Finding Time to Read Aloud Pays Dividends for Students

By Donalyn Miller, sixth-grade teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, TX

I almost didn’t recognize her. With flat-ironed hair and makeup, Madeline did not look like the gangly sixth-grader with frizzy red hair that I remembered from my class four years ago.

“Hi, Mrs. Miller,” she said. “I am assigned to your room today.”

Participating in Writers’ Day at a local intermediate school, I was asked to teach two rotations of writing lessons to budding fifth- and sixth-grade authors. High school volunteers such as Madeline were paired with teachers to help with crowd control and work with the younger kids.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I laughed, “but you will have to listen to me read the same story twice today.”

Donalyn Miller with student
She smiled and replied, “I don’t mind. I don’t think any teachers have read out loud to me since I was in your class.”

Writers’ Day was successful, and I enjoyed reconnecting with Madeline, but I thought all the way home about what she told me. When does reading aloud to children end? When we are confident they are reading well on their own— when we cannot snuggle and hold them on our laps any longer or comfortably arrange them in a circle on the floor?

I often hear teachers bemoan the lack of class time for reading aloud to their students. Considering the extensive research – which proves that reading aloud to children of all ages improves comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and writing skills – this activity should be the last to go. Guilty of cutting read-alouds when my lessons ran too long, I made a conscious decision to carve out daily read-aloud time.

Now I plan read-alouds into my workshop schedule, write the titles into my lesson plan book, and dedicate the time. If assemblies, testing, or other infringements shorten our class time, I make sure that I read to my students every day, no matter what else I cut.

Instructionally, reading books, poems, articles, and short stories aloud to students gives teachers endless opportunities to highlight great writing and model reading strategies, but reading aloud provides other benefits to young readers.

Reading aloud builds community
Shared experiences create memories that connect us to each other. Reading books aloud with children offers these unifying moments. While reading together, we laugh and cry together, comrades on the same journey. My students are a reading community, bonded to each other through the books we have shared, and these connections last long after the book ends.

Reading aloud exposes children to new books, authors, or genres
When choosing books to read aloud, I often pick books with the goal of leading my students to more books they can read on their own. Perennial favorites include authors such as Gary Paulsen, Gordon Korman, Deborah Wiles, and Roland Smith. Students beg me for more books by authors I introduce during read-alouds. Read-alouds are perfect opportunities to expose students to genres they often avoid such as poetry, biographies, and other nonfiction. After discovering books they enjoy first through read-alouds, children are more receptive to reading more books from these genres. You don’t have to read the entire book to entice readers, either. Frequently, I will read the first chapter, article, or poem from a book and place it on the marker rail. The book rarely lasts until the end of the day before an eager reader claims it!

Reading aloud supports developing readers
Realistically, no book fits every reader. Read-alouds are a perfect replacement for whole class novels, too, which can exclude readers who cannot independently read the book alone. Reading aloud removes roadblocks to comprehension such as unfamiliar vocabulary and contextualizes words developing readers do not know. Listening to a fluent reader gives students a reading role model for their own oral reading skills, too.

Reading aloud reminds children why they love reading
Memories of sitting on your lap, encircled by love and warmth, comprise our children’s first reading memories. Reading aloud reminds children that reading is pleasurable, an activity they enjoyed before reading turned into a school chore. Early in the year, I ask my students to bring in their beloved picture books. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we revisit classics such as Green Eggs and Ham and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Seeing lanky boys clutching Tacky the Penguin, eager to share it with their friends is heartwarming and magical. I share my childhood favorites such as Ferdinand and The Little House, too, and we discuss why these books are still special to us.

You have special read-alouds, too—books from your childhood and books you shared with your own children and students. Here are some outstanding newer books to read aloud with upper elementary children:

Outstanding Read-Aloud Books for Upper Elementary Students (fourth through sixth grades)
  • 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson (fantasy)
  • Countdown by Deborah Wiles (historical fiction)
  • Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • Hound Dog True by Linda Urban (realistic fiction)
  • Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up by Jon Sciezska (nonfiction memoir)
  • NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society by Michael Buckley (science fiction)
  • Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (realistic fiction)
  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger (realistic fiction)
  • Titanic by Gordon Korman (historical fiction)
  • Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen (historical fiction)
For additional tips about reading aloud to older children, check out the following links: Donalyn Miller is the author of "The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child" (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher. Her articles about teaching reading and education policy have appeared in such publications as Educational Leadership and the Washington Post.
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