A few years ago I returned to the classroom after 15 years working as a library media specialist. The outstanding school where I worked had 10 minutes built into the middle of the school day for reading. As teachers, we had the freedom to use that time for literacy activities at our discretion. I decided that I would read to my students. I continued this practice for the four years that followed, and I never regretted my decision. Dozens of students over the years told me that they really looked forward to hearing me read to them every day. In fact, as the year progressed I “gained” several students who joined my class (with their teacher’s permission, of course) for our daily 10-minute reading session.
There’s plenty of research to document the power and effectiveness of reading to students of every age, and I won’t restate it here. Your school literacy coach and media specialist can provide that documentation. Here are my tips for a successful in-class read-aloud program.
Selection. Selection. Selection. Selecting a good book for your read-aloud is a critical component to your success. Find a book with a quick-paced plot, with the characters going somewhere and doing something. Avoid multi-page scene descriptions or long philosophical discourses. Short chapters work best, and provide a natural stopping point. (My favorites are at the bottom of this post.)
Avoid scary books that may be too intense for some of your students. I also don’t read-aloud books that have recently been made into movies (with the exception of The City of Ember, which was made into a movie that almost nobody saw.) And stay away from books with characters suffering from terminal illnesses; chances are you have a student whose family is going through similar circumstances. In other words, we want this to be a fun, adventurous experience.
Your school library media specialist and literacy coach can help you choose a great read-aloud for your class. You may be able to find a book that relates to your subject matter. This isn’t too hard for social studies teachers, who will find a good selection of historical fiction in most libraries.
Read the Book First. You should read the entire book before sharing it with your class. Don’t just run to the library, grab something, and start reading. Big Mistake! – and some teachers can testify to that! You really don’t want any surprises as you read to your students. Some teachers skip-over embarrassing parts, but I would advise against that as well. Chances are, a student has checked-out the book from the library and is reading along with you. They will raise their hand and say, “Hey Ms. Jones, you skipped the good part!” Fortunately, you can finish a tween book in one evening, and you’ll probably know pretty soon if there’s a part that eliminates a book from consideration.
Be Prepared to Provide Context. As you read the book, think about the places and items mentioned that your students may not understand. For example, one year when I read Island of the Blue Dolphins I made a quick PowerPoint using images that I found on the Internet.
Read Every Day. You will be tempted at times to skip daily reading. Maybe you want to get in a few extra minutes of instruction, or you just don’t feel like reading aloud. Resist the urge. By reading every day, you’re telling your students about the importance of reading. Read on!
Consider Accountability. When I read to my class, we had free reading time, and I was teaching an elective (digital photography.) I didn’t really feel a need to generate a grade based on my daily reading. But, if you’re taking instructional time and/or you’re a core-course teacher, you might want to make a quick assignment based on your daily reading. Students can keep a daily journal with characters, settings, and plot points. You can write one upper-level question on the board and give the students a couple of minutes to respond in their journals, or on a notecard that you collect. (For example, “Why do you think Sally tore up the note she found in her locker?” or “What do you think Joe should do with the wallet he found?”)
Don’t Allow Disruptions. Make sure that your students know that your read-aloud is an important part of your class. Pencils should be down. Cell phones should stay in the bookbag. Beware of earbuds that have crept into ears. Additionally, you might have a few students who moan, or roll their eyes when you start reading – reactions familiar to parents and middle school teachers. “Do you have to read today?” Smile and dive in.
Get Into It! Make sure that you’re using the appropriate amount of energy to keep your students’ attention. Don’t expect to mumble your way through the book. Vary your pitch, your pace, and your volume. Make notes in the margins indicating especially dramatic or humorous parts of the book. And yes, I practiced those parts. When the mystery is solved or an important detail is revealed you need to create that drama with your voice. I’ve actually had the teacher next door peek into my room as I yelled dialogue from a read-aloud. (Sorry about that – didn’t mean to interrupt your silent reading time.)
Have Fun. As a teacher, you can model reading as a fun, rewarding activity. This is your chance to create a love of reading in your students. Don’t be surprised if your students start sharing their books with you, and suggest the book to read next.
Here are books that I enjoy reading aloud to middle school students.
The “On the Run” series by Gordon Korman. Six books. The first book is Chasing the Falconers. (This is my favorite read-aloud series.) The books are short, and it is one big story. Plan to read them all, in order.
The “Kidnapped” series by Gordon Korman. Three books. Takes place after "On the Run," with the same characters.
Dovey Coe by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix
The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau (Make copies of the puzzle and let students solve as you read.)
Escaping the Giant Wave by Peg Kehret
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (recommended for older tweens)