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My Readers Ask: Silent Reading versus Reading Aloud

Linda Asks:

I saw that you said, in several places, that it is a bad idea to have right-brained kids read aloud, and that reading aloud is a “left-brained” approach. It seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth! The left-brained approach is all silent reading! It’s what they make the kids do in school these days! Words on a a page have no emotion, no drama, no life! If you never read aloud, you never give voice, emotion, and expression to the words!

In aboriginal tribal cultures, storytelling was a highly valued art. I have heard that some Native Americans objected to writing down stories because doing so detached the story from the storyteller. Storytelling involves theater and emotion – right-brained attributes!

It seems obvious that NOT reading aloud takes away some of the impact of fiction. But this applies to fact/information, too. Don’t most right-brained students (in fact, most people, in general) learn a lot better from listening to an interesting, animated, (and preferably humorous) teacher/lecturer, or from a play/TV show/movie/video than from a dry textbook?

Does not taking oral expression/drama out of reading remove ALL of the right-brain aspects of the communication from the words? Isn’t it like taking the melody out of every song?

I reply:

During the “learning to read” phase of the reading process, a right-brained child typically starts out by reading the bigger, easier to visualize words and then filling in the smaller words. When reading aloud, a right-brained child can’t skip the smaller, not easily visualized words, and so it slows down their natural process to learning to read.

The other thing a right-brained child typically does when he’s learning to read is translates the words to a visual. They only need to capture “enough” words to do so, often taking in whole chunks of words, some have even said they can take in entire paragraphs! (boggles my mind) and captures the visual. By making a young right-brained reader read aloud, you are preventing them from taking in and converting larger chunks of words into pictures, which is the core of their comprehension ability. Without comprehension and enjoyment, what’s the point of reading?

Because left-brained young children are part to whole learners, reading aloud and learning to read by one word at a time through the read aloud process doesn’t infringe on their natural learning to read process.

When a beginning reader, a right-brained child can’t read aloud fast enough for enjoyment. Once fluency is achieved for a right-brained reader, she may enjoy reading aloud.

Storytelling is not the same as reading aloud. My daughter happened to be here, so I asked her what she prefers, reading silently or out loud? She said silently, and I asked why? She said that you are right, Linda. Emotion and feeling and bringing it all alive is extremely important in reading to her. And she much prefers her own interpretation and creation of the words. She said that the words are merely the symbol to represent the emotion, feeling and experience. She translates the word in the way that is most interesting and exciting for her. Right-brained readers enjoy reading because it is a translated creation in their own minds of the words. I’ve always wished I could experience the visuals and “real worlds” they create in their minds from reading. They live it! I find that fascinating and amazing.

When others read aloud or even when she hears a gifted storyteller, she said it’s not that she doesn’t enjoy it, because she does. But she prefers her own interpretation best. She then becomes the co-creator of the story instead of relying on the author’s or storyteller’s interpretation only. She said hearing words just feels differently to her than translating the words in her own mind.

All of that said, I’ve always said that it’s a VERY important part of a right-brained child’s life to have read-alouds and audio books in their lives. I believe these are the first “mentors” for them in learning to read. How is that? Between 5 and 7 years old, right-brained children  are developing their visualization skills. It’s not like visualization skills are already fully ripened and honed for them any more than translating symbols is ripened or honed for left-brainers. We need practice and exposure. So read-alouds and audio books give that visualization practice for right-brained children. They learn to take the spoken word and translate it into their own images and creations.

When they’re ready to take on the “input” side of things by decoding words in order to be translated/visualized, there is a temporary “slow down” of their ability to translate/visualize/enjoy the story as they get competent at the decoding part. Silent reading helps them speed that process along. Having a parent read aloud one of the books in a series helps them speed that process along because they already have the visual/translation part of the story done, so they can concentrate on the decoding part. That’s why it’s actually still important to read aloud to a right-brained child learning to read; they can still get to enjoy a story while they figure this decoding part out.

