Category Archives: Reading Aloud

In the Classroom: Reading Aloud as Community Building

My students won’t be in school for a couple more weeks yet, but I’m slowly starting to turn my mind back to the classroom.  I’m thinking about how I want to set up the room when I can first get into it on Monday.  I’m thinking about changes in curriculum.  I’m thinking about the new fourth graders I’ll be meeting in a few weeks.  And I’m thinking about what I’m going to read aloud on our first day, that magical story that will help connect us all and turn us from a bunch of strangers into a tight and unique learning community.  And so that first book has to be the right book.

It has to be a book that I can feel confident will be embraced by all.  And so it can’t be too long.  Or the slightest bit scary.  Not that first book. After all, I don’t know the kids yet and I don’t know what they can tolerate in terms of scariness or book length.  It does have to be funny.  And ideally it needs to be a book none of the kids have read yet.  It has to be a book that hooks them right away, one that I can dive into that first day that will help that bunch of shy (with me and with each other), nervous, and uncertain kids start to claim the room and space as their own, start to gel as a classroom community.  Sure, I’ll do some ice-breaking and community-building activities before this, but for book-lover me, it is the read- aloud that works best.

At one time I started with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Grand Escape. This is a charming story of the small adventures of two house cats.  The children and I loved their misunderstandings, their distinctive personalities, and the wit of the book.  Who knows?  Maybe I should go back and try it again.  Another was Barbara Robinson’s The Best School Year Ever with the shocking Herdmans.  Both fit my requirements: short, funny, and immediately engaging.  For the last two years I’ve started with Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic. It didn’t come out in the US till this year and so I’d read from a copy I’d gotten from England.  (You can read my rave review here.)  I’m tempted to start with it this year as I suspect it may still be under their radar and I know that it will be a sure-fire hit.  But I’m still mulling things over and may pick something spanking new.

While I love reading aloud too much to cede it to anyone else, I do know that there are folks out there who use audio books.  And so let me put in a plug for one I had a part in, the Lend Your Voice recording of The Wizard of Oz which I was part of along with many others and is now available for your listening pleasure here.  At some point I’ve got to figure out just what page I read, go find it, and listen to it.  But in the meantime, anyone who feels they don’t want to read aloud themselves to a group of kids, may I recommend they give this book a try.  I’ve been teaching Baum’s for years and can assure you that it holds up as a grand and engaging adventure.

Reading aloud — after all these years it is still one of my favorite aspects of teaching.  If you want to know more about my thoughts on this teaching method, the particular books and experiences I’ve had with kids (as often the books I read inspire us to do all sorts of cool things), please check out these posts.

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Whatchamacallit Narrators

I will say straight-up that some of my favorite writers use intrusive narrators, third person omniscient narrators, direct address narrators, whatever you want to call them.  That is, I like those who are not quite in the stories, but not quite out of them either, telling them. And so I’m loving the conversation going on at Betsy Bird’s post, “The Personalities of Intrusive Narrators.

Betsy begins with a mention of Adam Gidwitz’s wonderful forthcoming A Tale Dark and Grimm which I have just finished rereading.  In this case, the narrator is truly the storyteller warning his listeners when things might get overly scary, explaining things child readers may need a little help making sense of, but otherwise moving on with the story.  It rings so true to me as it is just the way I read aloud a story — slipping in whatever I need to for the group of children I’m with.  So, so different from the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events who starts out as a seemingly third person omniscient narrator in The Bad Beginning, but as the series goes on is clearly more and more personally deeply involved in the story he is telling. Gidwitz’s storyteller, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the story he is telling.  He stands way, way outside of it, years and maybe even centuries outside of it.

A number of years ago this issue of narrator came to mind when I was listening to the splendid full-cast audio book of The Golden Compass. Here’s some of what I wrote in a post at the time:

*****

…. author Philip Pullman, that third person omniscient narrator himself, is the narrator. I felt, as I listened, that I was being taken through the story by the teller in a way that would be completely different with a different sort of narrator. I mean, here I was listening to Philip Pullman tell HIS story which is also Lyra’s story.

Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator which he  thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”

Miller, Laura. “Far From Narnia,” The New Yorker, Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02

Until recently I thought there were only two possible narrators: first person or third person. That a third person narrator could be a character in the way a first person narrator is was not in my consciousness. Perhaps it was when I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux or the works of the mysterious Lemony Snicket that I started to be aware of this type of narrator. Certainly, once Philip Pullman himself began discussing his preference for this narrator on child_lit and elsewhere (such as in the above New Yorker profile), I began noticing it more and more. In 2005 I did a talk on literary fairy tales in which I featured George MacDonald’s The Light Princess which has a wonderful narrator of this ilk and then there’s Charles Dickens, someone whose works I’ve been listening to a lot lately, who is a literary master in so many ways, including this one.

