Originally published April 16, 2019
Read-alouds are pretty much a daily standard in elementary schools. But in middle school? Not as much. Reporters Morgan Jarema and Janice Holst visited classrooms in two districts where students are all ears for them, and found out why those teachers think it’s still important in students’ tweens.
Melissa Moens, language arts teacher at Crossroads Middle School, makes it a point to read aloud to her seventh-graders twice every week.
In addition to having them read silently for 15 minutes three days a week, Moens reads to them on the days they do not, letting their minds conjure the scenes as she reads to them. On a recent afternoon, she walked slowly around her classroom, doing her best gangster voices to read dialogue in “Al Capone Does My Shirts.”
As Moens read, her students did crossword puzzles with vocabulary words from the book. A few sat on the floor along a classroom wall, legs outstretched. Ashley Sanders used colored markers to finish hers. Beside her, Nevaeh Tims munched an apple and sat quietly, her mind clearly on her teacher’s words.
It wasn’t always obvious they were listening until Moens stopped reading and asked questions, which she did often.
“That word, ‘beckoning,'” she said. “What does that look like, to beckon?”
Several hands shot up instantly, as they did when, moments later, she asked about the word conniving.
Afterward, she read the line “My voice squeaks high like a rodent’s.”
“What is that?” Moen wondered. Several students answered in unison: “Simile!”
This particular book, she pointed out, has an autistic character. So students get to know her and build empathy for those who are different, Moens said.
Results of a study published in 2013 showed the impact of read-alouds on sixth-graders’ reading comprehension and vocabulary.
Authored by Jennifer Kohart Marchessault of Grand Canyon University and Karen H. Larwin of Youngstown State University, suggested the practice “can expand students’ exposure to reading materials, even materials above their instructional level, by utilizing their listening skills. When the students’ only task is to listen to the material being read, not worrying about pronunciation, taking turns reading, etc., comprehension becomes the end result.”
Moens — who has been teaching middle school for 15 years, plus two years as a reading specialist for grades K-8 — sees even more benefits. She said students build vocabulary and develop empathy. As with the current book, she also finds ways to “sneak in ‘teachable moments’” and mini-lessons that demonstrate how active listeners can be.
Reading aloud, she said, “opens up so many opportunities for great conversation, and this age is the best age to discuss some really important topics that may otherwise be difficult to approach.” Through the character whose sister has autism in “Al Capone Does my Shirts,” for example, “we have started talking about the (autism) spectrum and what that means.”
“My main reason for doing it is the hope that it helps develop and instill a life-long love of reading, just through the act itself,” Moens said.
For students who still aren’t fans of reading on their own by middle school, being read to at that age may well increase the chances they will grow into it.
“I like it when grownups read to me,” said seventh-grader Courtney Bell. “I really don’t like reading that much and I get easily sidetracked — usually when I get to about page 20 or 30, I lose interest.” With read-alouds, she said, “I don’t have to focus on the process, but rather on what is happening in the story.”
Amy Blouw, who has been teaching seventh-grade language arts for 25 years, said that the way novels are taught is “very different now than the way we used to do it.”
The practice of having students read and answer questions has been replaced by what she calls “writing workshop best practices.” That is, reading — whether aloud in class or assigned — happens alongside mini-lessons, such as in grammar and figurative language, studying the author’s craft, making connections and sharing thinking with peers.
Readying for the Real World
Blouw said she often uses read-alouds as conversation starters. She stops and has students turn to a partner or small group and describe the protagonist or the setting, or tell a personal story that came to mind during the reading.
“Reading and discussing in groups can be like preparing for real-world collaborating with like-minded people, and coming to conclusions or sharing experiences,” she said. “I think it is important that the students think about the author, and look for clues that authors write what they know, or that authors hint at things that are coming.”
The writing workshop approach means that her students are assigned to write fiction that utilizes literary techniques they are learning, such as developing character and setting or using flashback or foreshadowing.
“When it comes to reading aloud, I find that the majority of the students enjoy it and … usually prefer to hear it and follow along,” Blouw said. “It really helps build vocabulary and strengthen sentence structure when they see the word and hear it in context.”