by Lora Beth Escalante
Do you have a memory of being read to as a child or a student? Does a particular book come to mind? I can vividly recall coming in from recess during third grade, rosy cheeked and often sweaty, listening to the sweet voice of my teacher read aloud Charlotte’s Web to me and my equally mesmerized classmates. In middle school, it was To Kill a Mockingbird that really stuck with me; in high school, The Outsiders and Hamlet.
When I began teaching, I imitated my own positive experience. It was just a given that I would read aloud to my students. Now that I am an instructional coach, teachers often ask me if it is worth their time to read aloud to students, particularly English learners.
The answer is a resounding YES!
Here are a few reasons and testimonies as to why reading aloud at least a few minutes every day is golden!
Reading Aloud to Appeal to the Heart and Mind
While skills such as decoding and phonemic awareness are certainly necessary to the reading process, learning these skills in isolation (particularly for English learners) outside a purposeful context or enjoyable story undermines a desire to learn and grow as a reader. Students who read solely to pass a test or make a grade miss out on the comfort, community, and connections to the wider world that can come from engaging with a text with purpose. Being read to is a calming experience. As educators we have the opportunity to create this pleasurable experience for our students as we introduce them to new genres, new adventures, and new cultures all while strengthening our positive classroom community.
When we choose a book that we are particularly passionate about, students notice! They sense our enthusiasm and feed off it. Likewise, when we shrewdly select a book whose topic we know to be of great interest to students, we set the classroom up for an enjoyable ride. A few minutes a day can make a huge impact on engaging students in reading. Consistency is key. They see it as a fun activity to enjoy with others. Allowing time for reflection and conversation after a read aloud does much to establish and sustain this bond.
Reading Aloud to Cultivate Relationships
We know from both research and experience that students perform better when they feel like their teachers are interested in getting to know them — what they like and don’t like, what they worry about, what they hope for. One great way for teachers to get to know students and tailor classroom content to the students’ interests is to work with them to select read-aloud books.
The following testimony comes from a middle school teacher who was intentional about choosing a read-aloud book that would interest her students:
“Reading aloud has been such an enjoyable addition to our classroom routine. Right now, I’m reading a higher level chapter book that centers on a very fond and familiar subject to my ELs: soccer!!! Even though some words in Fred Bowen’s Go for the Goal might be unfamiliar, students show a great understanding of the story as they smile, laugh, and react as I read and gesture each line. It was most apparent the students were welcoming the additional read alouds when they starting reminding me and requesting for me to read to them routinely at the end of class.
Reading aloud has been especially helpful for giving meaningful context to teach idioms. We’ve been able to discuss the meanings behind ‘screaming at the top of my lungs’ and ‘frozen with fear’ as they were read in the context of a soccer game. I have found that reading aloud is a perfect blend of instruction and enjoyment for my ELs!”
– Mary J. Burk, Middle School ESL Teacher (newcomers)
Reading Aloud to Improve Summarizing, Grammar and Spelling
When we make our read alouds interactive, giving students the opportunity to summarize or discuss what they’ve just heard, the read alouds become an even more powerful teaching tool, “fast-tracking” reading comprehension in a highly engaging manner.
As Dale Carnegie writes in Lincoln the Unknown, our beloved 16th president was, himself, an advocate of the power of reading to advance learning. When Abraham Lincoln became consumed with reading books of law, he had accumulated a total of approximately one year of formal education. He had only learned the basics of reading, but reading soon became his favorite past time. Our revered 16th president was known to pause after an especially challenging passage on law and choose the best of three ways to explain the text to a child. We might call this summarizing or paraphrasing.
And when we’re reading out loud to students, we take that learning to the next level, enhancing vocabulary by demonstrating how the language should sound.
By hearing the written word, we capture the way language is correctly spoken as we expand our vocabulary bank. In this way we can eventually imitate the pattern. Hearing English in an easy and contagious manner in an ongoing fashion through teacher read alouds allows students to readily receive large doses of rich, organized language models.
– Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook
When students listen to stories being read aloud, they are acquiring a second language: formal or standard English. For English learners, we might consider this a third or fourth “language,” after their own formal and informal native language and informal or social English. When students are given time to reflect on a read aloud and verbalize their thoughts, even if it’s only for a minute, they confirm what they heard by “translating” it into informal English. What they are able to verbalize, they will more likely internalize.
One Final Note
We often assume read alouds are only good for younger students, but their power extends far beyond the elementary school classroom. Middle and even high school students benefit from read alouds, too! As an example, here’s a letter I received from a middle school English teacher who had recently implemented read alouds for the first time:
When I heard about ‘Read Alouds,’ I was intrigued because my normal ‘mindfulness meditation’ was not working for my students. I needed more engagement, more interest, and a new way to start my class. After taking a short interest survey, my students voted to read a humorous mystery. After deep digging, our librarian came up with the book Belly Up.
I previewed it and began reading it that week. This book is hilarious! In the first two chapters, my students were hooked when we read about Henry shooting poop at some very important people.
We read out loud for three minutes per day. We take 30 seconds to remind ourselves what happened in yesterday’s reading and then begin. My students and I discuss the plot, vocabulary, and culture/etiquette, and we make predictions for the next read. This book has several characters with very different economic and cultural backgrounds. It is interesting to hear how these characters develop and what my students remember about them. After the 3-minute read, we enter into our main lesson. Most times, I use the warm-ups after the Read Aloud to connect the text to our objective for the day. This provides seamless transition for my ELs as they connect one activity to the other.
I absolutely love this strategy and have used it in my regular reading classes thus far. Even my pre-AP students have enjoyed a read aloud during our novel studies. Thank you, Dr. Escalante, for introducing us to this concept. It does work well beyond elementary students!
– Rochelle Hans, Middle School English teacher