And they have to get used to how it “feels” to decode, translate, and visualize instead of just translate and visualize with read alouds. A type of resource right-brained children may choose to help them during this stage is highly visual material like comic books, manga, magazines, and graphic novels because the visual is already translated for them. Another strategy that may be used is something a friend of mine mentioned. Her son was still heavily using audio books even after he learned to read because it was more enjoyable for him because it took a while for him to have an efficient decode to translation to visualization process. Audio books were more direct for him. You can compare it to going from picture books for small children to chapter books with no pictures. At first, a small child misses the picture books and still looks at them a lot during the transition, but eventually, they get competent enough with their listening skills and imagery skills to enjoy a chapter book without pictures.

Silent reading and reading aloud can be enjoyed by all people; left- and right-brained people. But there are preferred methods of input, and there are preferred “learning to read” processes that support the natural process of both a left- and right-brained child learning to read. Silent reading is better for right-brained early readers and left-brained early readers can enjoy the reading aloud process. It’s more fun for me to read aloud because I like to share enjoyment of what I read as an extrovert. Plus, more importantly, I figured out that I need to see the words to enjoy a read aloud. So being the read aloud person is ideal for me. It is extremely difficult for me to concentrate on a read aloud. I can’t be doing anything else but focused listening. It was an interesting realization I had about myself as I’ve written my book and shared what I’ve learned with others.

Caroline shares her personal experience as a right-brained person:

I can hardly stand reading aloud (to be the one reading aloud or hearing it); it  can’t happen fast enough to hold my attention. When I read silently, I definitely “see a movie” in my head. Often I assign pronunciations to words, especially made up or unfamiliar nouns that probably have nothing to do with the authors plan. I don’t care what the name is or how it is supposed to be pronounced, I want to find out what it does or “means.” While vocabulary helps you express ideas better and faster to others, I find internally it slows down my thinking in pictures, having to translate the visual into a word and back.

Which leads to an interesting idea… When I make pictures in my head from a book or lecture, the “movie” is my own creation, led by the outside ideas to the extent I allow that, but also may have additional information added based on my own experience. When asked to parrot back information, you are forcing someone to understand and communicate in a predetermined format that may be contrary to their perceptions.

It is a reasonable request, to learn to listen or read and give back an answer that mirrors the content as the author attempts to express it. But internally all of us add conclusions based on our own experience.

I think the goal of pleasure reading is to support the movie in your head. If an author gives you a “good show” you will want to read more of what they write, what you see or how accurately it represents what the author intended is irrelevant. For some the “sound” the words convey is an important part of the pleasure, for others it is not. There is no “correct” or “wrong” way to read for pleasure. It doesn’t matter if you only read the first sentence in every page, as long as it works in your own head to tell the story. I suspect those who do not enjoy reading were forced to do it a certain way during an important part of their development that was more distracting than enhancing for them.

reader shares about her right-brained daughter:

My daughter did not LIKE the way I read aloud, not dramatic or expressive enough, not the way she heard it in her head. She learned to read herself, because of that, at 7. She LOVED the Babysitter’s little sister books and could not STAND how I was mangling them.

She tells me she reads by whole word or even whole sentence now, NOT sequentially or phonetically but by how the word LOOKS. (She says this is why she’s good at spelling; she sees the word in her head and if its misspelled it doesn’t LOOK right.) I didn’t know this then, but now that I know enough to ask her about all this, that’s how she explains it. But she was a determined little pup!

And good heavens she is an INCREDIBLE reader out loud now, so much emotion and expression, she is in demand for reading to little kids, reader’s theater, and at our buddhist family group retreats…. Her standards are way higher than mine.

Holly asks for advice about her right-brained son:

Does anyone have any information on right brain learners and speed reading? My son is turning 8 in a few weeks and has really taken to a book, but it’s a 5th grade level book so there are lots of words that he has never seen. He seems to be able to read the larger words but mixes up the smaller words like (I, a, he). He seems to want to read fast because the faster he reads, the better fluency he has and less mistakes, but he is new to reading especially at this level so sometimes he has to slow down to get the meaning. He picked this book to read and it has shown him that you can read because you enjoy it which is a first for him and I really don’t think it’s too hard for him because he isn’t frustrated by it and doesn’t miss a lot of words. I’m just wondering if reading faster would be beneficial to him. I don’t want to tell him to read faster because he might think that I think he is reading too slowly, but I’m wondering is there a way to “teach” speed reading and is it beneficial to right brainers? 

