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Just Read. And Let Them Just Listen: The Case for Reading Aloud to Students of All Ages

A classroom teacher friend recently asked me to recommend a book to read aloud to her 8th grade students to kick off the school year. The question immediately took me back to my own days as an English teacher and the precious 5-10 minutes I spent at the beginning of (almost) all class periods reading to my students.  Back in those days, I felt guilty about giving away that much instructional time to an activity that I couldn't directly connect to my state standards and their ever looming test.  Now, if I could go back and do it all over again, I'd spend more time reading to my students and I wouldn't spend a second worrying about whether or not it was the right move.

Reading aloud to students of all ages is a sound instructional practice for so many reasons.  Here are just a few:

  • Reading aloud to students models and helps develop a daily habit of reading as an essential part of life and learning. 

  • Reading aloud to students introduces them to books and authors they might not otherwise connect with.

  • Reading aloud to students exposes them to new vocabulary and helps decrease existing word gaps among students living in poverty or those living in homes where English is not their first language.

  • Reading aloud to students connects students to texts that help build empathy and community or that promote healing after a shared trauma.

  • Reading aloud to students demonstrates how stories connect us.

  • Reading aloud creates a shared, joyful experience between you and your students.

  • Reading aloud to students is fun!

  • Students, of all ages, love to be read to.

In my experience, not every book makes a great read aloud choice, however. Over the years, I developed a checklist of criteria that I used when selecting books that I would read aloud to students. Books that made the cut were:

  • Fast paced and often contained many quick chapters.

  • Ripe with cliff-hangers. (The best books lead to near student rebellions when you shut them for the day).

  • Heavy on suspense, conflict and drama.

  • Sleepers. The most popular books on the shelves are ones your students are likely to select for independent reading, so use the read aloud as a chance to introduce them some hidden library treasure. 

  • Light on exposition and heavy on action.

  • Would help kids see reading as something joyful and necessary (as opposed to a chore associated with some type of assessment or task).

During my tenure as a classroom teacher, some of my favorite read alouds included:

Full disclosure: This book deals with some fairly touchy subjects, like child abuse and abortion.  

And while that didn't stop me from reading it aloud to my students, (and it was never challenged) you know your students and your school community better than I do and I encourage you to always consider those factors when selecting your own read aloud books. That said, my students loved this book. In fact, when I run into my former students (who are all fully grown adults now) the number one question they ask is the title of the book we read in class about the kid who stayed fat in order to save a friendship.  And several have reported reading it again as adults or sharing it with their own children or, indeed, students. 

  • The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding.  This book is about, at least in part, a serial killer called Stitch Face, run amok in Victorian London, so clearly playing it safe when it came to picking books to read aloud to my students was not my MO!  An aside: for many of the 11 years I taught English I subjected my students to A Tale of Two Cities (which I love but they mostly hated).  I now wish I'd thought to compare the two versions of Victorian England presented in these books... but I digress.

  • Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.  This is a great book for kids who came to me in the 8th grade reporting that Hatchet was still their favorite book.

  • Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.  My students loved this book almost as much as they hated its title. 

As a middle and high school librarian, who was not on a fixed schedule, I still read aloud to students, but the opportunities for those interactions looked a little bit different than when I was in the classroom.  Here's how I created those opportunities as a secondary librarian:

  • Classroom Visits: I offered to do go into classrooms and read to students.  You'd be surprised how many middle and high school teachers took me up on this offer.  And I'll be honest, the first time may have simply been because they wanted a day to sit at their desk while the LaGarde show was going on in the front of the class, but that's okay. Without exception, me reading to a class lead directly to that teacher wanting to bring their students to the library because they were all suddenly and inexplicably "excited about reading" as well as to future invitations to return tp spark that excitement again.  

  • Book Talks:  Reading a passage of the book was ALWAYS a part of my book talks.  And these few minutes always created lengthy hold lists for whatever book was being shared.

  • Story Time:  Yes, that's right.  I held recess/lunch story times in both my middle and high school libraries.  This was simply an opportunity for kids to come to the library and be read to during their "free time."  Sometimes I would read. Other times they wanted to read. Either way, I always had somewhere between 20-50 students per lunch or recess period who were hungry for the experience.

These days, if given the chance to read entire books to my secondary students from start to finish, my list would definitely include:

The important thing to remember is that reading aloud to students should not look like the other reading instruction that takes up the bulk of their day.  Don't stop in the middle to quiz them on the details they just heard.  Don't hand out a vocabulary list.  Don't make them create a diorama, storyboard or book-cover.  And by all means, do not create assessments, of any type, but especially not those modeled after standardized test questions to accompany your read aloud choices. 

Just read.  And let them just the listen.

While reading aloud to students has varied effects on literacy development this part of your students' day should be solely about building the habit of reading.  If we want our students to be more than proficient decoders or words and instead grow into avid readers (which our most successful students always are) we must provide them with opportunities to fall in love with books and to see reading as a necessary part of their lives.  Reading aloud to them does just that. 

Finally, as school librarians I feel we have an opportunity and an obligation to model this practice - not just for our students, but also for their teachers who have either forgotten that reading aloud is good for kids or who, like this former English teacher, felt pressured to forego the "fun stuff" for more serious pursuits.  What's more, reading aloud to kids helps position the library as a place of joy for the young people we have the privilege to serve.  A place where books do more than take up space on dusty shelves.  A place where stories are lifted from the page in voice and spin through the air, growing and changing each listener they land on. 


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