Shared reading aloud is an exceptional way of promoting social equity, encouraging the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children and improving language skills. This approach, supported by scientific evidence, has been adopted by thousands of teachers across Italy and around the world. We’ll explore the importance of shared reading aloud, highlighting significant projects and results in Italy, and we’ll shine a spotlight on the power of words in encouraging social equity and intellectual growth.
The propensity of children to seek a relationship with their caregivers and of their caregivers to react in a responsive way is natural. This interaction plays a key role in cognitive and socio-emotional development, and in the ability to manage emotions and develop social skills, language and IQ.
“Among the various types of interaction, the practice of shared reading, especially dialogic reading, has been shown to produce particularly significant benefits in all aspects of development,” as stated by Lynne Murray and Peter Cooper, professors at the University of Reading (UK), directors of the Mikhulu Trust, the Cape Town-based centre focused on nurturing care in childhood.
The shared reading aloud method
The shared reading aloud method, able to generate a real interest in reading and the skills required to do it independently, is making its mark in education and training contexts internationally thanks to the support of scientific evidence, which also demonstrates its effects on academic success.
In Italy, more than 20,000 teachers have adopted this method. At the Università degli Studi di Perugia, the research group of the Department of Philosophy, Social Sciences and Education (FISSUF), headed by Federico Batini, professor of Experimental Pedagogy - Educational Research Methodologies and School Evaluation Techniques, provides for the first time in a recently published volume, “La lettura ad alta voce condivisa: un metodo in direzione dell’equità” (Shared reading aloud: a method towards equity) (il Mulino-Collana Fondazione per la Scuola edition), the results of the pathway developed over the last decade, focusing on the key features of the approach, the theoretical assumptions, the conditions of use and the effects on learning, including in relation to other tools, looking from different disciplinary perspectives.
The method under analysis involves an adult (teacher, educator, trainer, etc.) who takes responsibility for a group, using their voice and body to present stories in a progressive, systematic and intensive way, overseeing the decisions and bibliodiversity, negotiating the choices with the group in a socialisation process, facilitating discussion and debate, and helping all the participants to get involved in the stories.
When continuously implemented by adults in child education services, in primary schools, the process also generates effects on emotional and language skills, as well on the understanding and use of language in learning and on critical thinking, and fosters the ability to be with and understand others. These are the life skills that the WHO describes as prerequisites for well-being and health throughout life and essential for the development of individual potential, self-actualization and resilience to adversity. These are fundamental tools for tackling inequalities, starting from educational and experiential disadvantages, which are at the heart of socio-economic and health inequalities.
A number of projects of national importance have been initiated in Italy, followed up by assessments. In 2018, the “Leggimi ancora” (Read me again) project, sponsored by the educational organisation Giunti Scuola, involved more than 50,000 classes over a five-year period. The research, conducted in three sample cities (Turin, Modena and Lecce), demonstrated cognitive and comprehension outcomes regardless of the starting point.
“Leggere: Forte! Ad alta voce fa crescere l'intelligenza” (Reading: Loudly! Reading aloud boosts intelligence), the education policy of Tuscany Regional Council, developed in collaboration with INDIRE-National Institute for Documentation, Innovation and Educational Research, the Tuscany Regional Education Department and CEPELL-Italian Ministry of Culture Centre for Books and Reading, promoted the introduction of a daily session dedicated to reading aloud by teachers and educators in schools of all levels, starting with early childhood education services, from the 2019/2020 school year.
Linguistic and emotional benefits
After four years of activity, the data reveals, for example, that the ability to control overall motor skills, manipulation skills and coordination in nursery school children increases by up to 29.7%; in pre-school, the ability to solve problems within social situations increases by 82%; for primary school children, the Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI), i.e. the ability to formulate and apply verbal concepts, improves by 14.3% and, most importantly, it was found that cognitive and comprehension aspects can also be encouraged and improved in secondary schools.
The “Lettrici e lettori forti” (Strong readers) project is ongoing in Parma at a network of 10 of the city’s school districts, supported by Fondazione Cariparma, actively involving over 200 teachers and more than 2000 pupils from pre-school to junior secondary school.
Among the most significant data recently published regarding the second year of the project, comparisons can be made between Italian standardisation norms (expected age-based scores) and results of verbal fluency, speed and organisation tests, as well as lexical inventory tests. Pre-school children (3-6 years old) involved in intensive reading aloud training increase their oral text comprehension by 20% and emotional competence and control by 38.6% compared with their starting point, while the control group (who do not take part in the reading aloud activity) show a decrease in comprehension skills and an increase of less than half in terms of emotional skills.
In Turin, in the strongly multi-ethnic, dynamic and complex neighbourhood of Porta Palazzo, the “Ad Alta Voce Porta Palazzo” (Porta Palazzo Aloud) project was implemented in the last two school years at Istituto comprensivo Torino II, with over 1000 pupils. The initiative is promoted and backed by Fondazione per la Scuola (an operating organisation of Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo), which, through a number of actions, is working on expanding the project and rolling out the methodology at additional schools. The data shows that even pre-school children starting from significantly lower linguistic levels than those expected for their age are able to make significant progress (11%), while their peers who start at higher levels decrease their skills over the same period. The percentages of children above and below the normative average are reversed: before the reading activity, as many as 61% were below the expected average and only 39% exceeded it, while after the first intensive reading activity, 59% easily exceeded it.
Early reading at home and social equity
As early as the first few months of life, the quality and quantity of interaction and early reading aloud at home have a proven correlation with receptive and expressive vocabulary, with impacts on future socio-economic status. A longitudinal study, published in Pediatrics by Lena Foundation reiterates this, emphasising “the need for effective early intervention programs that support parents in creating an optimal early language learning environment in the home”.
Research in line with the Nurturing Care Framework (NCF) , the key recommendation document by the WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health on the investments required in the first 1000 days to overcome inequalities.
Culture and Health course
The power of words is the focus of the third edition of the “Culture and Health”, "Healing words" university course at USI-Università della Svizzera italiana, sponsored by IBSA Foundation and the City of Lugano Cultural Division with the artistic collaboration of LAC (Lugano Art and Culture). The course comprises seven lessons open to the public between October and December 2023.
“La lettura ad alta voce condivisa. Un metodo in direzione dell'equità” (Shared reading aloud. A method towards equity) by Federico Batini with contributions from Teresa Cremin, Simone Giusti, Giordana Szpunar, Alessio Surian, Moira Sannipoli, Giovanni Moretti, Arianna L. Morini, Ermelinda De Carlo, Giusi Marchetta, Martina Evangelista, with foreword by Giulia Guglielmini.
Federico Batini teaches Experimental Pedagogy, Educational Research Methodologies and School Evaluation Techniques at Università degli Studi di Perugia, where he is in charge of the Master’s “Reading aloud at school, in educational, developmental, care, rehabilitation and organisational contexts” and “Narrative guidance and the prevention of early school leaving”. He edits the journals «Effetti di Lettura» and «LLL». He is the author of, among other things, “Ad alta voce. La lettura che fa bene a tutti” (Reading aloud. Reading that benefits everyone) (Giunti, 2021) and «Lettura ad alta voce” (Reading aloud) (Carocci, 2022)