Why I Will Always Read Aloud to my Middle School Students by Beth Jarzabek
On a given day this fall, someone who passed my classroom may have heard my heartwrenching recitation of Johnny’s famous “Stay Gold” letter from the timeless novel, The Outsiders. This spring, passerbys might be relegated to my epic Effie Trinket impression, singing out the wish that the “Odds be ever in your favor!” While my narration of novels is routine in Room 266, people have registered this phenomenon with surprise given that I teach teenagers. Despite the fact that “read alouds” seem to be more accepted in elementary school classrooms, there are several reasons why I will never give up this practice.
Modelling Good Fluency
Many of my students struggle with fluency when reading aloud. Some lack proper rate and expression, while others are still grappling with accurately decoding or pronouncing words. Having these issues in middle school, in a time where social and peer pressures are high, leads to increased anxiety surrounding reading. It is for these reasons that I long ago adapted the policy that I do not force my students to read out loud in front of their peers. While I will always take volunteers for the task and implement other methods for assessing students’ fluency more privately (like having students read aloud on Flipgrid), I will by and large take on the duty of reading our shared novels aloud.
By taking on the role of reader, I am able to give my students that opportunity to experience the flow and rhythm of the words, making the connection between the words on the page and the melodious sounds that these words can make when spoken. When students do not have to grapple with the anxiety of being chosen to read aloud, they can build their own “internal reading voices,” concentrate on increasing their own fluency, and in turn, their comprehension. When students do not have to focus their energy on their fears around fluency, they can direct their attention to interacting with the text. It is in this way that I hope to not only increase their skills and comprehension by example, but to also perhaps morph their reading experience into something pleasurable, thus increasing the chance of them to read independently, which we know has countless benefits.
Modelling What “Good Readers” Do Automatically
At the beginning of my career, I found the wonder that is Kylene Beers. When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do and later Notice and Note and Distrupting Thinking became the cornerstones of my practice. (Forged by Reading is sitting and waiting for me to have the time to give it the attention that it deserves.) By reading aloud to my students, I am able to model the strategies and habits that so many struggle to do independently. I demonstrate by example, making inferences, forming connections, and asking questions. Because many of my readers lack these skills intrinsically, they are often anxious to try and use these strategies independently, nevermind share their answers with the collective group. With my lead, students are more comfortable to make their own attempts, venturing guesses and sharing thoughts with the class.
With increased confidence through example, students begin to gain ownership of their relationship with the text, delving deeper into in meaning, author’s purpose, and theme. Exploring the text together instead of merely doling out chapter assignments allows students to see what true ownership of your relationship with a novel looks like, and increases the chances that they will start to form their own.
The Entertainment Factor
Teenagers today have a myriad of things vying for their attention — YouTube, video games, social media. Their phones sometimes seem to be quite literally burning a hole in their pockets. During remote learning, I was in competition with whatever may be drawing their attention behind the icon residing on my screen. Now in “hybrid,” the excitement of seeing friends and classmates in person is much more appealing than whatever I have planned for the day.
Even the most voracious of readers can hit a “wall” where it seems that no book can hold their attention. In times like these, I turn to audio books. By listening to novels, I can lose myself in the story and enjoy the magic that the author has created. I did this recently with The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Kline. Quite possibly my new favorite novel, the voices created by the narrator elicited emotions in me that I’m not sure I would have had if I had been reading it on my own. It is this type of experience that I strive to create for my students so that they can eventually create it for themselves. And it is for this reason that I will continue to imitate Effie, with all her affectations and give voice to Ponyboy in a drawl that would probably make S.E. Hinton cringe. I will do what not is perceived that my students “should do” in our classroom, but rather, what is best.
Beth Jarzabek is a middle school teacher in Western Massachusetts who is lucky to explore books with 7th and 8th grade students in her Language Arts Lab classes. She earned a B.A. in Psychology and Education from Mount Holyoke College, as well as an MAET in the Teaching of English from Western New England University and an MATL at Mount Holyoke. Beth resides in Ludlow, Massachusetts, with her sassy teenage daughter, Amelia and her husband, Michael, a fellow “Book Nerd” and her stalwart support system.