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The real power of parental reading aloud: exploring the affective and attentional dimensions
Australian Journal of Education. 56.3 (Nov. 2012): p257+.

Reading with an adult plays an important role in developing children's oral language skills, phonological awareness and print knowledge. Parental reading aloud is also an indicator of children's later academic success, which suggests that the practice may be further linked to children's development of broader academic skills and behaviour, such as persistence and the ability to sustain attention. In exploring this link, the present study draws on the growing literature on emotion and attention in learning. Theories of language and language development help to illuminate the auditory dimension of language and literacy learning. This article proposes that the power of parental reading aloud may be underestimated. While shared storybook reading enhances children's pre-reading skills, uninterrupted listening to narratives may assist children both to acquire the underpinning prosodic sensitivity that accompanies expressive reading aloud and to develop the auditory attention systems that are associated with academic achievement. This raises questions about the common classroom practice of shared reading, particularly for those children who have not had previous extensive exposure to the written language read aloud.


auditory perception

emotional response


inner speech

beginning reading


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The parental practice of reading stories aloud to children is generally acknowledged to have a powerful influence on their language development, their emergent literacy and on their reading achievement. Children who have experienced considerable exposure to print are more likely to read both early and well, and to learn effectively in other areas (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). On the other hand, children who have not had lengthy exposure to reading are more likely to experience early reading difficulties and to continue to experience these difficulties throughout their school years (Felton, 1998). Furthermore, their subsequent learning in other academic areas is likely to be impeded (Chall, Jacobs & Baldwin, 1990). Factors associated with preschool children's later reading abilities have been identified as oral language skills (Snow, Tabors, Nicholson & Kurland, 1995), print knowledge and phonological awareness (Lonigan, Burgess & Anthony, 2000) and prosodic sensitivity (Holliman, Wood & Sheehy, 2008).

Academic achievement is a cumulative process (Duncan et al., 2007), entailing mastering new skills as well as improving on existing skills (Pungello, Kuperschmidt, Burchinal & Patterson, 1996). This indicates that a broader set of skills and behaviour is necessary for school learning. Task engagement and the ability to sustain attention, independent of cognitive ability (McClelland, Morrison & Holmes, 2000), are strongly associated with academic achievement (Trzesniewski, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor & Maughan, 2006), as is persistence in response to challenge (Berhenke, Miller, Brown, Seifer & Dickstein, 2011). If parental reading aloud is an indicator of children's later academic success, it may be effective not only in helping children to develop pre-reading skills but also in developing more complex skills and behaviour. That being so, it is important to understand how the practice might achieve this and why it may be so effective.

To explore this further and to provide a context from which these complex, developmental processes may be understood, this article draws on research in a number of areas. Firstly, the importance of emotion in learning is discussed in light of Schore's (2007), argument for a 'paradigm shift' in psychology research, as a consequence of emerging data from cognitive, affective and social neuroscience. This shift takes us from the explicit, analytical, conscious, verbal and rational to the implicit, integrative, unconscious, non-verbal and bodily based emotional (Schore, 2007). Using evidence from studies in neuroscience and in psychology, I explore the roles of emotion and attention in the particular context of language and literacy learning to understand what children might feel when they are read to. Secondly, studies of language development, in particular, Vygotsky's (1986) socio-cultural theory of inner speech, help to illuminate the processes by which children internalise the written language in order to understand it. Then, to better understand the complexities and nuances of what children hear when they are read to, and to frame the following discussion, I draw upon Britton's (1982) discourse function categories. Finally, the discussion is informed by research in parental reading practices.

Learning to feel

The importance of emotion in learning is well recognised and becoming better understood (Hu et al., 2007; Kort, Reilly & Picard, 2001; Posner & Rothbart, 2007). Emotions are a kind of assessment we make of the environment (Shanahan, 2008). They surface when we perceive a stimulus as having an effect on our well-being and cause us to avoid or approach that stimulus. Neural circuits for emotion underlie and influence cognitive functions by assigning emotional significance to a stimulus and then signalling its assessment to us via the higher cortical regions of the brain (Shanahan, 2008). In the context of language development, Panksepp (2008) noted that 'without the basic attentional, emotional and motivational powers of the non-linguistic subcortical regions' of the brain, the language processing regions of the neocortex would be 'perpetually asleep' (p. 51). Our awareness of the integration of sensory information with how it influences our emotional state is experienced, at its core, as a 'psychologically primitive state of pleasantness or unpleasantness (a "core affective state")' (Duncan & Barrett, 2007, p. 1191).

