The other day, I read Joe McGee’s powerful blog post about being the kind of hero who doesn’t need a cape: the kind of understated hero who reads books aloud to kids. I recommend reading the post in its entirety, but in one part of it, Joe describes reading to one of his three sons: “I sit at the bedside of my middle-schooler and read him a couple of pages of the Percy Jackson books he’s devouring. No, he doesn’t need me to read them to him (he tears through the books), but he just likes the experience of hearing my voice; of sharing a few minutes with me.”
As a middle school English teacher, I read aloud to my students, too, even though, like Joe’s middle-school-aged son, they can certainly read on their own. Reading to a classroom full of students is different than a quiet, pre-bedtime, father-son moment, obviously, but my students and I also enjoy the experience Joe describes: of sharing some time together in which we are all immersed in the same story. They know that I won’t give them reading quizzes or make them write essays about the books I read aloud, and it takes a long time for us to make it through a read-aloud novel, since I only read a little bit (between five and fifteen minutes) at a time. As a result, our read-aloud time allows us to savor a story in a way that most of us don’t have time to do when we are reading on our own.
In addition to the fact that my students enjoy read alouds (there is often cheering when I announce that we’re starting or finishing class with a read aloud, which makes me feel at least a tiny bit heroic), it’s useful for many of my students to hear how an experienced reader reads a text. I make sure to emphasize important words, I speak differently for different characters, and I pause to re-read a sentence if I don’t get the inflection quite right: all things that students can do inside their heads when they’re reading silently for better comprehension and more enjoyment. Reading aloud lets us appreciate the way a well-told story sounds, which can help students develop an ear for voice, that elusive but important trait that distinguishes wonderful writing.
But reading aloud does include some challenges. Sometimes it feels like one more thing to balance when I’m already trying to fit in a whole lot. The fact that it takes a long time to get through a read-aloud book also brings up two tricky issues: we’re not going to move on to another one for a while, which can be a bummer if a student isn’t into a book we’re reading aloud, and sometimes students get impatient and want to know what happens (which I can understand), so they get a copy of the book and finish it on their own. That can mean that they’re less engaged while we’re reading as a class, or that they give away plot developments to their classmates. I’ve been feeling discouraged by these challenges lately, but Joe’s blog post reminded me to stop and think about the tangible and intangible benefits of reading aloud.
When I choose read alouds, I do my best to think of books that will appeal to a range of students. Occasionally I offer different options and let students vote, but I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, because students whose first choice book doesn’t get chosen tend to take a little while to warm up to the class choice. Verse novels can be great for reading aloud, because they tend to include fewer words than prose novels and we can get through them more quickly. Books that have a mystery element and invite students to make lots of predictions also work well (although then if students can’t resist finishing the book on their own, they can’t participate in some of the conversations), and funny books are often a hit. Here are some of the books I’ve used, specifically with 6th and 7th grade classes.
Rules, by Cynthia Lord: This was the first read aloud I ever used. Looking back, I’m surprised I chose it because only girls tend to check it out from the classroom library, but the class loved it and it led to great conversations, so that’s a point in favor of good books just being good books, not “girl books” or “boy books.”
Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate: A funny and poignant verse novel.
All the Broken Pieces, by Ann E. Burg: Another poignant verse novel.
When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead: Both of these books have a great voice, a vivid setting, and a puzzle element for readers to put together.
Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay: A hilarious book with a lovable cast of characters, and the first book in a series.
Capture the Flag and Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner: Both suspenseful and action-packed, with lots of opportunities for readers to make inferences and varied casts of characters.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Schmidt’s funny, emotion-packed writing really lends itself to being read aloud.
Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson: At first I thought this delightful and humorous pirate adventure novel might feel too young for my sixth grade students (even though I, as an adult, adored it), but we’re reading it aloud now. It turns out, once again, that good books are good books, so I didn’t need to worry. Also, I let students take turns reading the fun letters, articles, signs, and excerpts that appear at the beginning or end of chapters, and they seem to love that.
What are some books you like to read aloud? I’d love to get suggestions from teachers, librarians, or parents about other books that work especially well.
Great post!!! I bookmarked Joe McGee’s post to read. i also like reading aloud to kids. I read books aloud to my niece and nephew on long car trips. Back then, they favored books like THE DAY MY BUTT WENT PSYCHO by Andy Griffiths, because they didn’t think I would dare read the book out loud. I dared! They loved it
Friends of mine read the Chronicles of Narnia aloud to their kids.
I’m wondering how a book like Treasure Island would go over. It has a strong narrative voice. Also Catherynne’s books about September–i.e., The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making–would be fun to read aloud.
Thanks, Linda! I have to look up THE DAY MY BUTT WENT PSYCHO–that sounds hysterical, and I love that you read that to your niece and nephew! Lucky them to have an aunt like you. 🙂 Your other suggestions are great, too. I’ll have to look back at TREASURE ISLAND to see how I think it would go over, and I definitely need to check out THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND. I haven’t read it, but from the title it sounds like it could be a wonderful read aloud.
I love that you are all reading out loud together. I’ve always loved being read to–even now as an adult. I guess that’s why I love audio books. So, all I can say is: You’re a hero for me too. I wish I were closer so that I could come sit in!
Thank you, Sandra! I love audiobooks, too. And I also wish that you were closer! You could be a guest reader 🙂
Just the other day, my younger son and I were talking about how I used to read aloud to them even as they were gobbling up books of their own. Like Joe and you observed, they enjoyed the passive experience of hearing the book versus working through it themselves. My son said that he remembers that when the tradition ended, he was sad, even though he read well by that point. There is something about the auditory nature of reading aloud that connects us — perhaps it’s embedded in our DNA from the time when our ancestors were oral storytellers. Whatever the reason, I’ve lately found that I enjoy listening to books nearly as much as reading them with my eyes. And the torture of the slow pace makes it even more wonderful, in the way that waiting for Christmas to come was wonderful.
I used to be a teacher of 7th grade students with learning disabilities, and my students were mainstreamed into regular education classrooms. In those years (the 1990s) the teachers read novels aloud to and with their classes. The books they read included The Acorn People, The Cay, The Wave, A Day No Pigs Would Die and Incident at Hawk’s Hill. I know there were others that I just can’t remember at the moment. (There was a bit of swearing in one of these, but it was addressed before the book was started and handled in a very mature matter that made it a non-issue. The regular ed. teachers were very good and rarely ever had discipline issues in their classrooms, so the way they introduced that topic allowed the students to not focus on that but instead see the situations/stories behind the words. I don’t know that just any teacher could do the same.) Feedback from parents (and usually from the students too) was always very good regarding reading out loud. There were many comments of non-readers becoming readers (due only in part to the reading aloud), more so with the regular education students than mine depending on the ability levels in any given year. I loved the books and the reading aloud too!