I replied:

First, your son is reading exactly how he is meant to read as a right-brained reader. It’s really exciting! Don’t worry about teaching speed reading or whatever, because he’ll pick that up naturally because that is how many right-brained people read. Do stop having him read aloud and have him read silently. That will take him the furthest in his reading progression. What can you do to know how he’s doing? Ask him about what he’s reading. If he can tell you, then he’s getting it. Give him the space to work out these right-brained reading early differences without spotlighting them, and they’ll disappear on their own time.

I find it interesting that you were able to share typical right-brained early learning reading traits and not know it … skipping small words, having better fluency the faster he reads, having to slow down to get the meaning from time to time if he hits some rough patches, and picking high interest books “above his level” of reading. It means he’s doing fantastic all by himself! Enjoy 🙂

Holly writes back with an update:

It works! I am having him read a chapter book right now silently and then we discuss what is going on in the book so that I know he is comprehending. He went from reading 15 pages out loud to reading 40 pages silently with complete comprehension of what is going on in the book–amazing recall actually–could tell me some things exactly as they were written in the book. This will definitely take him to a whole new level in reading. Thanks for the advice and suppport!

Question: What do you prefer: reading aloud or silent reading, and why? What do you notice your children prefer: reading aloud or silent reading, and in what instances? I look forward to hearing your answers!

20 responses to “My Readers Ask: Silent Reading versus Reading Aloud

  1. I prefer silent reading, as does my son. I was an early childhood teacher before I left to be a mom, and obviously, I read aloud to my students (and read aloud to my kids), but even as an adult I stumble over words. I find I can add drama, voices, etc to a book, but only after I’ve read it so many times I have it almost memorized.
    My son prefers silent reading as well, and like Holly said, he can answer questions about what he read (and will also read more in a sitting). When we were trying to always have him read aloud to us, he would read the words, but wasn’t usually comprehending what he’d read.

    • I find these observations SO fascinating! I feel how your son comprehends better from silent reading versus reading aloud follows what I talk about with right-brained learners. Reading aloud finds them having to focus on the decoding detailed logistical part, so they get lost not being able to focus on the visual translation part, which is at the heart of comprehension.

      Your stumbling over words still shows that an adult can be fully competent and still show “right-brained traits” of needing to “skim across the top” to “catch the visual” instead of bogging down in the detail of the singular words. Interesting …

      Thanks for sharing, Marianne!

  2. I definitely prefer silent reading. Reading aloud is much too slow, often I don’t like the interpretation given by another reader, and I find it hard to pay attention for long.

    My kids all liked to be read to as little kids but as soon as they could read, they all wanted me out of the process. I’m not sure if I wasn’t expressive enough but I was definitely too slow. When my oldest turned 6, she received Alice in Wonderland. We started reading a chapter a day at bedtime but that soon stopped when she just finished it on her own.

    I have never enjoyed reading aloud myself and once I could read myself, have not enjoyed being read to. In fact, I can still remember repeatedly losing the place in our small reading (aloud) groups, in first grade, because I kept reading ahead.

    • You make an interesting point, Catherine, that I was contemplating, and you brought it up, too. That is the idea that obviously before you are a reader, young children will “prefer” reading aloud because that’s the only option they have. But, it’s probably not necessarily a preference, but the only choice. Once the option does occur, that’s when a true preference can be noted.

  3. I’m an extremely RB person and all I can say is that I HATED reading aloud as a child and still prefer not to. Like Marianne I also stumble over words when forced to read aloud. I know the reason for this for me though is because when reading a book silently I don’t see the words in the conventional sense. My brain sees the words on the page and instantly translates them into images, sounds, smells and even tastes in some instances… if the author is really skilled I can actually become involved in the story and ‘walk’ through the story (I guess it would be like being in the middle of a movie set while a movie is being filmed, but without all the directors and cameras). When I am forced to read aloud I need to change the way my brain naturally works; forcing it to see the words, process the meaning and then change them into spoken language which to me seems completely unnatural.

