Picture books: The read-aloudability factor

Category: Bookbug

I was having a chat with a friend last week about a new picture book. We both liked the book and had quite an animated discussion about why we loved it. I commented that the book was very read-aloudable – the words were so carefully crafted that it was virtually impossible to read the book aloud without tone or inflection. When the book was read aloud the language flowed.


The read-aloudability factor is a very important one when choosing a book.  It’s usually easier to read a text inside your head. Lots of adults I know (and until recent years, myself included) rarely read a picture book aloud without children present. Our book choosing experiences tend to involve flipping through the book and reading silently to ourselves.  We must remember that picture books are intended to be read aloud. When you read them aloud they sound different. Stick with me as I explain why.


We can think faster than we can read silently. We can read silently faster than we can speak spontaneously. And when we read aloud we slow down even more.


The average reader reads silently at approximately 230 words per minute (this number almost doubles for proficient readers). Although we speak quicker in spontaneous conversation, the average audio book is read at 120 words per minute which is the rate at which we hear and process meaning comfortably. In our heads, we can think an average of 800 words per minute.  The brain is processing language (among other things) at an incredibly rapid speed.


Because we slow down when we read aloud we naturally have more time to stop and savour the words. Some words sound funny and silly and these words are often more fun to say aloud. It feels funny and silly as words like ‘abracadabra’, or talking about the mythical island of ‘Blowyernose’ (Julia Donaldson – Jack and the Flum Flum Tree).


Some words are soothing. We can be soothed and lulled into a state of calm by some phrases. “And each of these babies, as everyone knows, has ten little fingers, and ten little toes” (Mem Fox -Ten little fingers and ten little toes) The way the words sound when read aloud changes the reading experience. 


Speech sounds do not start with the air in our lungs. They start in the brain. And as the brain signals that it wants to produce sound – also known as a vocal utterance – it requires the co-ordination of roughly 70 muscles and body parts.  The tongue, teeth and lips are the articulators – they differentiate the sounds and make the subtle changes.  But they couldn’t do that without the help of the vocal chords, oral cavity and muscles in the face, neck and chest.  Learning to speak and produce speech is an incredibly complicated process.


Words on the page affect us in one way. But saying the words aloud gives us a whole new experience. When reading aloud, it’s also easier to fall into the natural rhythm of the text. Rhythm and rhyme become much more apparent as you say the words aloud.


But let’s go back to read-aloudability. Every picture book needs to be read aloud.  It’s important to note that this may sound different depending on who is reading the book – and that’s okay. We each bring something different to the sound of a book. What works for me, might not work for you.  Some of my now favourite picture books I wouldn’t have glanced twice at before I tried reading them aloud.


So the message of this week’s blog: even adults need to read picture books aloud to themselves.  Savour the words. Find the rhythm, the rhyme and most importantly, the fun in every picture book.  You can read aloud to yourself, your pet, your friends or your family. Read aloud to your colleagues!  Just whatever you do before you choose a book make sure it has the read-aloudability factor.


Sub note: Try saying the word read-aloudability out loud. I love the way it feels to say that word aloud.