Emotion in speech is conveyed by prosodic cues. Pitch contour, tempo and rhythm, loudness and timbre or tonal colour are prosodic cues that underpin the syntax and the semantics of an utterance in order to communicate its full meaning, as well as to convey the emotional state of the speaker, and there is evidence that, from shortly after birth, infants show preference for speech that delivers prosodic information (Plante, Holland & Schmithorst, 2006). Prosody is prominent in infant-directed speech, the speech that adults direct to children from birth until they have achieved a measure of language competence. Although adults and even older siblings across almost all cultures (Falk, 2004; Grieser & Kuhl, 1988) communicate with infants in this 'sing-song' manner without the specific intention of teaching language, the linguistic content of caregivers' utterances serves to tune the language areas of the brain associated with language production and syntactic comprehension (Amunts, Schleicher & Zilles, 2004). But neurophysiological evidence suggests that the processing of prosodic cues is more deeply embedded, in evolutionary terms, than semantic and syntactic analysis (Thonnessen et al., 2010).

The communicative function of affective prosody has been observed in nonhuman primates (Ghanzanfar & Santos, 2004) and it may be that the early neural detection of prosodic cues is important in facilitating vital responsive behaviour (Thonnessen et al., 2010). But Trainor, Austin and Desjardins (2000) argued that the most important function of infant-directed speech is to create and maintain strong emotional ties with the infant. Empathically attuned caregivers use infant-directed speech and vocal play (H. Papousek, 1996) to induce positive affect (Street, Young, Tafuri & Ilari, 2003). Infants' affective responses prompt caregivers to engage them in 'conversational' turn-taking and caregivers' imitations of infants' vocalisations, in turn, encourage infants to practise controlling the prosodic elements of speech (Papousek & Papousek, 1989; Snow, 1989).

Prosody can be said to be the music of language. The prosodic cues of speech have similar acoustic features to those of music. Infants hear adults talk to them in ways that are 'drenched in musicality' (Fox, 2000, p. 24). In infant-directed speech, the pitch is raised, the tempo is slowed and speech segments are shorter, more repetitive and more well-defined in broad melodic contours than in adult directed speech (Fernald & Simon, 1984; M. Papousek, 1996). Infant-directed speech, like music, engages the brain's emotional and reward networks (Levitin, 2006; Trainor & Schmidt, 2003) and optimises the infant's core state of pleasantness (Trehub, 2003). This emotional learning appears to influence the infant's motivation to communicate in a socio-emotional relationship (Miall & Dissanayake, 2003) and, since language is such a prominent part of this process, may explain children's powerful motivation for speech.

If feelings of pleasure are at the core of children's language development, it seems likely that their initial interest in reading is aroused by the pleasure of sharing a book with a parent (Bus, van IJzendoorn & Pellegrini, 1995; Nathan & Stanovich, 1991). The pleasure of being read to may not be sufficient to motivate children to persist later in the face of the challenges of independent reading. Pleasure can be classified into fundamental and higher-order pleasures (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2008). Fundamental pleasures include those pleasures that are associated with survival and, in social species such as humans, with social interaction. Higher order pleasures are those associated with learning. According to Kringelbach, Vuust and Geake (2008), there are three components of pleasure: liking, which is both the unconscious influence on the core affective state, as well as the conscious experience of pleasure; wanting, which is the conscious and unconscious motivation for reward; and learning, which comprises conscious predictions about future rewards based on previous experience, and unconscious knowledge associated with conditioning.

A child may take great pleasure from the social interaction of being read to and from the conversations that go on during readings, but reading ultimately becomes a mainly solitary activity. The language of the written text needs to be internalised in order to be understood. Moreover, if a child is to persist beyond the level of children's stories--to extend the 'growing edge' (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993)--he or she will necessarily like to read and, importantly, want to read more and more complex texts, having learnt that there are rewards to be had by doing so. This may be influenced by how the child is conditioned in the parent-child story-reading process. To explore this process, it is first important to understand the concept of language internalisation.