But I’ve got to say Mr. Pullman gives Mr. Dickens a run for his money. Listening to The Golden Compass after A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, I was blown away by the assurance of the narration. Oh yes, the actual assurance of Philip Pullman reading, but even more so that narrator. He is steady and true throughout. The full-cast simply makes it even more striking. There are moments throughout, big ones and tiny ones, where the narrator strikes with extraordinary deftness.

For example, at the start of Chapter 8, “Frustration,” Lyra is weaving one of her wild tales to the captivated gyptian children. “…His skin was all withered like an old apple, and his eyes were starting from his head. In fact, they had to push ‘em back in the sockets….” At this point she is interrupted by the clearly irritated narrator with the terse paragraph, “And so on.” after which he moves us readers away from the hyperbolic Lyra and on to what is happening in the fen country. (p. 131 in the 2002 Knopf paperback box set edition.)….

*****

So so cool.  That irritated “And so on” is absolutely wonderful. The storyteller who most of the time keeps himself out of the picture, just shows a little of himself being a bit cranky before pulling back and going on with the story itself.

It strikes me that there is simply a narrator continuum from the completely straight omniscient sort, the kind you don’t think much about, to Pullman’s and on to those who you do think about — say Snicket’s.  They have all characters with personalities that stand out to greater or lesser degrees.  Or so it seems to me just now.  Magical narration in my opinion.

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Lending My Voice to The Wizard of Oz

I love reading aloud and so had a lot fun, at ALA, participating in the Lend Your Voice initiative by reading a page from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz along with such luminaries as her, him, her, her, her, her, and her.  The whole list of narrators can be seen at this Random House Audio blog post where they write, “The finished audiobook will be available at http://www.firstbook.org, with all proceeds going to First Book, a children’s literacy organization that provides books to underprivileged children and their communities.”

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In the Classroom: Reading Aloud When You Reach Me

I can still hear a bunch of my students outside my room packing up to go home, debating and mulling over just what is happening in this remarkable book.  I thought I’d be able to finish reading it to them today, but ran out of time.  Had to stop at page 170 with 26 pages left.  But they are wildly curious, many stayed in the room with me for a while after school, to speculate, to surmise, to guess. One figured it out, but doesn’t know it yet.  Others think they know, but don’t.

I read this aloud last year for the first time and timed it so that I was able to read from the Very Important Scene straight through to the end. This year I had planned to do so as well, but ran out of time. But I think it might be even better this way — they are now obsessed and I bet they may well go home and talk to their parents about it too. And what more could you want for an amazing read aloud?

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In the Classroom: Bit o’ Book

Sigh. From Bookwitch I learned about a new UK study looking at the practice of reading aloud parts rather than the whole book in schools.   From the press release:

The first wide-scale research into the use of whole books in literacy teaching in the UK has revealed that a quarter of primary school children are reading just one whole book a year in class. Incredibly, 12 per cent of primary school teachers said they have never read a complete book with their class. If the findings were extrapolated to all primaries across the country it would mean nearly 600,000 children never read a book in class with their teacher, while over 1.1 million would only study one whole book a year in class.

The research, commissioned by educational publisher Heinemann, part of Pearson Education, involved over 500 primary teaching staff working in 500 schools in the UK along with 1,000 parents of school age children. It exposes a worrying picture of dependence on bite-size text extracts, rather than whole books, for teaching literacy. It also found:

  • Pupils are missing out on some of the best-loved stories in children’s literature, according to the research. Half of teachers could think of at least one occasion where pupils were left ignorant of the narrative of a novel because whole book teaching was not a priority in class. Examples of books not finished in class, cited by teachers, included The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Treasure Island; The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark; Goodnight Mr Tom and Roald Dahl classics.
  • Some 85 per cent of teachers said children miss out on finding “what happens next” by not reading a whole book.
  • Nearly two-thirds of teachers feared the absence of teaching literacy using whole books in class could turn children off reading, while a further one in five say they have seen evidence of this happening already.
  • Six in ten primary school teachers believe a return to whole book reading in their classrooms would have real academic benefits (on exam performance and academic success).

Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate and a campaigner for a return to real, whole book reading in British schools, said: “This research shows that in thousands of classrooms children are not reading books or talking about books, I think it will shock the public that so few whole books are being taught in class.

