Reading Aloud to Children

Reading; Modeling for Kids

On Monday my students trickled into my classroom during the 15 minutes allowed from opening the front doors till class was to begin. Chatter was light; most had already begun on the warm-up activity posted on the white board. The bell rang, and shortly after the principal came over the intercom to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once role was taken and all students had finished the warm-up activity, we opened our textbooks to the “Prologue” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I began reading:

WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot*,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender’d is the flower;
When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath
Inspired hath in every holt* and heath
The tender croppes* and the younge sun
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
(So pricketh them nature in their corages*);
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands,
To *ferne hallows couth* in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen*, when that they were sick.

My students were dead silent, some of them peered at me as I read with their chins cupped in the palms of their hands, and their elbows at rest on their desktops. Others reclined with their arms folded across their chest taking it all in. Some looked toward the ceiling and closed their eyes; I had to trust that they were not asleep. They listened as I read, my well-rehearsed words were full of life, I read down to the where the Knight’s portrait begins and asked my students about what I had read. Calmly they responded with the descriptions of the setting, time of year, the rain, spring plumage, sights and smells, birds twittering about. Although I was the one reading my students reaped the full benefit of what the passage had to offer.

This is only my second year as a teacher. I came to teaching after several years as an unhappy salesman. I had a desire to contribute to the community in a meaningful way, by working with young people, sharing what I know about a subject I so dearly love, Literature. In case no one has guessed, I teach Sr. English in high school, hence Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. During my first year I realized that when students read a text as difficult as Canterbury Tales they spend more time trying to figure out what the words mean, why they are spoken with such odd syntax, clearly not understanding what the author has written about. Its even worse when another student tries to read it aloud, words mispronounced, some skipped to avoid the embarrassment, no one really understands what is being read because the words have become incomprehensible, mere uttering without form.

I first thought that my students’ reading levels were not where they should to be. I feared for the worst. I thought I had a class of twelfth graders that didn’t know how to read. I was going to have my work cut out for me trying to teach them how in just under ten months, but I was gladly mistaken. The truth is that my students read very well, but ancient literature is so far removed from what they are usually exposed to that reading it was fruitless for them. I remembered that I once had trouble reading such texts also, and it took years of study and practice to become proficient. I also note that I wanted to learn to read this stuff, and not many people possess my desire, nor should they be required to.

I adjusted my methods to where I would first summarize the more difficult texts in words that my students could understand. Then, with my own well-rehearsed voice, I would read to them, allowing them the opportunity to listen to the words and turn them into mental pictures inside of their minds. By doing this they gained a better understanding of the work, a new appreciation having heard it read beautifully, and a new desire to approach their own modern texts with an enthusiasm. The level of frustration disappeared and they learned to actually enjoy the written word with all of its magic and power. They may not be reciting the time-honored works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, but they approach works written in modern EnglishRafe Martin’s Bird Wing, and Lois Duncan’s Stranger with My Facewith a new sense of purpose and appreciation.

I hear teachers grumbling about how poorly their kids read and wonder if they have ever demonstrated for their students how beautiful reading can be? Most of them adhere to the belief that in order for students to read well, they must practice often and try to understand what they have read on their own. This is true, but sitting students through days and days of reading texts that are difficult for them only reinforces the wall of resistance that they have built up out of frustration. I don’t expect my kids to read well until I have demonstrated it for them. I don’t force them to suffer through the reading of difficult texts while attempting to understand imagery and plot. When I teach, I teach reading, structure, content, and meaning as separate concepts. The only time I require them to practice all of these concepts combined and on their own is while reading modern English texts. Even then I still demonstrate the practice buy reading to them. Only after I have demonstrated good reading ability, to include a close analysis of the work, do I expect my students to do it independently. When I do assign independent practice, I assign works that are commensurate with the language they speak.

Reading to children is an effective way to foster an appreciation for the written word no matter the age. And if it is practiced throughout children’s lives, they are less likely to build up the resistance gained by years of frustration. Kids can only gain a love for the written word when they see it loved and appreciated by someone else. This, of course, extends further than the classroom. They must also experience this appreciation at home, an aspect of their lives that we cannot control, but as long as we try in the classroom, their chances of becoming life-long readers and learners becomes greater.