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.