The secret to read-alouds

Feb 05, 2013
In this post, Wendy Murray of Scholastic Teaching Resources talks with teacher and author Maria Walther to get practical advice for how primary teachers can meet the Common Core State Standards by ramping up read-alouds. Murray: The Common Core State Standards Initiative advises students read increasingly complex texts more deeply. As a first grade teacher, how are you responding to this issue? Walther: I think if we stay true to the notion that reading is a thinking process, we can address complexity and depth authentically in K-2. I am inviting my first graders to do a lot more thinking aloud—talking about the books we read and honoring the thinking they have already done. Then, as we read complex texts together, I nudge them to think more deeply about the big ideas, themes, author’s purpose, and so on. Coupled with that, I am searching for texts that have complex concepts to spark conversations. Murray: What are some examples of complex texts? Walther: One of my favorites is The Can Man by Laura E. Williams , the story of a homeless man who is collecting cans to buy a winter coat and a young boy who decides to collect them to save up for a skateboard. A book like this invites conversations about needs and wants, and themes of poverty and inequity. Another title that yields complex thinking is Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. In January and February, I read aloud a chronological collection of picture books and informational texts about United States history—the Underground Railroad (Underground) , Jim Crow laws (Ruth and the Green Book), the Civil Rights era (Freedom on the Menu)—not only because it builds students’ content knowledge, but because these books tend to be meaty enough to usher in rich oral thinking and conversation. Murray: And just how do these books come into play? Read-Alouds? Small Groups? Independent Reading? Walther: All of the above! But I would say that if primary teachers select their read-aloud texts well, it has the power to transform their teaching. Of course, many times I read aloud the whole book without pausing so we can simply enjoy it, but later we might go back to specific pages and help listeners go deeper. Murray: How do you get seven-year-olds to do that kind of deep dive? Walther: Ask big questions and you’ll get big thinking. Start by keeping it open ended. “What did you notice?” See what students say and build from there, always remembering to follow up with, “Why do you think that? What part of the text/illustrations helped you understand that?” It works well to look at a book from the perspective of a reader and the perspective of a writer. Reading from the writer’s perspective helps learners better understand craft and structure. With any picture book, you can ask, “What do you think the writer was thinking when she did this? Why would she choose to do that?” Or you can pose questions about the visual choices of the illustrator. “How do you think the illustration supports and enhances the words?” Think of read-alouds as a way to launch a continual dialogue about books throughout the day, and from day to day. Murray: How many read-alouds do you recommend each day? Walther: I’d say five read-alouds a day. In the morning, in the afternoon, during reading and writing workshop, during science or social studies… I am not necessarily reading the whole book—maybe just a little section to point out a terrific lead, or to introduce a science topic. To keep myself on track, I keep a read-aloud tally , marking a tally for each read-aloud experience we have together. Last year we had 790! Murray: Wow! Five a day. So there’s a kind of “you gotta be in it to win it” mechanism to it? Walther: Yes, there is. If we want children to integrate meaning and ideas across texts, they have to have experiences hearing a lot of texts. They need a rich textual lineage—a wealth of reading experiences from which to draw. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we put forth all these grand ideas of voluminous independent complex text reading, but then don’t offer students voluminous, joyful reading experiences each and every day.