Never Too Old for Read-Alouds

Our January and March Newsletters listed our favorite picture books and juvenile literature. We offered these partly in response to the hot trend of using picture books, juvenile literature, and read-alouds in a variety of ways to increase literacy with secondary students. We decided to riff on that topic for a few weeks…

A few years ago I was teaching at a K-12 charter school. In my classroom, I taught everything from creative dramatics for elementary students, to Junior Great Books for middle schoolers, to British literature for seniors. It was a bit of a challenge to decide what to put up on the walls.

For one wall, I settled on a quote from one of my juvenile novels:

“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”

One day, unexpectedly, a boy in my British literature class exclaimed, “Is that quote from The Tale of Despereaux? I love that book!”

I instantly melted into a puddle of love for this fully grown, bearded boy who shared my love of this story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. I insisted he take home Kate DiCamillo’s then recent release The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. He came back the very next day having finished it and begged me to read passages aloud to the class. I wasn’t sure how that would sell to a group of almost adults at 8:15 a.m., but I went with it because this student was so unbearably precious.

I needn’t have worried. Who doesn’t love to be told a story? Thus began the tradition in my senior English class (and other classes) of reading passages, picture books, stories, and poems aloud to one another on a regular basis. I admit this publicly now, but at the time I felt terribly guilty about this practice. It felt illegitimate—like backward pedagogy, or just an unproductive use of class time. But good news—it was the guilt that turned out to be illegitimate. The research of Jim Trelease (The Read-Aloud Handbook) shows that students often listen at a higher comprehension level than they read; therefore, reading aloud can advance teens’ listening and literacy skills by piquing their interest in new and/or rigorous material.

In “A Curriculum Staple: Reading Aloud to Teens,” a recently published article in the School Library Journal, Jess deCourney explores Trelease’s work and other recent research in support of reading aloud to older students.

Trelease believes that reading aloud to students beyond the eighth grade is important because these students rarely experience the printed word without an accompanying assignment, creating what he refers to as a “sweat mentality” around books. And the older the student, the more work they are asked to do around reading. Children’s belief that reading for fun is “extremely important” typically drops off after age eight … one more reason why educators need to ramp up their practice rather than pull away. “When you read aloud to anyone, it’s a commercial for the pleasures of reading,” notes Trelease.

No one argues against the benefits of reading aloud to infants, toddlers, and emerging readers. Besides giving them access to the wealth of ideas, stories, and images in literature, reading exposes children to new vocabulary, grammatical structures, and descriptions that are lacking in daily speech. Reading aloud gives children access to texts that are beyond their independent reading level, promoting language acquisition, improved comprehension, and cultural literacy. None of these benefits disappear, or even decrease, as kids grow up.

Inquiry By Design’s close reading model always begins with a read aloud of the chosen text by the teacher. This does several things: 1. Gives every student, regardless of reading level, the exact same introduction to the text; 2. Provides a fluent reading by a proficient reader; 3. Assures that all students are prepared to complete the comprehension tasks that follow; and 4. Gives students access to a complex text that may be out of reach for many of them individually.

Deb Werriein has successfully continued to read with her own two children, ages 14 and 17, and shares her reasons and ideas in The Washington Post article “Why I Read Aloud With My Teens.”

In our modern day, reading together can generate common ground for parents and teens who might otherwise find their interests diverging. Reading with my kids had spurred lively discussion about war, pride, racism, greed, capitalism, and addiction. Of course, we also spend plenty of time soaking in the suspense of what will happen next. For my kids, it’s pure entertainment. For me, it’s rare quiet time spent together and the opportunity to connect. Whatever our motivations, this pleasure and bonding has kept us reading together for years.

Come back next week for some recommended teen read-aloud titles and ideas for reading aloud at home and at school.