Activity: Reading Aloud to Children

Purpose

The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate the pleasure that hearing stories typically brings to students when the stories fit with their prior experiences, interests, and comprehension levels.

Procedures

  1. Read the material below in the section called, “Background Information.” It will help you learn about the value of reading aloud to students, how to choose appropriate books, what to do during the read aloud session, and when to stop reading.
  2. Then identify a student. If you are already employed in a school, the student may be from your school or even the classroom in which you work. If you are not yet employed in a school, perhaps you can arrange to read aloud to the child of a relative or neighbor.
  3. Once you identify the student, talk with him or her about what he or she finds interesting.
  4. Then select a book. You might consult with a librarian at the school or at the local public library.
  5. Set up a convenient time and place for the read-aloud session.
  6. After the session, ask the student what he or she liked about the book.
  7. Think about the following issues:
    1. Was the session enjoyable to the student? Why or why not?
    2. If it was not enjoyable, what changes could be made in the process to make the next read-aloud session more enjoyable?
    3. How did you feel about reading aloud? If you were worried or anxious, where do you think those feelings came from?
    4. If you felt worried or anxious, what might you do next time to put yourself more at ease in preparation for reading aloud to a student?

Background Information

Why should I read aloud to students?

There are several good reasons to read aloud to students. First, most people like to listen to stories. Human cultures, in fact, shared their histories and legends through oral stories even before written language was invented. Research also shows that most children enjoy listening to books and stories that fit with their interests but that may be too difficult for them to read. In fact, listening to stories and non-fiction books that are more advanced teaches students new vocabulary and concepts. And learning new vocabulary and concepts is likely to have a positive effect on students’ efforts to learn to read.

We know that children who have been read to by their parents before they enter school are more likely to be good readers than are children who did not have that listening experience. Reading at school helps make up for not being read to at home, and almost all schoolchildren seem to enjoy having their teacher or another adult read to them in class.

Because students enjoy hearing stories read aloud, educators who read aloud to their students help create a positive classroom climate—one where learning is more likely to occur. Most elementary-school educators agree that some class time should be set aside regularly to allow an adult (e.g., the teacher, the paraprofessional, a parent) to read aloud to students. Even middle-school students can benefit from being read aloud to in school, though reading aloud to older students is less common. At that level, hearing stories read aloud is more likely to be an occasional treat than a regular one.

How do I decide what to read aloud to students?

With very young children, in the pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, and primary grades, pictures books that can be read aloud in one sitting are usually the best choice.  With intermediate-grade and middle-school students, from the fourth- to eighth-grade, books with chapters or collections of short stories will have more appeal.

Start with good literature, books that have won awards such as the Caldecott Award for illustrated books and the Newbery Award for chapter books or books that are recommended by the American Library Association. Then, find out which of those books the teachers and librarians in your school have heard students say they enjoyed. If you know students who are older than the student or students to whom you plan to read aloud, ask them what books they enjoyed when they were the age of the student or students. Make a list of the books that are mentioned several times or that strike you as likely to be of special interest.

Whatever book you choose should be of a length that can be completed before the student tires of the characters and starts to wish for something new. The characters should be interesting and, mostly, likeable; and the plots should be engaging. Very complex plots may be hard for some students to keep track of if a chapter book takes several weeks to complete and is read only once a day or less often.

After you’ve settled on half a dozen or so good possibilities, skim through the books to see which seem best for your student or students. Pick your top two or three choices and read them all. Even the best books can have surprises in them that make them a bad choice for your particular student or students. Seemingly small things can be surprisingly painful to students. A book focusing on a main character’s acne or pudginess, for example, can be extremely embarrassing to a child who is self-conscious about his or her complexion or weight. Books that put a particular group in a bad light are problematic as well. A book about slavery, for example, that portrays slaves as helpless victims may embarrass African American students in the classroom, especially if they are in the minority. The balance between the value the book may have for the students and the possible negative effects of how characters are portrayed is often a delicate one.

After finding your number one choice, read through it again and think about how to divide the book into segments that would take from 10 to 20 minutes to read—how long depends mostly on the age level of the student or group. Pre-kindergarten, Kindergarten, and first-graders probably should be expected to listen only about 10 minutes, whereas, intermediate and older students should enjoy a longer reading time, up to about 20 minutes, or a little more on occasion.

As you read the book in preparation for reading aloud, jot down notes about any background information you need to provide before the story or chapter starts. You should also mark where to pause for dramatic effect or to ask for students’ predictions or reactions. Although many read-aloud advisors suggest stopping often to elicit students’ responses, this approach may sometimes detract from the listening experience and can be frustrating for students who get caught up in the flow of the story.

What should I do during the read-aloud session?

Activate students’ interest by showing your own enthusiasm about the book you’re going to read to them. Hold the book in such a way that the student or students can see it. Then explain that you chose the book especially for them and briefly explain why you thought they might like the book. If it seems necessary, discuss important concepts before reading the book to make sure that the student or students have sufficient background knowledge to understand what is going on in the story. All of this introduction should take place in a very short time. The important thing is to read to them.

Read with expression, of course, but don’t overdramatize and call attention to yourself rather than the story. Be aware of pacing your reading—too fast and some students will miss what you’re saying; too slow and the story may seem boring. Pause for effect now and then when the plot calls for it. Pausing gives students a chance to wonder what will happen next without your having to ask them any questions.

Keep an eye on your audience. The student or students’ body language and facial expressions should cue you as to whether your reading is engaging them or not. If the student or several students are clearly uninterested, you may need to re-think what you’re doing and plan activities to stimulate their interest. Sometimes you may need to select a different book and try the read-aloud activity again in a couple of days or the next week.

Before or after reading aloud, but not usually during the reading—you want students to be caught up in the imaginary world of the story—ask the students to predict what will happen next or reflect on something interesting that just happened in the previous chapter or story.

When should I stop reading?

Some chapters or books just aren’t as interesting to the student or students as you thought they’d be. If a chapter is less engaging than others in the book, read for a shorter time than usual.  In general, though, try to stop at a place that leaves students wondering or offers satisfying closure, not just an arbitrary point in the story.

The main thing is to err on the side of reading for a shorter time than the student or students might prefer. Reading aloud for too long a time is a sure way to make them dread read-aloud time rather than look forward to it.

After you’ve finished reading the story or book, ask for feedback from the students or students. What did they like about the story or book?  What did they learn about people, animals, places, or themselves? Did anything surprise them?