At this year’s NCTE conference, I was able to see Stephen Layne, author of In Defense of Read-Aloud. When the session began, he opened Sold and began reading. Immediately I was transported to the Happiness House in India. I was standing next to Laskshmi as Mumtaz, owner of the brothel, explained the shameful acts she must commit to pay off her debt. For 15 minutes I was swept away into a world that ended way too soon.
Before the session I had heard of read-alouds. You know, the phenomenon where parents or teachers read a book out loud. One of my professors at the time was even reading us children’s books at the start of class. In high school, I had one teacher read the class The Hunger Games. For some reason though, reading aloud had never occurred to me as a beneficial component to my classroom; it was just an activity I could do.
This was quickly changed as Stephen Layne’s words painted Mumtaz’s mango shaped face and the way she angrily spat her words, as if everything, even the Happiness House was repulsive.
When I read, I do get a mental picture, but the inflection and pitch of Layne’s voice created an incredibly vibrant one immediately.
I experienced first-hand how reading aloud to students is a strong classroom tool. A Curriculum Staple: Reading Aloud to Teens by Jess Hinds describes some of the powerful benefits that come from reading aloud to students.
Young people often listen at a higher comprehension level than they read, according to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 1982), a best seller with more than two million copies sold, and now in its seventh edition. While some educators may view reading aloud as a step backward pedagogically, or not the most productive use of class time, reading aloud can advance teens’ listening and literacy skills by piquing their interest in new and/or rigorous material. It also builds what Trelease calls the “pleasure connection” between the young person and the book and the person reading aloud.
Reading aloud can allow a time and space for students to creatively use their imaginations. Students are free to fall into the strong reading voice of the teacher and explore the world built by words. This is especially important for reluctant readers.
Trelease believes that reading aloud to students beyond the eighth grade is important because these students rarely experience the printed word without an accompanying assignment, creating what he refers to as a “sweat mentality” around books. And the older the student, the more work they are asked to do around reading. Children’s belief that reading for fun is “extremely important” typically drops off after age eight, according to the Scholastic report, and one more reason why educators need to ramp up their practice rather than pull away. “When you read aloud to anyone, it’s a commercial for the pleasures of reading,” notes Trelease.
Again, reluctant readers can listen in sheer enjoyment. Their mind is not having to do the bulk of the work. For other students, read-alouds promote a time of pleasure reading instead of a “sweat mentality.” (If you are looking for even more reasons to implement read-alouds, I very strongly recommend Stephen Layne’s book.)
So how do you implement read-alouds? Here are a few simple steps:
- Preview the book. Make sure it is something that can grip the attention of your students and hold it.
- Be a master of the text. You don’t want to accidentally wander into a steamy scene. If you know the book, you can give a content warning or simply skip the section.
- Reading aloud is an art. It takes practice. Find someone you feel comfortable honing your skills with (right now my husband is the poor guinea pig).
- Your words carry the meaning and expression. Make sure you are familiar enough with the sentences to successfully portray these things to your students. Play with your volume, pitch, pace, tone, and diction for emphasis
- You need a pre-launch. This is a space of time that you preview the book with your kiddos. It might be a book talk, it might be an exploration of some themes or issues in the book, or it might be both of these things.
- Launch the book! This where after you’ve set up the hype, you begin reading. Hopefully your students will be begging you not to put the book down.
Read-alouds help strengthen reading stamina, they foster enjoyment, and they build literacy skills. I firmly believe that they will hold a place in my classroom.