August 20, 2017

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A Curriculum Staple: Reading Aloud to Teens

Dana Johansen, a teacher at the Greenwich (CT) Academy, reads to eighth graders. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Academy.

Dana Johansen, a teacher at the Greenwich (CT) Academy, reads to eighth graders.
Photo courtesy of Greenwich Academy.

Every year, Beth Aviv, a high school English teacher in Westchester County, NY, asks her students, “How many of you were read to by a parent when you were little?” Last year, only a quarter of the class raised their hands. Aviv discovered these students were starved for storytelling. So she read to them often, from classic novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, picture books including Margery Williams’s The Velveteen

Rabbit, and Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March (Dial, 2015). Students were “rapt,” said Aviv. “They didn’t want me to stop.”

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.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition, based on a survey conducted in the fall of 2014, correlates high reading enjoyment with reading frequency in students ages six to 17. The report also found that among children ages six to 11 whose parents had stopped reading to them at home, 40 percent did not want the practice to end.

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.

Dana Johansen, a fifth-grade English teacher with experience working with grades four to eight at Greenwich (CT) Academy, recommends reading aloud to older students from the first title in a series. “That way they’ll want to continue on their own,” says Johansen, who is also coauthor with Sonja Cherry-Paul of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning (Heinemann, 2014). When reading aloud a book by Judy Blume, Johansen’s students brainstormed questions they wanted to ask Blume, tweeted her, and received a personal response. Sharing the listening experience enabled her students to address topics they deemed “important” and “awkward” under the guidance of an adult.

Reading aloud also offers an opportunity for classroom teachers to gauge students’ comprehension. Aviv alternates between reading aloud and asking students to do so. When someone stumbles over a word, she invites the class to define it. Sometimes, the educator pauses to take questions.

North Dakota librarian Doreen Rosevold, who works with grades 6–12, agrees with Aviv that reading aloud deepens understanding. “Students hear word pronunciations and inflections that they might miss in their own reading, and in listening to them, they create mental images.” Rosevold’s school in Mayville, ND, serves 304 local tweens and teens from four rural communities. Rosevold believes that reading aloud also puts listeners “on a more level playing field,” since reading ability is not a factor.

Sara Lissa Paulson (right) reads aloud from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Photo courtesy of Sara  Lissa Paulson

Sara Lissa Paulson (right) reads aloud from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Photo courtesy of Sara Lissa Paulson

Making room for read-alouds

Middle and high school libraries are often bustling places, hosting multiple activities at any given time. When teacher librarian Sara Lissa Paulson read aloud from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she didn’t cancel any of the other happenings in the middle school library where she then worked in Queens, NY. She posted fliers around school and notified the community about the event, but did not expect a formal audience. One by one, more students became swept up in the story, and pulled up chairs. By the end of the novella, Paulson had 20 listeners.

Read-alouds as special occasions

Read-alouds can be festive occasions—even sleepover parties. All Night Reading has been a decade-long tradition at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY. The current organizer, Sam Aronson, an English and a math teacher, invites high school students, their families, and the school community to listen to one another read classics such as Homer’s The Iliad, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in their entirety. The annual spring event is held in the cafeteria, beginning on a Friday afternoon. The first reading session ends around 2 a.m. After a sleep break, readers resume Saturday morning and continue to midday. Literary meals are served (fish chowder for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and beef stroganoff for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment). Almost 200 people participate, with 40 to 50 typically spending the night.

Aronson describes the program as “a challenge and an opportunity [for students] to experience a book that they might not otherwise,” adding that the event creates “a real sense of intellectual community.”

Some teen librarians incorporate read-alouds into seasonal celebrations. Rosevold reads Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart” around an electric fireplace, using props such as a plastic heart in a jar, and she pulls a plastic mallet out from her sleeve during a dramatic moment. Other librarians hold birthday parties for authors or celebrate the anniversary of a book’s publication. Making reading a social experience lends them “value,” says Paulson.

During Paulson’s “Reading in the Streets” day, members of the school community read aloud in the hallways as students moved from class to class. The principal read from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and dressed up as Alice); a security guard read from Moby-Dick. The voices of teachers and guidance counselors could be heard throughout the corridors. In the few minutes of transitional time, students listened to snippets of stories, absorbed rich language, and made new connections to staff members and the books they loved.

Stress-free books

The visual richness and often hidden complexity of picture books make them ideal for teens, as Linda Jacobson wrote in a recent article for SLJ. Olga Nesi, the newly appointed librarian at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, NY, plans to build a picture book collection for read-alouds, research, and countless other purposes. During her 22 years as an educator, many of the teens Nesi has worked with initially “balked at being read to” or described picture books as “babyish.” Partly for this reason, the librarian started referring to the books as “stress-free reading.”

Once her students acclimated to regular read-alouds, they loved them. Nesi’s picture book collections have helped her students gain quick access to different genres and historical eras, and served as mentor pieces. Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say (Philomel, 1994) was among a stack of titles about the Civil War.

