Tips for Reading Aloud to Younger and Older Students

Reading aloud is the most fundamental activity for building language fluency. While it should begin in the home at an early age, teachers can effectively use the read-aloud to build student motivation, teach comprehension strategies, and model skills for older students, such as summarizing and adopting different perspectives. The tips suggested for carrying out this activity will depend somewhat on the goal an educator is seeking to accomplish. First, consider the general strategies for emerging readers (which can be adopted by parents for children unable to decode any written language).

* Reading aloud for younger students is best performed as an audio-visual learning experience. The smaller format books are fine for parents with a child sitting in their lap, but large, illustrated books are necessary for a class. Since this activity should be a regular one for emerging readers, choose several books with similar themes to help build background knowledge. Students will get the opportunity to practice activating previous knowledge with each one, and discussions will become more insightful.

* Model examining the book for the class. Cover art and the title should be used to move students into a vital phase of comprehension called prediction. Take time to let students respond to questions such as “Why do you think I chose this book?” and “What do you think this book will be about?” Development of critical thinking skills begins early, so try to stay away from easy questions that invite only one response.  “What color is the ball?” should be reserved for younger children just learning to speak and build vocabulary.

* Reading aloud is a performance and should be prepared for as such. Much of the time, you’ll want to be holding the book up for everyone to see, so it helps to have read it several times and be familiar with the text. Perform it a couple of times for yourself or an audience to practice the voices of different characters, facial gestures, and the voice inflections suggested by the grammar. Remember, the point is to model reading fluency so the students can focus on comprehension. Fluency here means flow, and accuracy counts as students will be passively absorbing this aspect of the experience while they actively digest the story.

* Repetition is extremely important to language arts skills. At the early stages, this means using the same text several times and including some texts that incorporate rhyming and rhythm schemes (also called predictable books). Song books are particularly useful, such as illustrated interpretations of “America the Beautiful” and Mother Goose poems, as well as the classic Dr. Seuss books. There is no rule on how many times to recycle a text, so the above tip becomes very important. You want to be able to observe you’re audience while performing.

* Interruptions of the performance should be avoided for now to maintain flow, and likely students will be enjoying the experience so much you’ll have no problem with this.

* After the reading, ask students questions about the story. Stay away from closed questions that invite short responses. Remember, this activity is for building student comprehension, so your questions should be designed to assess whether this is being achieved. Ask students to volunteer to retell the story or just go around the room. This is a difficult skill to learn for many, and other students should be given a chance to pick up the plot’s thread before you step in with a prompt. A prompt can be actually supplying a missing part of the plot or revisiting illustrations from that part of the story. Questions about the story should be phrased simply and have no correct answers. “What if” questions will allow students to use the story you just read as well as their imaginations. Questions about the illustrations can lead into discussions of historical time periods and settings, as well as the emotional states of characters.

The rules change for more developed readers. It will still be worthwhile to read from illustrated books, but be sure to use books with more sophisticated vocabulary and grammar that are tied in with their studies in other subjects. There should be just as much attention paid to preparing for the performance, because the goal is the same. You are doing the work of reading for them so that they can focus on comprehending the story and making connections. More developed students will have stronger attention spans and more fluency, so you should focus more on active comprehension. The best way to do this is to stop at pre-determined key points in the plot to ask students what they think of the characters’ actions, what they think may happen next, and what they would do if presented with similar problems.

Stronger readers will also benefit from the instructor modelling internal dialogue as well. This exercise is referred to as a think-aloud. This will require that students be able to read along, so either have a copy of the book for the entire group or use technology like an overhead projector. The point here is to model the thoughts that fluent readers have while reading, so questions will be directed at the text or author and observations will be self-directed.

Preparation for the think-aloud should be carried out just as with the read-aloud. You’ll want to make notes in your version of the text or practice until you feel comfortable. Some examples of what to model follow:

* Model the activation of previous knowledge. “This reminds me of…” statements are most useful. It could be a memory of a previous book read in class, something from your childhood, or an event that happened before the children were born.

* Model visualization of imagery, time, and space. Statements should be directed toward understanding how something the characters are experiencing feels, looks, or sounds. Note changes in location, how far or near, as well as time changes, such as “Now Johnny is remembering what happened three years ago, he would have been eight then.”

* Model questions of the text/author and yourself, as well as answers. “What will happen next?” might be used to model the educated guess. Express curiosity about some newly introduced topic, take a note and ask of yourself, “where could I find more information about this?”

* Model analysis of the author’s word choices and illustrations. “What does the strawberry patch have to do with Billy’s mom getting sick?” “Susan refers to Grant as her buddy and the other kids as her friends. I wonder if she has known Grant longer.” Often authors will use one or two words repetitively to foreshadow plot development, and fluent readers will pick up on this.

The think-aloud can be used to move students into other genres of text as well. The instructor will model information as it is learned from the text, such as “this statement means I need to keep an eye out for the three major differences.” Fluent readers will often recall what they have just read in preparation for the next bit of information, as in “so far I know this…” Pick out a few more difficult words to model taking a note of what to look up later. Evaluate how a persuasive essay has changed your previous thoughts on a topic. Think aloud the reasons why you liked a particular quote from a character or description of a butterfly’s metamorphosis. The only limits here are your imagination and the amount of time you can effectively spend on modelling these aspects of comprehension. Pay attention to your audience for cues, and don’t wear them out!

Reading aloud should be used most with pre and emerging readers audiences, as increasing comprehension will aid them greatly in decoding text on their own. It is still a great tool for more developed readers, allowing instructors to model various strategies for making sense of different kinds of text and learning skills like summarizing. As with any teacher-centered activity, reading aloud will work best with plenty of preparation.

Resource: Language Arts Workshop: Purposeful Reading and Writing Instruction by Nancy Frey and Douglas B. Fisher (2006).