Ten Realizations I’ve Had or Remembered while Reading Aloud to Middle Schoolers this Year by Wendy Falconer Gassaway
My school has gotten away from the whole-class novel study in recent years, but I still wanted to read aloud to my 7th and 8th grade intervention classes, simply for the joy of sharing a good book. I pulled a bunch of great titles off the shelf and had each class vote on which one they wanted to hear. A few weeks into the project, it became clear that I was doing some things right. I also had realized some of my mistakes. This list attempts to clarify my hard-earned understanding of what it takes to engage students in a read-aloud while maintaining your sanity.
- If you read the same book in multiple classes, or repeat the same book(s) from year to year, your growing familiarity with the basic plot will allow you to notice more and more about the author’s technique, which in turn will let you highlight foreshadowing, motifs, and other subtleties that might be missed on a first read.
- On the other hand, if you choose to read a different book to each class, or to read new books each year, you don’t have to remember what you already discussed with each group, and your think-alouds will be spontaneous and natural. Even if you preview each day’s reading, you still have a greater sense of discovering alongside your students instead of leading them to insights you’ve already had.
- It turns out that it’s not a great idea to read a book aloud that you haven’t ever read before. Especially in middle school, where one casual “damn” or steamy kiss can throw the entire class into an uproar.
- Of course, letting your students choose a book you have no familiarity with can certainly inspire one to read ahead. Then you can torture them with hints that you know something crazy is going to happen within two days of reading. Not that I have ever done this…
- The parts that I would normally skim over when reading to myself (lengthy descriptions of landscapes or clothing, etc.) are good parts to skip over when reading aloud. The author won’t be offended, really, and the students’ interest is less likely to flag. (This may not apply as much in older or younger grades, but is definitely true for middle school.) Correlation: reading aloud is, it turns out, a great way to discover which terrific books have a LOT of description.
- There’s a fine art to deciding how much to explain as you read. If an unfamiliar term or convoluted phrasing is going only crop up once, I’d just keep going. If it’s something that will be repeated, especially if it’s something that might be good to know in other contexts as well, Google images might be the quickest way to explain. Just remember that the time I googled “straw hat” for an ESL class, the first image that popped up was of a lady wearing a straw hat. That’s all, just a straw hat.
- You don’t have to “do” voices. You do have to read with expression. Nothing gets a class in an snit like having a sub who reads in a monotone. Of course, if you are super into the book, this gives you an excuse to re-read the part you missed. Also, if you, like me, are terrible at doing voices, and you hit a stretch of untagged dialogue, either make your voice higher for one speaker and lower for the other, or add in the occasional “said Molly.”
- It’s probably a good idea to choose shorter books over longer ones. As much as I adore the two longer books I’m reading right now, the length allows a slower pacing that is hard for some kids to be patient with.
- If, several chapters in, it’s a struggle each day to get the class to quiet down enough to pay attention, accept that it’s not the right book. Try a different book. It’s not that “reading aloud isn’t working,” it’s that “reading THIS book to THIS class isn’t working.”
- Cries of despair when you close the book for the day are a good sign.
Wendy Falconer Gassaway enjoyed teaching ELD for fifteen years, and then taught language arts for three more years. Still, she always wished there was a way to get paid for reading. This year she lucked into a reading teacher position, and it’s a dream come true. She is currently reading five different books to five different classes, and has learned most of these lessons the hard way. She blogs about books at Falconer’s Library.
This is the thing I miss most about classroom teaching: having time to read an entire novel (or three) to my class. It’s a brilliant experience and they get so much out of it.
I read aloud to my sixth graders often – there’s nothing else that builds community and book love like well chosen read alouds, and your willingness to just go for it with voice inflections, etc. Great post!
W never had this in school – I feel as though I want to attend one of your reading classes! I think your ideas are awesome!
Can you list some of your favorite read aloud books for middle schoolers?
My clases this year are super into Margaret Peterson Haddix–we’re reading “Found” right now. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so they are always dismayed when I stop, which is awesome. Gary Paulsen’s “Nightjohn” has been a good read–short but intense. “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” by Jack Gantos is another one that kids are enjoying. Our social studies department reads “Long Walk to Water” every year, and the students are really into it. Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” is a modern classic that stirs up a lot of discussion.
Great tips. #6 made me laugh my lemonade up into my nose. Ouch. When I taught 8th grade, I read aloud to all my classes, and they loved it. Who doesn’t love being read a great story? (#9 is great advice, too!)
Sorry about the lemonade! Sounds painful!
I'[m reading The False Prince to my 8th graders (all boy class). They are enthralled with this story… so much so that several of them checked the book out from a local library and read ahead. A couple have read the second book in the series and recently began reading the last one.
I am a school librarian and this is my third year doing a read-aloud with fifth graders. Every year I have chosen ‘because of Mr. Terrupt’ (Rob Buyea) and every year I get the “don’t stop now!” and unsolicited comments from kiddos identifying with characters. This year I am letting them vote on the choice of read-aloud (which I already read). After showing them the book trailers last Thursday, I think they will choose the same book I have always read.
BTW, excellent tips on read-alouds.
I just started a read aloud of Shooting Kabul. The expressions on my students faces were priceless as I read the end of chapter 2. They were absolutely speechless. We just sat in silence for a few seconds to let it all sink in.
My 4th grade teacher read aloud every day. That was over 30 ago and I still remember every title. It was then that I fell in love with books.
I love reading to my 6th graders. It brings us all closer together, and I see them falling in love with books as well. Every time I finish with one, they swear it is now their favorite!
I try to expose them to various genres. I mix up newer titles with old favorites. I always read Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and The One and Only Ivan by Katharine Applegate. I tried The Eighth Day by Diane Salerni this year. It was new to me and the kids loved it. The special ed. teacher would race to my room every morning afraid to miss any of it. This week I read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and we had a great discussion about bullying and standing up for what you know is right.
Thanks for this post. Read alouds are one of my favorite parts of teaching and this was validation that it is worth the time.
Being the tech teacher all day long, but also the librarian, I read a picture book outloud almost every day before we started our tech lesson. On those rare days where we didn’t have time because of a project, there were always groans of, “Oh, you’re not going to read a book?!” Now that I’m retired, I miss the kids SO much. But thankfully my grandlove’s teahers have let me come in once a week to read out loud. Book Love!!
I follow your blog and as soon as I started reading this post I knew it was you. Thanks for all your wonderful insight into reading with middle school students.
Aww. thank YOU! You just made my day.
These are some great suggestions, thanks. I have done some of this intuitively and some of it will be good for me to remember. I started this school year off by reading the same book aloud to all my classes. It became clear quickly that 2nd hour was not interested in it, so we abandoned it and tried “Because of Mr. Terupt”. That particular class has enjoyed it so much, I plan to do it again with other class periods.
I also like how you noted it’s ok to spontaneously “stop and think” with the students. I usually try to read ahead and determine which words, phrases, or concepts I want to pause and talk about. There are times though, when it feels perfectly natural to stop unplanned, especially if you can sense from the students that something needs explaining or discussing.
Lastly, I want to share that your blog post taught me something new I can try. I always thought it would be “bad modeling” to skip over parts of reading. After reflecting, I can see how it would work to maintain the pace. Real readers reading novels do indeed skim certain parts. It seems logical to do that in front of kids as well.