“There are going to be children who will only be taught about three or four books as part of their literacy education in the whole of their primary careers. For the thousands of children who don’t read books at home, it is a travesty. That’s three books they might have come across in the whole of their infant lives.”

  • The research also revealed a gulf between literacy teaching in state and private schools. State primary classes were almost twice as likely to not finish a whole book as their independent school counterparts (13 per cent compared to just eight per cent in private schools).
  • According to the research, three-quarters of teachers said children’s ‘reading stamina’ and concentration levels were being damaged by the lack of whole book reading.
  • When asked about the impact of extract teaching on the different genders, teachers were twice as likely to say they had a greater negative impact on boys vs girls (21% vs 11%)

“The idea that children can’t manage whole stories or whole books is a nonsense,” added Michael Rosen. “No extract in the world has the power of books. Extracts deny children the meat of the story. Take Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It is full of powerful emotions – such as fear, love and sympathy. These are vital ideas that children need to get hold of. But if children do not read the whole book, they will never get to the heart of the book – how evil can be overcome with a mixture of courage, compassion and solidarity. All they will discover is that there is a horrible woman called Miss Trunchbull.”

Teachers questioned in the research overwhelmingly backed a return to schools using whole books to teach literacy. Three-quarters of teachers say they want to teach literacy using either whole books or whole books, backed by extracts. 72 per cent of head teachers also believe that such an approach would have real academic benefits and improve results while helping to develop a child’s love of reading.

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In The Classroom: Reading Aloud Redux

In the latest Notes from the Horn Book, Richard Peck is very opinionated about teachers reading aloud his books:

4. You talk a lot with young readers. What are they telling you?

Things they didn’t mean to. Over and over they’re telling me that the books I wrote for them to read are being read to them by their teachers. And hearing a story read doesn’t seem to expand their vocabularies. If a teacher is going to take limited classroom time in reading aloud (and even giving away the ending), the least she could do is hand out a list of vocabulary from the reading to be looked up and learned.

Years ago I heard Peck come down very hard on teachers and, ever since, I’ve had to separate that memory when reading his books. This year I feel A Season of Gifts is one of the strongest books of the year — the character development excellent, the various threads of story beautifully developed, and the language and setting is sublime.  A really lovely work.   And so I will again set aside this quote from the author and continue to appreciate his work.  Maybe one day he will appreciate what I do too.

There are so many ways I read aloud to my students.  Recently I wrote about my general reading program and reading aloud is an important part of it.  My first day of school with students is this coming Monday and I’ve got a pile of books on my desk as I mull over which one I will begin with.  There will be no vocabulary lessons or sheets with it.  If the first book is Boyce’s Cosmic I may have to slip in a few bits of information, but only what is needed to enjoy the story.  If I read aloud  (but probably won’t because I think it is for older kids than those I teach) A Season of Gifts I would do the same thing — slip in explanations if necessary.  However, kids can also use their own developing skills to figure out what words mean themselves using context.  Turning a read aloud into a deadly vocabulary lesson happens, far too often, I fear.  And such a lesson is unlike to endear many of those child readers to Peck’s books, I’m afraid.

For more on what I read aloud in my classroom and how, here are a bunch of those posts.  Even better, go read this talented 6th grade teacher’s response to Peck.

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In the Classroom: Teaching Reading

In the past week I’ve read two completely oppositional articles on teaching.  The first was “Tyranny of the Test: One Year as a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools” by Jeremy Miller.  It is a superb piece providing a disturbing, real, and moving view of the specifics of legislation that has made Kaplan such a player in the schools, the sad realities of testing, teaching, and more.  The second was “Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.”  This is a very different sort of article, Mokoto Rich is a reporter for the New York Times, not a teacher, and so she comes to this topic quite differently — following a teacher as she begins this “new” method in her classroom — children choosing their own reading material.

The method is one of choice — individual reading rather than the whole-class-reads-one book method.  It isn’t, for all Rich suggests it is, new.  It was around when I started teaching in the early 70s and was around even earlier among those with a progressive mindset.  Choice is at the heart of Montessori, open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and many other pedagogies that have waxed and waned in popularity over the years.  I’m glad Rich featured Nancie Atwell, someone who inspired me twenty years ago with her seminal book, In the Middle.  She, along with others, gave me some  excellent tools that helped me to fine-tune a method I already had been using — now known as readers’ workshop.

