Reading Aloud to Big Kids

March is Read Aloud month, which is something most teachers and parents fully support.  We all know that reading aloud is important for children’s brain development, and that all children should be read to from birth.  For a couple of years now, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been officially recommending that parents read aloud to babies starting at birth, and there are many studies that show that reading aloud increases children’s vocabulary and future literacy skills.  There are reading advocacy groups like Read Aloud, which is a non-profit organization that works to promote reading aloud for at least fifteen minutes a day, every day, to children at all ages and stages.  There has even been a meme going around the social media sites that shows the difference in the amount of words a child encounters in a school year when reading twenty minutes a day versus one to five minutes each day.  While this meme is a gross generalization, we all get the point.  Reading aloud to children each day is super great and makes their brains better!  I often wonder, though, about the definition of “children” used in all these recommendations.  Children under five years old?  Children in elementary school?  Or all children? I remember talking to the pediatrician about the importance of this or that at my own children’s well checks, but the older they get the shorter those talks become. My daughter is in third grade and when I asked her, she said her teacher never reads aloud to them, except once this month for Read Across America to celebrate Dr. Suess’s birthday.  I know that in middle school, teachers rarely read aloud to students because they have to read the reading passages on the state standardized tests on their own and teachers want students to be used to that requirement long before the test comes around.  There are many reasons older students do not get read aloud experiences at school or at home, but I can’t help but think one reason could be that these read aloud recommendations are promoted amongst parents and teachers of very young children, while upper elementary children and older are probably not on the read aloud radar.

I teach middle school, and many of my students have learning disabilities and/or live in poverty.  I don’t have to go through all the statistics for it to be obvious that they are, in most cases, not being read aloud to at all, or at least not since they started school.  As their teacher, I can’t control what happens in their homes, but I can control what happens in my classroom.  I am not an elementary teacher, but I read aloud to my students.  Not every single day, but often.  Very often.  And guess what?  They love it and benefit from it.  Sometimes it’s an entire book, sometimes a passage, other times only a paragraph.  Sometimes it’s related to an assignment or a standard we’re learning, other times it’s just because I read a really beautiful/moving/exciting/scary paragraph in my own book and I want to share it with them.  I am well aware that students need to improve their individual reading ability, and they get plenty of opportunities to work on that skill, but there is value in reading aloud to them as well.  They look forward to it and can learn by reading for themselves AND by listening as they are read aloud to.  Besides, watching them cover their mouths in horror, tear up emotionally, audibly gasp, or move to the edge of their seats during a read aloud is completely awesome because for a little while, they forget they’re supposed to be cool middle schoolers and they turn back into the kids they still are.

Even big kids like to be read aloud to.  I taught high school English for several years, and when I taught juniors we studied American Literature and there was a unit on women in American Lit.  I had some room in my curriculum to make some of my own book choices, and I chose These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner, which is an exciting, amazing, emotional, historical fiction book written in diary form – the writer of the diary had bad spelling and grammar, and there were no breaks or quotation marks to indicate when different characters began to speak, which made it very difficult for even my above average readers to comprehend the story.  So, I read aloud to them.  That’s right.  I read aloud to sixteen and seventeen year olds while they followed along with their own copy of the book because it was essential to their learning and comprehension.  I was criticized by some colleagues, who were “experts” in the field of education and literacy (really just administrators at the district level in my previous school district who had been out of the classroom for years, but anyhoo…), and I was told I was doing the students a disservice by reading to them instead of having them read to themselves.   I taught students with reading disabilities, students without identified disabilities who were low academic performers, students who were English Language Learners, students in poverty with low literacy skills, and students with a combination of all of these things – and in my experience, if I left them to read the book on their own, they would give up and lose out on a valuable educational experience.  I didn’t understand the criticism, because my students were learning, and anyhow, we listened to Shakespeare on the audio CD that came with the textbook in my ninth grade English class, so how was reading this book aloud to students any different than listening to the audio performance of Romeo and Juliet?  So I carried on, mentally telling those “experts” to stuff it, and those big kids came to class each day asking, Can we please, please read the book today?  I read, they followed along, I took volunteers if they wanted to read aloud themselves, we learned about all sorts of English-y things related to the story, we did writing assignments, we had class discussions, and they learned.  Now, there’s new thinking that listening to an audio book is just as valuable as reading a print book, and students with reading disabilities have text-to-speech technology available to them that will read aloud their textbooks and assignments if needed, so I’m inclined to think reading that particular book aloud to my students all those years ago was the right decision; besides, my classroom data showed that students learned the concepts and standards being taught, and isn’t that the point?