    My son who is RB & Dyslexic was having real trouble learning to read; I stopped trying to force the issue and told him he no longer needed to read aloud. That was 8 months ago and he could barely read beginner readers with one or two basic sentences per page. Last month we were going on holiday and he wanted to take some chapter books, I told him that if he could read two pages to me to prove he would read them he could take them. In those 8mnths he had gone from being 9yrs old and having difficulty reading the most basic books to being able to read 90page (zacpower) chapter books with minimum difficulty.

    • Wow, Lisa! Admittedly, it’s stories like these that find me a little jealous of right-brained readers. It sounds SO awesome to have such clear visuals to go along with a story. My oldest has said the same thing about his visualization skills. He compared it to the Holodeck in Star Trek.

      Good for you for applying your own understanding of yourself as a right-brained person to your son. It’s exactly what I see happen over and over again for the 8 to 10 year stage for right-brained reading. Silent reading is most often the way to go to encourage strong reading skills for young right-brained children who need to create a visual in order to enjoy a book or be motivated to want to read for themselves.

      Thanks for posting!

  4. I enjoy reading to myself but some times I need to read aloud to really comprehend something of nonfiction. My 9r DD and I have always had storytime before bed time. This is precious time and it will be sad when she doesn’t want it. We take turns reading a page out loud to each other. Many times she will correct my expression to emphasize a statement made by a character in the book. Lol. I love that she loves to read with such expression. She has a 504 at school which allows her to go to a different room so she can talk her self through her tests. She can read quietly to herself but she doesn’t comprehend as well as when she vocalizes the words. She also loves to read to her stuffed animals and our dog. 🙂 Maybe she is a left brained learner with some right brained traits. I’m not sure.

    • Hey Kelly,

      It’s so interesting how everyone is created uniquely, isn’t it? I see two probabilities with you and your daughter based on your comment. One is that she’s probably an auditory learner. Some auditory learners need to hear the information spoken. My high energy, extroverted, right-brained auditory learner is like this. I know of another high energy, extroverted, right-brained auditory learner like that as well. So, my first question is have you noticed she’s an auditory learner? And the next, and it would be fascinating for me to know, is if she’s a high energy kind of girl or an extrovert? Either of those could contribute to her needing to talk out loud. How about you?

      The second aspect is that she’s a girl, as are you. The female gender can bring in a word and verbal focus to learning, whether you’re right-brained or left-brained. My right-brained daughter has a lot of female gender attributes brought into her learning. One is that she learned to read on her own at 5. The other is she enjoys writing/words young. And she also enjoys being organized. On the other hand, she represents SO right-brained when it comes to relationships and interactions, but not so much in the learning realm.

      My daughter’s career choice is one that needs both strong left- and right-brained attributes … fiction writing. The right side of the brain thinks and visualizes the story in its whole format, and the left side can organize it and write it all out. I’m very left-brained, and writing fiction would be difficult for me. Being extroverted also makes writing difficult for me. That’s why I like blog and e-mail writing … they’re both extroverted forms of writing. I also like to read aloud and talk aloud anything I want to process … my extroverted side.

  5. All signs point to my DD 8.5 being highly right-brained, yet silent reading for her is very difficult. She tells me she can’t “hear” the words when she tries to read them silently. Nor can she, apparently, “see” them. I’ve noticed this has improved in the past few months, and I do still have her practice silent reading. But for the most part, if I tell her to read a passage and answer questions, she’ll at best skim the material and the questions and mark whatever old answer. Or she’ll tell me she doesn’t know what she just read. (Great fun during state testing this year.) She much prefers books to be read aloud to her, and while she still tends to skip words and such, she has better comprehension if she reads a passage out loud. As for reading on her own for enjoyment, she prefers comic books or picture books.

