Reading Aloud

At first, I thought that this article from Education Week about reading aloud was interesting on its own. Classrooms full of adolescents are often quiet places with students reading silently or writing essays, working on their own. When I taught fifth grade, I was encouraged by administrators to include at least half an hour of SSR – sustained silent reading – in the curriculum each day, and to have students present their books to the rest of the class. All of this did and does strike me as very reasonable, good for reading and writing development (good writers are readers and vice versa), and occasionally, a heck of a lot of fun. When it came time for the quarterly round of presentations, though, I remember initially being surprised by how many students complained about doing soooo much work right at the end. When you are reporting on a book, isn’t most of the work in the reading?

At the time, I don’t know if I ever consciously realized what my literacy learning classes – and now this article – have made me consider: What if reading silently, pulling meaning from text, and being interested enough to want to pull meaning from text are very different skills and habits of mind? Many students, especially the ones who profess to dislike school or who would rather be found anywhere but curled into a corner with a book, need to be taught how to do each of those things. I wonder now if some of my fifth graders read fluently without thinking about their broader understanding of an extended text enough to boil “why it’s interesting” or “what I liked / didn’t like about it” to someone else – and thus, had trouble presenting even book choices that they enjoyed.

Love of reading, or even willingness to engage in reading, is something that we all must learn. And it seems to me that is where reading aloud to students, perhaps especially to adolescents, could make a significant difference.

“If the only thing a teacher shares is from a textbook, how are you going to get students excited about reading?” – Jim Trelease, quoted in the article.

A hypothesis: Reading fiction aloud allows the classroom to grow past its walls and common practices and textbooks. Reading historical texts aloud reminds students and teachers that history grows from real people and their experiences, not just facts and happenings that we read and memorize later. Reading scientific and mathematical texts aloud pushes the curriculum past the facts and algorithms into the application, the engineering, the “why are we learning this” that is so easy to gloss when you’ve got a unit to get through before testing begins.

Hearing a text read can help draw listeners into its world and potentially draw interest in a certain character, or puzzle, or problem, or scene – maybe enough interest to create motivation to continue and find out what happens next, or to pick up a similar book, or to learn more about a certain technology or time period. Bruner (1996, in The Culture of Education) suggests that we live and understand through narrative and story, which is part of why we are so often compelled by these little snippets of other people’s lives. Students learn technologies, and they see and hear fantastical and realistic epic stories in videogames and movies, and they record the smaller histories of their own lives in journals and notes and facebook statuses and myspace photos. They are interested in story, even if they are not interested in books.

Reading silently emphasizes the reading and the silence – the decoding, translation, and sustained concentration – absolutely vital skills, particularly for school success. I’m not suggesting that any of that is expendable. But adding in some reading aloud emphasizes the stories, and perhaps that reminds us all of why we are getting educated in the first place.

Image Credit: CC image from Wikimedia “Volunteer reads to a girl at the Casa Hogar de las Niñas in Mexico City.” Original here.

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