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Bringing the Joy of Read-Alouds to Middle School Students

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Eyes wide and mouths agape, 24 8th graders are waiting with bated breath as the villain sneaks up behind our protagonists. I pause. “Should we stop for today?” I ask with a smirk.

“Noooo!” the class collectively reacts, and I laugh and continue. It’s rare to have the rapt attention of two dozen adolescents around anything, but when I garner that attention for a book, I am particularly grateful.

Their engagement should hardly be surprising, however. Reading aloud is a strategy elementary school teachers have capitalized on for generations. Teachers use storytelling and drama to get younger students engaged with and loving literature, only to mourn when those same students appear to lose that love once they reach middle and high school. We rarely acknowledge that reading quickly turns from a group experience to an individual one once kids reach middle school.

For the past six years, I’ve used “read-along,” a twist on reading aloud, as a staple of my middle and high school teaching practice. Based on the Performance English program from the Curriculum Research and Development Group at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, my students and I read about 75 percent of our texts together in class (they also have independent reading books that they choose). Unlike traditional read-alouds, all students follow along with their own copy of the text, and I stop periodically to explain vocabulary, model note-taking in the margins, or engage in class discussion.

This strategy has been hugely beneficial for my students. Reading texts aloud in class has helped me build community. And the experience of hearing a story together has helped build student enjoyment, engagement, and camaraderie. Since I began doing read-along, my students have started discussing the books we read the way an audience talks after a movie: They walk out of class chatting about what happened. They ask their peers in other classes about the voices I used, or if I added sound effects. Other teachers tell me they catch students reading ahead or discussing what we read in class with their peers.

This love of storytelling can snowball into an overall love of literature that extends beyond our classroom walls. I often have students ask me if Harper Lee has written anything else they can read after we finish To Kill a Mockingbird as a class.

By reading the book with students, I’m also able to engage more deeply in discussions mid-text. When we encounter a difficult word, we stop and work through it as a class. I’ll model metacognitive thinking as we read, stopping after a line and questioning my reactions to plot points or literary devices, or connecting the story to other things we’ve read. Later, I’ll ask students to pause and share their reactions and reflect on where those feelings are coming from, as well as have them create text-to-text connections.

Reading aloud can be nerve-wracking for those new to the method. Here are some ways to reap its full benefits:

Use performance and storytelling techniques.

Do I use a subtle Southern affect while reading To Kill a Mockingbird? Absolutely! Not only does it show students that reading can be playful and imperfect (their reactions to different voices are always amusing), but it also helps conjure the world of the novel and attract interest in the story. I create different voices using pitch, vocal placement, and speech patterns to differentiate characters. I also play with pacing to build suspense or excitement. I’ll even turn off the lights or project images on the board for ambience.

Build in time and activities to purposefully engage with the text.

Reading along gives us the opportunity to discuss not just the overall story, but the intricacies of the writing. We can model and use a variety of skills to understand new vocabulary, and give students chances to explain their reasoning when they infer meaning. Stopping to help students recognize “sign-post” moments in a story—strategically placed words, phrases, or plot points that help readers recognize that something important is happening—can help them learn and practice deeper analytical skills in a group setting. I’ll have students share their thoughts, questions, and epiphanies (TQEs, as teacher Marisa Thompson calls them) at the ends of sections or even mid-paragraph, ensuring we read actively. These strategies also allow students to have critical conversations with themselves and each other as they read the text, not just after they’ve read it. Students can hone these skills together before they have to use them independently.

Practice, practice, practice.

Read-aloud is like any performance: We do better when we know what’s coming and how we want to create feeling. When I practice, I time myself reading a page so I can better plan for how much we’ll get through in class. I also make notes on different voices, difficult words to address, and where I want to stop to engage in discussion or activities.

Only ask students to read if they’ve had time to prepare or are reading in small groups.

This a question I’m often asked when I share my read-along practice: How much do I read and how much do the students read? I read a majority of the text in a whole-class setting. While reading aloud can build fluency, research shows that forcing students to read aloud, in front of their peers, and without preparation is not only unhelpful, but potentially damaging. When I do have students read aloud, I use a number of strategies that lower the stakes (such as partner or small-group reading) or give them time to prepare a passage on their own. This gives them a chance to practice fluency while ensuring we don’t do more harm than good.

Beyond its practical benefits, read-along has provided me some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. Students frequently share that is one of their favorite, most memorable parts of their experiences with me, and nothing quite beats the feeling of hearing a classroom full of students gasp, laugh, or squeal in delight in response to a great story—ultimately leaving us feeling just a little closer to one another at the end of the day.

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Clarification: A previous version of the author's bio misstated the name of the Center for Teaching Quality.

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