A few years after that I spent a summer at Princeton studying classical children’s literature. I came back to my classroom determined to bring some of that magic into my teaching.  Since then other experiences have helped me to continually refine how I teach reading.  At the moment, in broad sweeps (leaving out the specific lessons that I do), here’s an overview:

  • Independent Reading.  My students are all expected to always have a book they’ve chosen to read.  The only homework I assign is to read for at least 30 minutes a night. I monitor the reading by having the children write the book title and the pages read.  I can easily determine how their reading is going by those pages.  If a child is only reading ten pages in 30 minutes night after night, for example, something is wrong and I will investigate.  I encourage them to drop books they don’t like and work hard to help them find ones they do.  Periodically I invite them to prepare readings from these books for the class for our weekly Literary Salons.   I have private conversations with them about their readings. They write about the books in response journals (and on blogs).  All the stuff mentioned in Rich’s article and many other places.
  • Reading Aloud. I always am reading aloud a book, ideally one the kids can’t get themselves yet. Last year I read The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me before they were published, for example.  I’m still mulling over the first book for this year.
  • One Book for the Whole Class.  I do believe in occasionally reading a book together. I think that there can be a very special experience when a group comes together over a book.  And I have to say, I don’t get the vehemence some have against doing this. While I understand how it has been done badly, it can also be wonderful.  I mean, what about those communities that read books together?  Book groups?  Book clubs? Why can’t teachers orchestrate something similar in their classrooms?  Certainly, I hope I do.  We begin the year with Charlotte’s Web and end it with The Wizard of Oz. Both are wonderful experiences.
  • Group Books.  We do a study of historical fiction prior to the kids writing their own.  As part of the preparations I have the kids read books in small groups.
  • Research. Sometimes I think people are so invested in getting kids to love reading that they forget that there is all kinds of reading.  Sometimes it is to get information.  My students read widely when working on their historical fiction stories about Mayflower passengers. They read primary sources, secondary sources, all sorts of stuff.

Okay. I could go on, but I won’t.  Reading is so many different things to so many different people so it stands to reason there would be many different ways to teach it and many different ways to learn it.

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Revisiting: The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups

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The other day, looking for a relatively short read for my fourth graders, I went to my secret read-aloud stash and rediscovered David Wisniewski‘s The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups.  Clutching it to my chest to keep the cover hidden, I sat down in my reading chair and asked the children to draw near.  I was, I informed them, being a traitor to my species — that of grown-ups.  I was going to do something that I might later rue, I told them.  And once I had their attention I carefully showed them the book cover and read it to them. Then, with great caution, I read the introduction in which Wisniewski describes how he became a secret agent (double agent, really, as he was doing something against our grown-up species after all!), scouting out these rules, usually in difficult disguises and with many a near escape.

Do I need to tell you I had every child in the palm of my hand by then?

Looking about shiftly, I then quietly read the first few pages — the truth about Grown-Up Rule #31: “Eat your vegetables.”  My students today (meat-eaters or not) adored the truth behind this rule (which you can sample yourself here). David Wisniewski, (who sadly died a few years ago) was the Caldecott winner for Golem and had a unique and witty style that never gets old.  There are two more books of Grown-Up Rules, but it is this first one that is the most successful in my opinion.

Years ago, when I first read this book aloud I would make a big deal of locking it up when done. The kids loved the game, begged me for it, sometimes rattled the locked closet door in a vain attempt to get the book; they loved everything about it. This year’s kids do too.  So here’s another that deserves to be revisited (or visited for the first time) by snarky adults and inquisitive kids.

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In the Classroom: Great Read Alouds

I was delighted to see the short list for this year’s E. B. White Read Aloud Awards. I was particularly tickled to see Zorgamazoo recognized as it is so unique that I feared it would slip under the radar.  (You can go here to read more about what I thought about this clever novel in light verse.)

Here is the complete short list:

Picture Books

A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick)

Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Harry Bliss (HarperCollins)

One by Kathryn Otoshi (KO Kids Books)

Too Many Toys by David Shannon (Scholastic)

Books for Older Readers

The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas (HarperCollins)

Masterpiece by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Henry Holt)

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston, illustrated by Victor Rivas (Penguin)

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In the Classroom: Reading Aloud

I do all sorts of read alouds, but the most important are the ones where I do an ongoing novel with the kids just listening and enjoying themselves. That is, they don’t have to talk (in fact often I won’t let them), answer my questions (or, worse, someone else’s say in a worksheet),  or feel an sort of obligation to do anything other than listen.  That is what I did with The Graveyard Book, The Underneath (still have to do a post about that), and now the forthcoming middle grade book by Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me.  A sixth grade teacher after my own heart about this is Sarah at the Reading Zone who has a terrific post up today about her reading aloud beliefs and practices.

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