Inner speech and making meaning

From infancy, children make sense of words without understanding their meanings. By hearing the infant-directed speech that is used by their caregivers to connect emotionally with them and to meet their needs, children begin to develop an 'ear' for the sounds of words and for the prosodic patterns of their native language. Children's 'auditory observations' (Meltzoff, 2007, p. 45) of culturally specific phonology including, for example, regional accent and intonation, are encoded in memory and are later reproduced through imitation (Kuhl, 2004). As children become more proficient in language production, their use of language goes through a process of internalisation (Vygotsky, 1986). Language becomes differentiated into the communicative, dialogic speech they use with others and the egocentric, monologic speech they use during play and as they try to solve problems. As their monologic speech is gradually internalised as 'inner speech' (Vygotsky, 1986), 'words die as they bring forth thought' (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 249). According to Vygotsky (1986), inner speech is largely 'thinking in pure meanings' (p. 249).

Every thought fulfils a function in making sense of our lives (Ridgway, 2009) but it is not accompanied by speech unless a problem to be solved is particularly tricky or a situation stressful, in which case inner speech may emerge externally as monologic thinking aloud (Vygotsky, 1986). But every thought is accompanied by emotion through the continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive and emotional brain networks (Pessoa, 2008). Inner speech is the language we use to make meaning by integrating sensory information with our core affective state. Since our core affective state changes moment by moment (Duncan & Barrett, 2007), it would take far too long to express this meaning using external speech. Words, even sentences, combine and unite until only the essence remains; a single word is 'saturated with sense' (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 246).

Inner speech and reading

Few studies have investigated the role of Vygotskian inner speech in reading. Those that have (for example, Beggs & Howarth, 1985; Ehrich, 2006) have found inner speech to be critical to the reading process. Ehrich, for example, argued that inner speech functions as a rehearsal mechanism for the retrieval of the phonology of language from its orthographic structure, emerging as subvocal or even external speech in response to textual complexity, much as it does in thinking aloud. Importantly, it may also function as a rehearsal mechanism for retrieving the underpinning prosody. The interaction of these inner speech functions allows the reader to integrate the linguistic and prosodic elements of written text in memory in order to make meaning.

A grasp of the linguistic prosodic aspects of inner speech--those aspects related to rhythm and stress--is critical for reading fluency (Schwanenflugel, Hamilton, Kuhn, Wisenbaker & Stahl, 2004) and comprehension (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; Rasinski, 2004). But it may be the performative, affective aspect, 'the subjective experience of hearing a voice inside one's head while reading' (Slowiaczek & Clifton, 1980, p. 573), that is the force behind the motivation to read. Beggs and Howarth (1985) suggested that inner speech accompanies the learned skill of reading aloud with expression. Children who read aloud with expressive prosody have described hearing, during silent reading, not only the distinctive voices of the characters but also the emotions that the voices express (Corra, 2006), which suggests that 'silent reading' is not silent at all; it involves auditory perception as well as visual perception. Furthermore, they have described the subjective experience as being pleasurable (Corra, 2006). Understanding how children first establish an 'ear' for the written language may help to explain how they develop the inner speech that not only serves to extract meaning from the words and from the prosodic features that are conveyed by markers in the form of punctuation, but also creates the pleasurable 'voice inside the head'.

Discourse function and children's first books

Children's everyday discourse skills are developed through exposure and practice, not by explicit instruction (Gee, 1992), and the extent of their skills depends on the quality and quantity of their exposure and the opportunities they have to practise with 'people who have already mastered the discourse' (Gee, 1992, p. 114). In the context of an adult reading aloud, the narrative 'final copy'--that is, the result of the writer's inner-speech drafting process (Vygotsky, 1986)--requires the aural restructuring of invisible prosodic cues that are then externalised as speech by the adult. If children's development of the prosody of written narrative is similar to their development of spoken language prosody and is, at least in the early stages, an imitative process, the process may be influenced by similar factors. Not the least of these are likely to be the expressive qualities of the performances that they are exposed to and the number of opportunities they have to imitate those qualities. As a means of understanding what children hear in terms of the differences between everyday social speech and the speech that is the externalisation of written speech, Britton's discourse function categories provide a useful framework.

