Teaching Profession

Why We Read Aloud

January 04, 2010 7 min read
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About 300 teachers responded to a reporter’s inquiry posted on listservs run by the English Companion Ning social networking site and the National Council for the Social Studies seeking comments on why and what they read aloud to their middle and high school students. Following are excerpts from the responses:

See Also

Read Education Week‘s main story on this topic, “Reading Aloud to Teens Gaining Favor Among Teachers.”

“I’m a science and math teacher and people don’t think we read to our kids. I must be weird but I read to them all the time. ... How terrific it is if you can find something that is going on in the news that relates to the curriculum you are teaching. You answer the question, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ before it even is asked. Plus, it gives the kids a sense that you’re not secluded in this classroom without any awareness of what’s going on in the world. ... I think you have to be very selective and careful. Once I tried reading an article that reported how the tectonic plates under the Horn of Africa were causing it to break away from the main continent. The kids were bored out of their minds. When I tried it the next year, I stopped at key spots and used Google Earth to illustrate what the article was talking about. Shazam. Once they could see the daisy chain of active volcanoes, they could understand the article, and then they wanted to hear more. Suddenly, the whole reading of the article changed from dull/boring into WOW/that’s amazing. I think it’s because they don’t have enough background knowledge and reading experience to know these things without a teacher showing them the way.”

Marsha Ratzel
Science and math teacher
Leawood Middle School
Leawood, Kan.

“When I was in 6th grade honors language arts, our amazing teacher, Mrs. Leback, started every class by reading to us. She stopped at the end of each chapter—always a cliffhanger. ... She read to us The Giver, Danny the Champion of the World, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and many more. The texts were always about extraordinary people about our age. She didn’t stop to ask questions, but the reading set the tone for the rest of the period. It gave us a valuable transition that set her classroom apart from all the others, and it exposed us to authors and stories that were inspiring and new to us. Even the books I had read before coming to her class sounded fresh and exciting as she took us through them with her gentle voice. Maybe it worked best because we were at that in-between stage where we didn’t want to be children—but did. I missed this time very much in later years, and I am convinced that older students would—could—love it, too.”

Laura Michael
Secondary English teacher-candidate
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Va.

“Always, always, I have read aloud to my students. Students—all students—need to hear high-quality, fluent, expressive reading. Many hear only their own reading, and therefore have no model of anything else to imitate. That is especially true for struggling readers. Even in my honors senior British Lit class, though, I read aloud. Shakespeare makes much more sense when read by someone who understands the lines and can add appropriate inflections and emotion. One of my top students told me she’d always remember my reading the witches in Macbeth. I’m assuming that’s because she enjoyed my witchly cackle, not that she thought the part fit my personality!”

Judy Beemer
Literacy coach and reading specialist
Junction City High School
Junction City, Kan.

“Why do I read aloud? First, some students can easily relate to fond early-childhood moments when someone read to them. At what point did reading need to stop being an entertaining activity? It was a social activity for generations. Next, many of my at-risk students never had anyone read to them. Reading independently is quite difficult for them, so why torture them with silence? They need to hear their characters’ voices to understand what those characters feel. In addition, some of these lower-level students need someone to model appropriate rhythm, flow, meter, and pronunciation. Even my best honors students admit that hearing someone else pronounce the words gives them confidence to use those words in their speech and writing. Lastly, the students hear the teacher make mistakes, and they learn that it is perfectly fine to make mistakes. No one will laugh, and no one will mock them if they make a mistake.”

Patti Porter
English teacher
High Point Regional High School
Sussex, N.J.

“A certain number of students simply will not read. The adage ‘You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink’ comes to mind. Playing a tape helps struggling or resistant students access the text on some level. I would rather expose them to the story or text, at least on an auditorial level, than leave them disengaged.”

Marita McCarthy
English teacher
Canyon Oaks High School
Monrovia, Calif.

“I regularly read aloud to my 7th and 8th graders. I use the Gradual Release of Responsibility model, which basically means what it says. I begin by modeling what I want them to do and gradually put the responsibility back on their shoulders. I move from direct instruction to large-group work, to small groups, to partners, to independent work. I have had tremendous success with this model, and I find that the students have a very clear understanding of my expectations for reading. I use Gradual Release of Responsibility for some things that take all year until the students are working independently and some lessons that may only take them a class period before they may be off and running. ... I have heard of some teachers who have the students only read books while they listen to them on tape. I believe everything should be done in moderation. I spend about 40 minutes a week doing read-alouds with my classes, but I do not linger with stopping and starting to ask a lot of questions. I find that it takes the excitement out of the reading, and I want to build their enjoyment of reading for fun.”

Molly Hooley
Reading and English/language arts teacher
Chippewa Middle School
North Oaks, Minn.

“I am a Vermont 7-12 educator who has been reading aloud to and with students for decades. ... Ironically, I read a couple pages from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle just this morning to my U.S. history class. I noticed that while some had read a bit of the excerpt on their own, their faces registered so much more when I read and they listened. It really brought out the reactions and comments. Of course, the meatpacking industry around 1900 would elicit plenty of responses from anyone.”

John Eckerson
Social studies teacher
Milton High School
Milton, Vt.

“I teach English to special education high school juniors. We study American literature. The text of much of the incorporated literature is just too difficult for students with comprehension or decoding issues to read to themselves. We read the majority of text aloud and stop very often to interpret and discuss. My students read to themselves from material at their independent reading levels each day in class as well.”

Betsy Green
Special education teacher
James Wood High School
Winchester, Va.

“Yes, we need to ‘get students motivated to read.’ At the middle school level, many times a teacher will start a novel by reading the first chapter to get the students ‘intrigued’ with the story. But teachers who continually read to their students in the middle and high school grades do students a grave injustice. In the real-world classroom, students are great manipulators, and they can convince the teacher that ‘they just don’t understand it, it is too hard,’ etc. Then the teachers will continue to read to them.”

Angelia Greiner
Distance-learning English and speech teacher
Arkansas School of Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts
Hot Springs, Ark.

“I teach high school literature at a school for learning-challenged students in upstate New York—students who have moderate to severe dyslexia, [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder], Tourette’s, Asperger’s, etc.—and I present almost all the literature aloud in class. As the students are generally quite bright and must meet the state standards on state testing, we read fairly high-level material, including Beowulf, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, Night, and several others. I find that this works very well. It definitely keeps the students more engaged than listening to text being “read” to them on Kurzweil or other text-to-speech programs. Reading aloud in class also gives me the flexibility to stress and discuss particular points and allows the students to actively interact with the text and ask questions. Retention on the part of the students is usually high—as evidenced on homework, class discussions, and tests—and they seem to enjoy the experience.”

Jeff Parker
English literature and writing teacher
Norman Howard School
Rochester, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week

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