    • You’re bringing up an interesting point, Janell. Three of my children are strong auditory learners. I guess I never thought about it with my oldest because when he did read something, it was silently. But, he also sat in on read alouds for quite a while past the time he could read. I wonder if it’s because he still preferred the auditory component. It was my second strong auditory learner that preferred to read aloud. I also saw him do the traditional right-brained things like skip or slaughter small words, but let him work it out. Over a year’s time, he did. Now my youngest is also a strong auditory learner, and he does rely on it as he’s learning to read. Interesting realization.

  6. I don’t know whether the comments section is still active here, but I wanted to chime in. My daughter used audiobooks for years after learning to read, because she didn’t have the stamina necessary to sustain the hours of listening she did — literally, from dawn to dusk! Nor could she read the smaller print of longer books comfortably when she was very young. I used to worry so much that it was “cheating” somehow to think of this as a kind of reading. Now I know it was an essential part of her reading development.

    I also wanted to share this story. We were driving down the freeway one day with an audiobook playing, and my daughter, who’d been leaning with her face against the window looking out, said, “Mom, when I look out the window I see two worlds at once.”

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  8. I need some guidance; my daughter is a struggling reader. She claims to be able to read silently and struggles to read aloud. Word decoding is a big problem and the school is focusing on that with the wilson program. She has demonstrated to me on a few occasions that she can read silently and summarize what she has read. She is right handed and left footed (both spheres of the brain at work) is this causing any of the difficultly she is having?

    • Sorry, I missed some comments for some reason… The fact that she’s left-footed and right-handed probably means she’s right-brained (the left-footed fact). Since our culture favors right-handedness, many right-brained people will still be right-handed. That said, being right-brained can explain a lot of her struggles, as I outline in this particular post. Her silent reading will come in quicker than her read outloud ability. Some right-brained people will be able to read aloud some time after learning to read, but others will take until the 11-13 year time frame to do so. Why? Because that is the stage of full integration of the brain ability. She will still rely heavily on her strength in reading (silent reading), until her integration of the strength of the left side of the brain (reading aloud), which happens typically between 11 and 13, comes fully in. How old is she?

  9. I find this all so interesting! I was searching on the subject as my 11 year old daughter, and I’ve also just discovered the same applies to a child in my class, loves to read. She quickly devours quite weighty books and can talk at length about characters, plot etc. so it is clear she can understand what she is reading on a deeper level. She has also scored well above average in her reading SAT test and is an excellent speller and story writer – very creative all round really. However, she really struggles to read aloud. She worries about having to do this in front of others as she stumbles over words, misses words out and sometimes even adds her own words in. She says she doesn’t do this when she reads silently to herself. The child in my class says the same – her last teacher heard her read aloud and thought she may have been dyslexic, such was the difficulty she had when she was reading out in class. My daughter has recently joined a reading club with a few others her age from a different school. They take turns reading aloud and listening to each other share the same novel then talk about the book. She enjoys the group although she said she doesn’t always opt to read aloud as she is self-conscious of making mistakes – they always allow them to just listen and read to themselves so they don’t feel pressured into reading aloud. What does all this tell you about my daughter and the child in my class (who also appears to be very creative and scores well in reading tests etc.)? I’d be interested in your feedback! Thanks.

    • Again, sorry about missing some comments. I would say that what is happening is exactly as I say in this post. Right-brained readers are converting the words into pictures and this can be done most effectively through silent reading. Reading aloud bogs down the process of their natural reading process for a right-brained reader, and some of the “idiosyncracies” that come with pictorial reading are highlighted (changing words to similar words, leaving out words that are less necessary, etc.). Once the full integration stage occurs between 11 and 13 years old, they typically can read outloud better. Some never enjoy it or become efficient with it. That said, reading out loud is usually unnecessary in life. The important thing with the last two comments is that these children show they comprehend fully and deeply. That’s what’s important about reading! My opinion, of course.

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  12. your wrong i have emotion and drama and i feel everything when i read books in my head

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