Britton (1982), like Halliday (1978), differentiated between the functions of language. To invite our listeners to share with us our experiences and our gossip, and to express our opinions and our attitudes, we use the unstructured expressive discourse function of the shared context. When we want to get something done, to inform or to convey our ideas, we use a transactional discourse function to invite our listeners to participate with us in achieving our ends (Britton, 1982). Britton identifies a third discourse function, the poetic, which is the preserve of literature and poetry and which he describes as 'MAKING something with language rather than DOING something with it' (Britton, 1982, p. 155; original emphasis).

Infant-directed speech owes much more to the poetic, differing as it does from everyday transactional or expressive discourse by way of its rhythm, pitch, timbre and variation in melodic contour. Parents who read to their infants from birth exaggerate the prosodic qualities of the language much as they do while talking or singing to them. From the perspective of the adult, infant-directed speech, like poetry, is a stylised form of language but to the infant, 'it is the "poetry", not the everyday language of the utterance that is the norm' (Myall & Dissanayake, 2002, p. 354).

A parent's decision to introduce a child to books, as distinct from stories, may be founded on a more prosaic use of language as a device for naming things and of first books as means of conveying oral-visual associations and of providing tactile stimulation. Here, children are exposed to the transactional function of language as parents name the objects in the pictures and invite children to interact with the book by pointing to the pictures. The child learns that something can be done with language; it can name things and, with this developing understanding, the child's brain starts to integrate information from the auditory and visual systems, building a model of the world and storing it in memory (Strauss, Goodman & Paulson, 2009). The pictures are central to facilitating the child's ability to make links from the oral language to the visible world.

By about eighteen months, children will understand that everything has a name (Woolf, 2007). This is a period of rapid vocabulary growth, and children begin to develop a sense of a 'verbal self' (Stern, 1985). As the way they relate to the world moves to 'the impersonal, abstract level intrinsic to language and away from the personal, immediate level' (Stern, 1985, p. 163), the verbal content of books becomes increasingly important. Simple stories are introduced, relating to the familiar lived experiences of the child or extending those experiences, often by means of anthropomorphism, to the wider world of natural phenomena. Rhyme and alliteration, linguistic features that support the development of phonological awareness (Dowker, 1989), are staple characteristics of children's early learning of literary language and serve to introduce children to the poetic discourse of the written narrative. Similar to the infant-directed speech that they have heard from birth, these stories often consist of 'prototypical contours' (M. Papousek, 1996, p. 94), the frequent repetition of which allows children to perceive, anticipate and respond to the 'poetry'. Moreover, they have a similar 'performative, multimedia (visual, vocal and kinesic), emotionally expressive, mutually participative nature' (Miall & Dissanayake, 2003, p. 353) that fulfils the emotional or arousal conditions necessary for retention in memory (Schon et al., 2008).

Children's first words signal a change in the everyday language that they hear. 'They seem to open the way for verbal, rational, conscious and culture-dependant guidance' (H. Papousek, 1996, p. 48). Thenceforth children hear, almost exclusively, the sounds of the everyday language of transactional and expressive discourse as they learn to participate in their social lives. The language and the language affect that they hear in these transactions are influenced by the tenor of different social situations and vary in subtle ways according to each context (Halliday, 1973).

Children's first story books may bridge the divide between the poetic function of infant-directed speech and the transactional or expressive functions of everyday language, particularly if writers pay as much attention to the sounds of the words of a story as they do to the story itself. By around the age of three, children are beginning to develop what Stern (2000) called 'the narrative self' where they see themselves as part of stories about themselves and about others. In doing so they start to understand that things may be seen by another from a different perspective. They are able to imagine fictional worlds, to pretend and to infer intentions, beliefs and emotions in others (Stern, 1985). This opens the way to more complex narrative texts in books with pictures that may support rather than tell the story while the words, themselves, paint the pictures (Fox, n.d.).