I know I am in the minority as a read aloud parent, as well.  I read to my children more evenings than not and we always have an audio book going in the car for our drive to school.  They look forward to both, and reading aloud in the evenings is a way to wind down after a busy day.  I let them take turns choosing the next “family book” that we read aloud, and sometimes I choose it myself when I find a book I really want to share with them.  We still read aloud the occasional picture book at home – I made them sit through a reading of Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena because it’s the first time ever a male Latino author has won the Newberry Medal and I told my kids they would sit and listen and enjoy it because it’s super important and exciting in book award history, goshdarnit!  We read nonfiction, fables, fairy tales, and poems.  There are so many books I want to share with my kids that I get a little panicky at times when I think about how old they’re getting and that soon, they may tell me to quit this babyish read aloud stuff because they’re big now and their friends’ parents don’t do this and anyway they can read on their own and they’d rather watch their TV show and don’t I know it’s embarrassing and why am I making them hold on to this little kid routine, and…  But, that hasn’t happened yet, so as long as they are still saying “Yay!” when I say it’s time to get ready for bed and read, I’m going to enjoy the moments, cram in as many stories as we can, and if and when they do decide they’re too old for read alouds, I’ll remind them of my junior English class begging me to read a story aloud to them like the kids they actually were.

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Relevant Books, Positive Experiences

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For the last four weeks I’ve run an intervention group full of sixth graders who receive special education services for a range of specific learning disabilities (SLD), including basic reading, reading fluency, and reading comprehension.  This intervention time is a thirty minute block built into the day, and it changes for students every month depending on their needs.  I’ve run this type of group several times this school year with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and like the others, my group in February was a “book club,” in that we read a book together out loud.  At the middle school where I teach, we promote Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge, and getting students with reading disabilities to read for pleasure is not only challenging for the students, but for their teachers as well.  In the past these intervention times have focused on teaching students to use strategies when they read, mainly as an attempt to improve their ability to show comprehension on a standardized test, but this year I asked my administrators if I could try something different.  I wanted to teach comprehension by reading an actual book with students that – and this is the crazy part – they would actually enjoy.

My administrators were supportive, and they let me run with it in my own way, but some of my fellow ELA teachers were skeptical.  Their raised eyebrows and doubtful hmmmms were basically a pat on the head and a “Bless your heart” from educators who have tried in vain, year after year, to get kids with SLD to read and enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong – I work with wonderful teachers who strive to meet the needs of all students, including those with SLD, every day. But we all get discouraged when students’ losses seem to pile up and their wins are few and far between.  When working with students with SLD, the wins often come in very small increments and must be celebrated as if they are huge, which can be exhausting. Many hate school because it’s so difficult for them, and that feeling colors every academic experience they have.  Plus, they’re middle schoolers.  They’re a tough audience, folks.  One factor, in my opinion as an educator, is crucial when teaching students reading comprehension and when trying to show them reading can be fun – and that is book relevance.  Here are some book choices, and ways of presenting the activity, that work for me and for my students.

For students with SLD, I like books that are short, age-appropriate, high interest, and challenging without being too difficult.  I also like books written in verse, because when students look at the pages and see they are NOT filled with words from margin to margin, they start to think maybe they really can read a whole book! Here’s a list I like to call –

Books Written in Verse That Middle School Students w/ SLD Won’t Hate

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

House Arrest by K.A. Holt

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

The Good Braider by Terry Farish

Beanball by Gene Fehler

Hidden by Helen Frost

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Love That Dog and Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

At the beginning of a new “book club,” I start to build, or build upon, a relationship with the students.  It seems simple, but I smile at them, let them know with my words, tone of voice, and body language that I’m happy to have them in my group.  Even middle school students like it when teachers show them they are enjoyable human beings, even if they won’t admit to it!  I ask them to share something they are looking forward to, and then I share as well.  I ask them questions about their lives that may relate to the topics or themes in the book we’ll read together. Since they are struggling readers, I always start out reading aloud myself. Students need to hear a story come to life so I do all the read-aloud things – tone of voice, inflection, character voices, and accents (that gets a laugh out of them!).  Many have not been read aloud to at all, or not since they were babies, and it’s important for them to hear it modeled. I let them know I will never call on them to read aloud, easing lots of visible anxiety – but I will take volunteers. I always have a couple of students who will volunteer when the pressure is taken away, and nonjudgmental support is given. I set up rules for what following along looks like, and monitor it throughout. I explain words and concepts they don’t know because often, students’ background knowledge is very limited, and it greatly affects their comprehension. All of this is done with a positive attitude toward students and reading. Now, I do get the audible groans and slumped shoulders when I tell students we’ll be reading a book, but I’ve never had students hate it when we’re finished.  And that’s really saying something – they’re middle school students.  They like to hate EVERYTHING.  They won’t always be allowed to read something they enjoy, but it’s my mission to show students that reading CAN be enjoyable and they CAN be successful.

I once heard a fellow teacher say “Remember, for many students their interaction with you may be the only positive experience with a teacher they have all day.”  I always keep that statement in mind, because for students with SLD, they experience more failures in their academic lives than successes, and I want them to feel success with me. And maybe, just maybe, if they enjoy this reading books thing with me, they’ll pick up a book on their own, read it, and enjoy the experience.  Or at the very least, not hate it.