Sunday, February 04, 2007

On Reading Aloud

I have been thinking a lot about reading aloud these days. Last fall I had a student teacher (let's call her R.) working in a first grade classroom with a very rough schedule. There was a fifteen minute slice of time between resource classes and recess that needed to be filled. I suggested that this was the perfect time to read aloud. R. liked this idea, so together we selected some books that might be appropriate. The plan was for R. to share this idea with her teacher, the book selections, and then together, they would choose the book. A few days later, a very dejected R. entered my office. Here's a snippet of the conversation:
Me: What's wrong?
R.: I need to find a way to fill that 15 minute time slot with instruction.
Me: Aren't you going to read aloud?
R.: No.
Me: Why not?
R.: My teacher says the kids can't handle it.
Me: What do you mean, "can't handle it."
R.: Mrs. X. has been teaching a long time (30+ years) and says that these kids are not mature enough and not well-behaved enough. She thinks it will be a classroom management problem.
Me: Uh-huh. What else did she say?
R.: I need to find something academic for them to do.
This is the point where I turned away from R. to stare at my computer screen, shake my head, and mouth a few choice words. What kind of teacher believes that kids can't handle being read aloud too? What kind of teacher believes that this is not an academic exercise?

Months later, I still cannot shake this exchange. Ladies and gentlemen, this was an experienced first grade teacher. Every child/student needs to have books read aloud to them. I read to my middle school students ALL THE TIME. I kept an enormous library of science and math books that they regularly perused and even enjoyed! There were days when they begged me to read aloud. I simply cannot imagine a first grade classroom where the children would NOT want to have a story read aloud to them.

The sad reality here is that as I send more and more students to Title I and Reading First schools, the emphasis is on worksheets and basal readers. There seems to be little reading for enjoyment or modeling of that process. I suppose that is why I try to get my students (preservice teachers) to think about integrating children's literature wherever possible. When they write lessons for math, science and social studies, I require them to look at the English curriculum standards and include those that are appropriate as lesson objectives, recognizing that while we may choose to think about the curriculum in compartmentalized ways, real learning never happens in such a single-subject vacuum.

I still read aloud to students these days, though now it is to college students preparing to be teachers. Sure, they roll their eyes at me sometimes, but what better way to model the very behaviors I want to encourage? The first class of the semester in my Foundations of Math Instruction course I read aloud Math Curse by Jon Scieszka. We spent one whole session on reading and writing in math, where we looked at criteria for evaluating children's literature for use in math and practiced using them to examine a set of books. Last week when I taught counting and number sense, each student selected a book, did a quick review, and shared it with the class while outlining the concepts the book could be used to teach. This week when I begin to teach about place value and understanding large numbers, I will read How Much is a Million and an excerpt from G is for Googol, both by David Schwartz.

Reading aloud has a place in MY classroom, and I'm a college professor. So, where does it belong in the elementary classroom and where does it "fit" in the elementary curriculum? Anywhere and everywhere. Period. No excuses. Any good teacher will tell you so.


  1. Thanks for this strong defense of reading aloud in the classroom. That example of the first grade teacher who didn't think that the kids could listen for 15 minutes ... so sad!! But I'm glad that you're an advocate up there getting new teachers excited about literature and read-aloud.

  2. Thanks for this very enjoyable piece. I am such a read-aloud advocate! My son's 2nd grade teacher reads out loud a lot, plus the class has a song of the week, and my son seems to remember tons about each.

  3. I was an elementary classroom teacher for more than thirty years. The times in the school day I enjoyed most were when I was reading aloud to my students. If a teacher selects her children's books wisely, there is little chance she will have behavior problems. My students LOVED when I read aloud to them. There were days when they'd race back in from recess to hear the next chapter in a book about Ramona Geraldine Quimby or Wilbur and Charlotte.

    I felt strongly that my read-aloud sessions were academic/instructional periods--times when children of different reading abilities were absorbed in the same literature; were listening to and discussing the same stories, biographies, and poems; were hearing the same rich vocabulary.

    Unfortunately, education today is all about testing. That's why I left the classroom to become a school librarian. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on teachers to raise their students test scores--year after year after year.

    Tricia, I love your book lists and couldn't agree more that literature should be used across the curriculum. I have taught a children's literature course since 2002. I read aloud to my college students, too.

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  5. I'm glad there's someone out there at the front end of teacher education fighting for read aloud! When I wrote my book, RECONSIDERING READ-ALOUD (Stenhouse), I wanted more than anything for teachers to realize all the teaching they were doing during that 15-30 minutes every day. I hope knowing that gives teachers leverage against administrators who claim it is wasted time because pencils aren't touching paper.

  6. Jen - Thanks for the link on your page. I'm glad there are folks outside the field of education who value reading and reading aloud.

    Elaine - I'm always saddened to hear about exceptional teachers leaving the profession because of the requirements of testing. With NCLB, I'm seeing more and more of it. I'm not a reading expert, so I hope when students see me sharing books, they realize just how important it is to read across the curriculum.

    Mary Lee - I'm so glad you wrote! I used excerpts from your book when I taught Content Area Literacy for our secondary students. They thought I was nuts. However, I required them to read aloud to their practicum students (middle school). By the end of the semester, every student was a convert.

    I know I'm preaching to the choir folks, but I so appreciate your comments.

  7. I came over here from propernoun, but this makes me so glad that my daughter has had teachers who DID use that 15 minutes to read aloud--first grade, second grade and now third grade. We read aloud at home, too, and it's something we both enjoy.

  8. I'm also here from propernoun. My 1st grader had was in a mixed age montessori kindergarten (ages 3-5) and they did not read aloud to the children. When I questioned the teacher on this, she told me she wouldn't know what to read. I was floored! Subsequently I sent my daughter in with stories to share with her friends. I also made sure that whenever I volunteered in the classrom I read a story.

    Thanks for being an advocate for our children-