Making something of language

Parental reading aloud is an oral performance of children's texts that follow repetitive patterns and enculturate children to poetic discourse. More importantly, children discover that the language found in books, unlike that of their daily lives, can be repeated exactly, time after time, with a predictability that can be encoded in memory, particularly if a parent repeatedly reads the same book in the same expressive way. Patterned variations in pitch, rhythm and timbre engage parts of the brain that are involved in feelings of pleasure (Levitin, 2006). Repetition increases pleasure--Huron (2006, p. 141) noted that there is 'probably no other stimulus in common human experience that matches the extreme repetitiveness of music'--and can be a powerful motivational factor in learning (Kringelbach et al., 2008). The child listener will eagerly join in or pounce on and correct the reader's error whether it be a missed or misspoken word or a matter of intonation--getting the 'voice' wrong.

The prosody of expressive reading aloud is rich in melodic contours and contrasts of rhythm and of timbre. Exaggerated intonation creates an affective connection between parent and child (de Villiers & de Villiers, 1979). In the continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive and emotional processes, feelings of pleasure enhance attention, and attention strengthens perceptual encoding (Chun & Turk-Browne, 2007). The more the child experiences being read to, and read to well, the greater will be the strength of the memory trace for that experience and its associated feelings of pleasure, pleasure that is directly linked to hearing the musical sounds of the poetic discourse of the narrative written language.

For children who hear a parent make something of the language by reading aloud, the uninterrupted flow of a narrative maintains a continuity of connection with the sounds and patterns of poetic discourse, first heard through infant-directed speech, nursery rhymes and lullabies. Moreover, through the reader's oral 'transcription' of highly structured syntactic groups (Guaitella, 1999), they can hear the segmentation of text into clauses and sentences as well as words, syllables and phonemes. On the other hand, the nature of much transactional and expressive speech limits segmentation into intonation units, imbued as it is with hesitation, stutters, false starts and unfinished sentences (Cruttenden, 1986).

In the social context of interaction between parent and child, the language that is produced and the meanings that are made and eventually internalised by the child are mediated by what the parent transmits. This shapes the child's conscious understandings of the world. It also influences the child's unconscious (Schore, 2003). When parent and child interact in a pleasurable way, the child is able to perceive the emotional attachment of the parent through the non-verbal, unconscious variables of tone, timbre, rhythm, tempo and body language. In the context of a parent reading aloud, the cognitive dimension of language and meanings is mediated by the writer of the story but the unconscious, affective component is mediated by the way in which the language and meanings are transmitted by the parent. The same variables communicate to the child the parent's emotional 'attachment' to the act of reading and the degree to which the parent has achieved a kind of intersubjectivity (Stern, 2005) with the writer of the story.

Not as easy as it seems

For many adults, their first experiences of reading aloud may be to their own children and some may feel uncomfortable with the performative, prosodic aspects. Many internet sites offer tips and strategies on how to read to children in ways that entail an affective dimension: 'Read to your child every day. Make this a warm and loving time' (Reading Rockets, 2011); 'Ensure reading is fun and exciting--read with excitement' (Department of Education, Training and Employment, 2011). But affect cannot be laid on top of discourse, as these recommendations would seem to suggest; it is an integral part of discourse and exhortations such as these are problematic in that they do not take into account the distinction between the natural, positive affect that is shared by parent and child when they are conversing and the affect that is both explicit and implicit in the poetic discourse of the text, which must be transmitted in a way that sounds congruent to the child. The linguistic content of a story may be readily communicated but the adult must also be tuned to receive the affective communications of the writer, which is to say that adults, themselves, must have developed an inner ear for the music of poetic discourse, in order that children might perceive the empathic resonance and participatory aspect of intersubjectivity between writer and reader. Otherwise, children will be 'left with a kind of pared down, neutral "understanding" of the subjective experience' of reading (Stern, 2005, p. 80).

Prosody and discourse coherence

Listening to a written narrative may be likened to listening to a performance of a piece of music. A written narrative, like a piece of music, is 'a carefully crafted scheme of delays and suspensions of immediate resolutions of expectations' (Thaut, 2005, p. 21). Expectation is at the core of both music and narrative. While the brain rewards successful predictions of music and language patterns, it is the violation of expectations that leads to heightened attention in the search for a release of tension (Thaut, 2005). In music, tension may be achieved through an unexpected change of key or a suspended chord that creates a dissonance in need of resolution. In a narrative, tension is achieved through the language of the complication and the many incidental events in the lives of the characters.

