Riveting Read-Alouds (How and Why to Read Aloud with Older Students)

I had a rich reading life as a child, due in large part to those around me who read to me constantly. When my mother was looking for someone to take care of me while she worked, she said the only thing she was looking for was someone who would read to me as that was the only time I wasn’t getting into trouble. Fortunately, she found that in Helen Taylor. Helen abandoned housework, cooking and all other responsibilities so that she could read to me.

When I started teaching, I was not prepared for students who refused to read, write, or take part in anything academic. I struggled to find anything that would capture my students’ attention. Then I remembered my mother’s goal: to find someone who would read to me. It was in those early days of teaching that I learned the significance of reading aloud to my students. 

Today, there is good news about reading aloud. The Kids & Family Reading Report reveals that at home, reading aloud is happening earlier and more often: in 2016, 62% of parents with kids ages 3–5 read aloud to their children 5–7 days a week, up from 55% in 2014. But we also know that the frequency with which parents read aloud drops after age 5, and again after age 8. The decrease is even more noteworthy when children become adolescents.  Yet reading aloud can make a significant impact on the literacy achievement of all children, even those who are already independent readers. 

Read Aloud: Prime Time Instruction

I use the phrase “Read Aloud: Prime Time Instruction” because reading aloud can set the stage for instruction. A text that is read for engagement can be reread to help students focus on content details, writer’s craft, or strategies for comprehension.

Television shows vie for the best time slots during prime time; reading aloud is prime time in the classroom because you have used the time to get students engaged. While many factors influence whether teachers choose to read aloud with adolescents, the benefits of establishing reading aloud as an important part of your literacy instruction are well-known. Let’s talk about just a few of the benefits my students and I discovered as we make a case for reading aloud.

  • Enjoyment: When reading a well-chosen text as a read aloud, you provide readers with a risk-free opportunity to experience the "charm, magic, impact and appeal" (Mooney, 1988) of language and story. It helps them see that text has meaning, especially because their comprehension can often be greater during read-aloud time than when they try to decode text on their own. This results in students being motivated to read more. 

  • Community: Reading a shared text binds the students together and serves as a “touchstone” (Calkins) for other texts or discussions.

  • Increased Vocabulary: Research has documented that students typically have a listening vocabulary that is 1-3 years greater than their reading vocabulary. Incorporating reading aloud as part of your class routines exposes student to words they might not otherwise encounter.

  • Expand Students’ Worlds: Once students have had the pleasure of hearing the read-aloud, there is a great opportunity to use that reading again to invite students to think, connect deeply to texts, respond appropriately, and establish their places in a global community.

  • Cross-Disciplinary: Choosing texts for reading aloud can serve as a way to make transitions or scaffold the study occurring in other classrooms.

  • Generative: An excerpt from a book you read aloud can easily have several students clamoring to read everything in that book and everything else that author has written.

  • Instruction: A text can be read aloud for enjoyment one day and then revisited on another day as a common base for strategy instruction.

Getting Started

Being prepared for reading aloud is as critical as the preparation you would do for any other teaching times of your day. However comfortable we may (or may not) be with reading aloud, we all need to practice the reading prior to reading aloud to the class. If you don’t usually read aloud to your students, you may be wondering how to get started. Many might think, “How hard can this be?” However, reading aloud isn’t always easy and it certainly does not come naturally for some who have not used read-alouds with older students.

During professional learning I do with teachers, coaches and administrators, I almost always have one or more people tell me they are intimidated by the thought of reading aloud to adolescents. In response, I always share with them that it is a rare teacher who hasn’t had one (or several) read-aloud stories where nothing seemed to work. I then share the five teacher moves that were important in my classroom: 

  1. Choose readings that match the needs and interests of your students. If the text is very complex and students don’t have a copy, many students will lose focus. At the beginning of the year, weight read-aloud choices with engaging texts.

  2. Choose from a wide variety of literature and informational texts. I prefer shorter texts for a daily read-aloud that starts class. If I read aloud a longer text, such as a novel or literary nonfiction, I always provide students with a copy. Remember, you don’t have to read the entire text you choose. Reading a few paragraphs from Speak (Anderson) can serve as a jumping-off point for writing and a few paragraphs from The Sixth Grade Nickname Game (Korman) can do the same in anticipation of standardized testing.

  3. Establish your expectations for the read aloud. For example, can students draw while you are reading? If it is a shared reading, do you want them following along in the text? Are they allowed to interrupt for information or clarification, or do you want to read all of the text and then talk about it?

  4. Practice reading so when reading aloud you will be familiar with the text and can offer a fluent reading. I’m always a bit amazed when teachers tell me they were reading a novel and they were shocked that there was profanity or something offensive in the book. Even with pre-reading, I have still been shocked with the content—not because I hadn’t read it, but because I didn’t notice it! Previewing the text and practicing by reading aloud help you plan for an effective reading experience. 

  5. Have fun! While reading aloud has many valuable instructional purposes, the most enduring lesson you are teaching your students is that reading is enjoyable and it can change our lives. If you are reading The Lottery Rose (Hunt), you will probably cry. Trust me—your students will remember the impact of the text on you long after they have forgotten some of our well-crafted lessons.

Riveting Read-Alouds for Middle School

In our new book Riveting Read-Alouds for Middle School, Patrick Daley and I compiled 35 engaging read-aloud selections for older students: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, humor writing and more. Some of these selections will be more accessible than others, and some will be more engaging than others. We hoped that all of the selections could help students access more complicated concepts or vocabulary than they might have encountered before. A summary, background knowledge, and reading tip is provided for you as you plan for your read aloud.

Each of the 35 selections could be read simply for information and enjoyment, but we also added a teaching page for each text. Should you want to expand the read-aloud instructionally, we offered some ideas for each selection: language and vocabulary and thinking, talking and writing about text. A well-chosen text offers valuable instructional opportunities. When extending the read-aloud, you can deepen comprehension by providing background knowledge; asking students to think about and discuss the texts; providing students with further reading on related topics; and, demonstrating how they might use the shared text as a mentor text for their writing.

Choosing What Matters

In this brief look at reading aloud, I have offered many positive reasons for taking 5–10 minutes to read something significant to your students. There is ample research demonstrating the importance of reading aloud to your students. Even as an adult, many of us live for the moments when a workshop presenter reads something that makes us laugh—or, makes us cry. So, you already know how important it is.

One of my students said, “I read all these books and then the words just come out of my mouth. I don’t even know where they come from.”

One of the many touching moments in my teaching career happened on the last day of the school year. I was reading aloud The War on Villa Street (Mazer) and misjudged how long it would take. The bell rang to signal summer break, and we still had two more chapters to read. We just sat there for a moment, and then one of the guys said, “You stay right there.” They all left and ran across the street to the small store. Soon they were all back with their lunches. They settled in and one of the boys said, “You have to finish the book before we will leave.”

You will know when your reading aloud is making an impact. Enjoy the experience. Kids are resilient and forgiving. They want you to succeed. After all, almost everyone loves a great read-aloud.