fact, during the 1970s researchers have shown that children with educated parents, are exposed to a wider variety of words than children with non-educated parents. As a result, children do not enter school on an equal basis, some have an advantage over others. Researchers concluded that the only way to bridge this education barrier is through reading aloud to the child. Reading encourages respect for others despite disagreement. Acquiring this skill is very important as it forms the foundation for communication and peace building.

Reading fosters empathy in children and adults. A recent pilot study conducted by the We Love Reading program in collaboration with Jean Decety at the Child Neurosuite of the University of Chicago, found that emotional reading results in higher levels of empathy and concern for others as well as greater pro-social behavior. For example, a child who is jealous of his new-born sibling is unfamiliar with this feeling and does not know how to describe it to his parents or adults around him. But if his mother reads to him a story about sibling jealousy, he will be able to relate to the situation and will be able to express himself more clearly. And the same scenario could be replicated in societies for greater good. 

Encouraging children to pick up a book

Many programs attempting to increase reading levels by providing books have failed. On the other hand, researchers have shown that reading aloud is key in fostering the love of reading. In the West, this task is fulfilled by parents, teachers or librarians. Although these individuals are present in developing countries, the culture hasn’t embedded a sense of enthusiasm for reading aloud, and many are illiterate or lack reading skills and habits. 
This is what inspired me to develop an innovative model that provides a practical, cost efficient, sustainable, grassroots approach involving women and community. This model aims to boost reading levels among children aged from four to ten through the read-aloud experience. The We Love Reading (WLR) program trains local women and youth to hold reading sessions in their neighborhoods. This is what the We Love Reading library is all about.  WLR chooses books that are age-appropriate, attractive, neutral in content, in the native language of the child. It promotes the experience of reading and empowers women readers to become leaders in their communities. It builds ownership in children and community members and serves as a platform for raising awareness on issues such as health and environment.

The model can be replicated anywhere, including public places. It doesn’t need a bookshelf since all books are given out and requires only a collection of books that are read again and again. The woman who reads aloud doesn’t have to be highly educated and trained. The women receiving training are required to “pay it forward”, by sharing newly acquired knowledge and training another woman to become a reader creating a domino effect. 
The community welcomes the trained reader because she is one of them. They also start to respect women and support their roles as leaders and future change agents even within mosques. Once convinced with the project’s benefits, the community starts to invest in the collection, and builds ownership and responsibility towards the library. WLR is changing attitudes and letting people know that reading is fun. WLR is achieving impact at scale because it is a simple effective product that attracts mothers and children. WLR depends on networks of women who already resemble a movement to bring about social change through reading. WLR aims to develop long term cultural change. It is creating capabilities in hundreds of local women enabling them to be creative for themselves.  
Movements, as Charles Leadbeater states, need causes, shared values, and common goals to pull them together and give them a purpose. Reading is the mean but the cause is getting young children to realize they can and should think for themselves. The model is formulated in a way that each person can tailor the model to fit their culture and their needs while maintaining the essence of the model: aiding in building ownership to the project and sustainability.
WLR has tangible outcomes. It is capable of transforming a whole generation of children into readers who love, enjoy, and respect books all in a short period of time. The establishment of a library in every neighborhood in the world, would have an enormous impact on social development, an impact that just seems immeasurable.
Our goal at WLR is to see every child love reading. Every child should feel the excitement, the thrill, the pure joy of opening a book.  I believe efforts to inculcate literary skills will lead to the creation of a generation of readers and change-makers who will together make this world a better place for all.

Click here to find out more about the “We Love Reading” project.