Performative aspects of music and narrative can also contribute to the building and resolving of tension through similar deviations from the meter. A musician may, for effect, hold back or accelerate a musical phrase before returning to the usual tempo or gradually slow the tempo, often while gradually decreasing the loudness, as the piece comes to an end. Similarly, a reader might turn the page slowly at a point of tension or read a passage more quickly to emphasise action. Both music and narrative involve a continuous interaction between expectation and violation of expectation, tension and release that is the basis of the affective experience (Thaut, 2005). In both music and narrative, the satisfying resolution leads to the emotional response that may be described as the 'ah' moment. A child listening to a story read expressively may experience fluctuating emotions, as expectations are fulfilled and violated and as tension is built and released. These may be felt physically and may be expressed in unconscious affective markers--gasps, 'oohs' and 'ahs', smiles and chuckles--that confirm that the child is attending and that the experience is pleasurable.

Narrative patterns may be complex and episodic memory may be involved here as a means of integrating the prosodic and linguistic features that tie the narrative together as it unfolds over time. A child hearing a story encodes in memory both the linguistic patterns and the parent's interpretation of the prosodic patterns. Performance expression assists the child in clarifying the intended meaning of the narrative and, in receiving multiple acoustic cues about the same structural content (Palmer, Jungers & Jusczyk, 2001), he or she will remember not only what is expressed but also how it is expressed. This may account for children's desire to hear favourite stories read over and over in the same way until they know them by heart. They experience pleasure through repetition of the performance and the successful prediction of the linguistic and prosodic patterns. Moreover, they can enhance the pleasure by joining in or finishing sentences, imitating the performance that has become familiar to them. By listening to repeated, uninterrupted readings, children develop an inner ear for the linguistic and prosodic dimensions of the narrative and, importantly, by practising their own production of the poetic discourse, they are developing an inner voice for narrative interpretation.

Parents are often recommended to pause during reading to engage children in conversation about a story (Barnett, 1995; Lonigan et al., 2000; Lonigan & Whitehurst, 1998). Questions may be asked, for example, about the feelings of the characters or to elicit predictions about what might happen next in the story (Whitehurst et al., 1988). This practice is known to develop children's oral language skills (Zimmerman, Steiner & Pond, 1992), print knowledge and ability to detect and manipulate the sound structure of oral language (Lonigan, 2007). It may be a double-edged sword because it disregards prosodic sensitivity--sensitivity to the melodic and rhythmic patterns of language and, importantly, to discourse coherence (Ferreira, 2002). Prosodic sensitivity underpins other reading skills (Holliman et al., 2008) and reading comprehension (Frazier, Carlson & Clifton Jr., 2006; Whalley & Hansen, 2006) and is the principle characteristic of reading fluency (Schwanenflugel et al., 2004).

Sensitivity to prosody accompanies expressive reading (Rasinski & Hoffman, 2003), which goes beyond fluency at the level of the phrase or the sentence and integrates the meanings that emerge over longer sequences of text. Expressive readers communicate the emotions conveyed by the text, expressing their ebb and flow to listeners in a continuous stream that sounds as authentic as everyday speech but employs the linguistic and affective prosody of a discourse function that is not part of everyday life. What may be at work when adults pause to ask questions during reading is a disruption of discourse coherence. In conversations about a story the written narrative is necessarily dealt with in a spoken discourse. While children are exposed to one discourse, they practise another.

