The benefits of reading aloud to students are endless, and there is no wrong way to read aloud in the classroom. However, the following considerations may help you make the most of the experience.
Choose a time for read aloud that is relaxed, quiet, and conducive to listening. For many teachers in self-contained classrooms, after lunch is best. For other teachers, the ideal time might be first thing in the morning, right before lunch, or at the very end of the day. For some lucky students, there may be even more than one read-aloud period per day.
How long should you read? The answer will vary depending on your personal style and preference, as well as the nature of your schedule and group. Generally, 10 to 30 minutes is appropriate.
Setting the mood for read aloud is important, too. Lower the lights in the room, especially the overhead lights. Have a desk or table lamp available for you to read by and a special chair to read from. Some teachers use a bar stool so they can see the entire group and project their voices. Others prefer a rocking chair to give the experience a warm, homey feel. Invite students to sit in front of you on a carpet. This arrangement works well not only for primary students, but for upper elementary and middle school students as well.
What are the best books to read to students? The answer is different for everyone, but I offer criteria for choosing wisely in the next section. Whatever you choose, keep in mind one of the main purposes of read aloud: to develop in students a love of reading and books.
Consider Your Favorites
Read aloud the books you like to students. Your enthusiasm will come through. Keep a log of all the books you enjoy and would like to share with students. When you come across a new book, ask yourself if it would be a good candidate for read aloud. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease provides readers with his own list of more than 300 favorites, based on his extensive experience working with children of all ages.
Reach Beyond Students’ Comfort Zone
Think of books that students may not pick up on their own because the text is difficult or unfamiliar. By reading such books to students, you expose them to more sophisticated words, sentences, content, and ideas, which builds their vocabulary and comprehension skills. Be sure to include the very best books in various genres. Most students in elementary and middle grades like to read contemporary fiction with characters who remind them of themselves. Use a read aloud to expose students to historical fiction, biography, science fiction and fantasy, poetry, and folktales.
Try to find books that connect to life in your classroom and to other texts students may be reading or experiencing. For example, books that complement a forthcoming unit of study will help build students’ background knowledge and interest. Find books that connect to the season, holidays, or special events. These kinds of choices will strengthen and extend students’ awareness of a topic.
Focus on Award Winners
If your knowledge of books is limited, rely on the expertise of others by focusing on books that have won awards, in particular the Newbery and Caldecott awards. The Newbery Medal is given yearly by the American Library Association to the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Each year, one book is selected as the Newbery winner and several others are named Honor Books. Similarly, the Caldecott Medal is given yearly to the “most distinguished American picture book for children.” As with the Newbery, there is one winner and usually several Honor Books.
Read Professional Journals
The International Reading Association (IRA) offers teachers several wonderful resources for finding books that students like to read or hear. Perhaps the best known is Children’s Choices, a yearly compilation of new books that have been read by approximately 10,000 elementary and middle-grade students throughout the United States. The students vote on their favorites, and the finalists are identified as Children’s Choice books. Usually more than a hundred books are identified and described.
Children’s Choices are published annually in the October issue of The Reading Teacher, IRA’s professional journal for preschool, elementary, and middle-grade teachers. In its November issue, The Reading Teacher features an annual list of approximately 30 titles that teachers feel are among the very best of recent vintage for children. Finally, you’ll find a thematic review of recently published children’s books in every issue. IRA also publishes the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (JAAL), which is for teachers of middle and secondary grades. Each year in its November issue, JAAL publishes Young Adults’ Choices, a list of approximately 30 recent titles for adolescents and young adults that have been identified by students as their favorites.
Rely on Your Librarian, Your Colleagues, and the Internet
One of the very best resources for information on books is a human resource: the community or school librarian. These specialists are well aware of the kinds of books that can motivate and enchant listeners. Also, be sure to chat with booksellers at your local bookstores. And, of course, a few well-defined searches on the Internet can yield many excellent titles.
Keep an eye and ear open to other teachers as well. Usually, they have classroom-tested favorites for read aloud that they are happy to share. I have been in the reading business for more than 30 years and have read a lot of books for children. Still, after all this time, I am always discovering new books for read aloud. Usually, recommendations come from teachers in my courses who have found books to which students respond well.
Think Beyond Books
Essays, columns, reviews, and articles of interest from local and national newspapers and magazines are great for read aloud, too. Browse the web for a huge variety of other materials that may be appropriate to share with students. By doing so, you show that print worth sharing and of value is available from a wide variety of sources.
Select for Voice
Look for materials that have a strong voice. Voice is that characteristic of writing where readers can hear the voice of the author (and characters) as they read the text orally or silently. Voice in writing is the flip side of prosody, or expression in reading. Prosody is a key element of reading fluency. Materials that we read to students (and have students read on their own) that have a strong voice are naturals for helping them become aware of the importance of prosody in reading.