Students who hear picture books aloud often ask to borrow them to read to siblings at home. Trelease writes movingly in his Handbook about a teen parent who began reading to his son after his positive experiences with read-alouds in high school.

“This generation wasn’t read to the way we were,” says Aviv. But it’s never too late to reverse this trend.

“When we stop creating lifetime readers, we endanger the entire culture,” states Trelease. Read a first chapter, and students “will want to know what happens next. It’s part of the human condition. We all want to know what comes next.”

Hinds-Jess_Contrib_WebJess deCourcy Hinds is the librarian at Bard H.S. Early College in Queens, NY.

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Comments

  1. I appreciate the creative ways that read-alouds can happen — the ongoing event in the library and the sleepover idea. High school English teachers, in particular, may not feel like they “have enough time” for daily read-alouds, so it’s important to think outside the box. Thank you for this article.

  2. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    In 1970 I had my first teaching assignment: 5 classes of middle school remedial readers. The previous Title 1 person had bought tons of phonics worksheets. With discipline problems increasing, I discovered James Moffett’s A Student-Centered Language Arts Curriculum, Grades K-13: A Handbook for Teachers. Moffett said to read aloud to students, but to have them follow along (important) because then they would be reading, too. I bought 35 copies of The Outsiders and read it aloud to students who came to class begging for story. I read aloud to students from that point on.

  3. Debi Leatherman says:

    I teach 9th grade Biology and I would love to read to my kids something other than the textbook. Any suggestions on appropriate books I could choose from?

    • Hi Debi – Do you have a teacher librarian in your school? I would ask him/her.

    • The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
      The Nature of Life: Readings in Biology
      Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology by Hoagland, Dodson and Hauck
      Our Natural World edited by Hal Borland
      The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
      Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif
      Mosquito: The Story of Man’s Deadliest Foe by Spielman and D’Antonio
      Microbes and Man by John Postgate
      Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History by Dorothy H. Crawford
      The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean
      The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 by Mukherjee and Folger
      Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Hazen and TrefilExploring the Way Life Works by Hoagland and Dodson
      The Nature of Life: Readings in Biology
      Microbe Hunters by De Kruif
      Silent Spring by Carson
      The Violinist’s Thumb by Keen
      The Cartoon Guide to Genetics by Gonick
      Cats Are Not Peas: A Calico History of Genetics by Gould
      On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation by Keller
      The Island of Dr. Moreau by Wells
      Hot Zone by Preston
      Wicked Plants…by Stewart
      Wicked Bugs…by Stewart
      Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Saved the World by Kurlansky
      The Burgess Book of Animals by Burgess
      All Things Great and Small by Heriot
      Stiff by Roach
      Your Inner Fish by Shubin
      The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2013

    • Any of Robert Sapolsky’s work
      Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

      We always have to remember to pre-read the content, so we can differentiate for the specific needs of the students to whom we read.

  4. I was shopping one day when a clerk came up to me and asked, “Are you Mrs. Brown, who taught at T_____ School?” I said yes I was. She said, “You changed my life. Years ago you were my “low group” reading teacher in sixth grade, and you read to us every day. When you finished reading My Side of the Mountain I couldn’t wait to read it again for myself. It was the first book I’d ever read from beginning to end. I’ve never been without a book since then.” Perhaps you can imagine how stunned I was. Reading aloud to my students was my favorite time of the day. It was my sincere joy to share the sound of language expressing an engaging story, and I’m gratified to know that this young student became a lifelong reader because of it.

  5. june cookson says:

    I teach gr 8 to 10 in South Africa and I LOVE reading aloud to my boys (Westville Boys’High School). I find they most enjoy books featuring teen boys that are based on true stories. BROKEN GLASS, an Australian novel, is their absolute favourite. Thanks for the info – am going to use it to promote even more reading!

  6. When I began teaching in 1985, my first class was a 9th grade “reading and writing” skills class in a poor area of North St. Louis county. The regular teacher has been absent a lot due to cancer, and the students literally climbed out the windows for the last sub. I asked my mother for advice (She was also an English teacher.) since there were no lesson plans. She recommended that I read to the students. The school had a class set of Pigman. I read it. They loved it. And no one climbed out the windows. It actually allowed us to introduce meaningful discussion to the class as well as vocabulary and comprehension.

  7. Reading aloud acclimatizes kids to listening comprehension – an essential skill both in the university lecture hall and the board room. Those who are trained to be quick on the uptake in this fashion may have a future advantage.

  8. Ellen Frank Bayer says:

    Reading aloud helps our students appreciate the rhythms of our literature. We love to use picture books with our high school students to enable them to enjoy a book within one 45 minute period. Many of today’s books are written for both adults and children to enjoy together, with each getting something different from them. We especially enjoy the picture books illustrated by Bryan Collier, because of all the details and messages he places in his illustrations.