Attention and pleasure

The pleasure of everyday discourse is in social interaction. This involves frequent attention switching between language perception and language production during the conversational turn-taking that, children learn from experience, is how the discourse coheres. But a narrative, like a piece of music, is a perceptual whole requiring sustained attention to the auditory input. What might happen next in the story or how the characters might feel is unimportant. Children who are read-to know, from experience and without explicit instruction, that something will happen next and that the characters will feel something and that, in the end, everything will be resolved somehow because they have learnt that that is how narrative coheres. In switching attention between listening and responding to questions, children may be 'self-monitoring their responses ... in an effort to perform accurately' (Vannest at al., 2009, p. 975). If attention mediates episodic and perceptual processing (Chun & Turk-Browne, 2007), frequent attention-switching may attenuate the child's ability to develop the attention systems necessary for episodic and auditory perceptual integration of the linguistic and prosodic elements of a narrative in memory. Moreover, frequent attention-switching may inhibit the child from developing the sustained attention required both for independent reading (Asbjornsen & Bryden, 1998) and academic success (McClelland et al., 2000).

Pleasure and the motivation to read

The more pleasure children gain from listening to a narrative, the more they are likely to remember it. Over familiarisation and reduced pleasure may occur only when they have integrated all attributes of the story to their satisfaction. It may be that they sense their own readiness to progress to something that is new and perhaps a little more complex or tension-filled. Nevertheless, they will retain a memory of the pleasure of the experience, which enhances their attention to further experiences and increases their potential for auditory perceptual learning. On the other hand, if the meaning they make from a particular story is insufficient to motivate them to continue the experience, they will quickly tire of the book, which may have to be set aside for later.

It cannot be assumed that a book is simply beyond a child's capabilities. Narratives, like music, can also fail to touch our emotions. It is possible that the appeal to a child of a particular story may be influenced by the degree of congruity that is felt between the prosodic qualities of the writer's 'voice', as interpreted by the adult reader, and those that are unconsciously associated with pleasurable emotions encoded in long-term memory. It may be that he or she is unable to perceive any sense of intersubjectivity with the writer, just as adults may put down a book after a few pages because the writer's voice or the story itself does not 'speak' to them.

For children, just as for adults, the experience of hearing a story may not necessarily end when the last words are read. They may need time to integrate the psychological, emotional, relational and cognitive dimensions of the story in order to make meaning or they may simply want to recall the intense pleasure of the moments of tension and resolution of tension. They may want to share these moments with the parent but, just as the empathically attuned parent responds to the attachment behaviour of the infant, the narrative-attuned parent will allow the lead to come from the child. In a sense, the parent reader is the conduit by which the child attaches to the story and subsequently attributes the pleasure derived to the language of books. It is through these experiences that the child becomes increasingly self-initiating and motivated to read. 'In the last analysis, it is about feeling, not cognition' (Stern, 2007, p. 42).

Implications and further research

Most children do learn to read 'regardless of the mode of instruction' (Center, 2005, p. 2) but the argument developed in this article suggests implications in a number of areas of literacy learning.

Further research needs to be conducted into children's development of prosodic sensitivity for written narrative, and a study of the early reading experiences of children who read aloud with expression may shed light on children's continuing motivation to read. Children who enter school having had no, or limited, exposure to the written language read aloud may benefit greatly from an early intervention program that consists simply of listening to narratives--fiction and non-fiction--read aloud by expert readers. Such a program would expose these children to the prosody of the written language and may assist them to develop a foundational prosodic sensitivity before they attempt to engage in reading practice. Furthermore, these children may be able to discover the kinds of narratives that give them pleasure, thus providing them with a powerful motivating force to overcome the challenges of learning to read. Interviews with children on their preschool reading experiences could be conducted early in the pre-primary year to determine candidates for the program so that as little time as possible is lost. Of course, a program such as this cannot be a 'quick fix'. It may take many months to bring the children close to the ability levels and motivational levels of children who have been read to since birth.

Many pre-service teachers are among those adults for whom reading aloud is an uncomfortable experience. They may benefit from workshops devoted to practice in vocal play and to explicit coaching in expressive reading aloud. Conducted in a supportive environment, these workshops could help pre-service teachers to develop the performative skills that are important not only to reading aloud but also to teaching.


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Kit Lawson teaches in the School of Education at Murdoch University, specialising in literacy. Her research interests are auditory literacy development and pre-service teacher education.


Kit Lawson

Murdoch University

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Lawson, Kit. "The real power of parental reading aloud: exploring the affective and attentional dimensions." Australian Journal of Education, vol. 56, no. 3, 2012, p. 257+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 24 Jan. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A309068591