Read Alouds and Differentiation: Introducing Complicated Issues
Read alouds help students of all reading levels recall prior knowledge and engage with complex ideas.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Reading aloud every day — poems, stories, and books you love — transmits to your students the passion and joy you have for reading. Reading aloud strengthens students’ listening skills and also tunes their ears to the music in our language, and their minds to the visions the text conjures up.
Author Lester Laminack has proposed that teachers read aloud several times a day. In self-contained classes, teachers can read aloud in the morning, before and after lunch, and at the end of the day; they can read a short poem to transition from one subject to another. In middle and high school, teachers can read aloud at the start and end of class and transition from reading to writing workshop with a poem. The point is that one read aloud a day is not enough to build and strengthen students’ imaginations.
In addition to the traditional read aloud that opens a class, I use read alouds for the following purposes:
- to build background knowledge
- to model the application of reading strategies
- to teach narrative story elements
- to teach informational text features
- as a catalyst for teaching unfamiliar themes
- to teach different kinds of journal responses
- to weave issues and core questions into your units of study
- to introduce issues for a unit of study
The following explains one of these techniques.
Read Aloud to Introduce Issues for a Unit of Study
Teaching content is important to language arts, science, and social studies teachers.
Learning and recalling facts from a novel or an informational picture or chapter book is the first step. From my experiences, using the content to study an issue, such as segregation, or a problem, such as how wars can be avoided, asks students to apply what they’ve learned to bring meaning and relevance to a unit of study.
Let me show you how an issue can elevate students’ thinking when you invite them to make inferences and connections. My read aloud for a 5th-grade class that was studying biography was a short selection about Sojourner Truth from Rabble Rousers: 20 Women Who Made a Difference by Cheryl Harness. The issue students focused on was what causes men and women to work steadfastly for change. The issue nudged students beyond the facts that Sojourner Truth wanted to help the poor, slaves, and women to using the collected facts to draw conclusions about her. After a think-pair-share, 5th graders shared these issue-related ideas:
- “She wanted to help the poor, slaves, and women. She never gave up, even when people called her names and wouldn’t listen to her speeches.”
- “She had a strong belief and was determined to change people’s thinking. She never gave up.”
- “She was religious, and this helped her bear up when others yelled insults or wouldn’t help. She’s like Martin Luther King — religious and strong.”
- “She traveled all over to spread her beliefs. This shows she was dedicated to working for freedom and fairness because she had little money and walked a lot.”
What these student comments reveal is that having an issue supports linking facts to inferences, connections, and conclusions.
Plan a Lesson That Introduces an Issue: Grade 4 Example
To introduce students to an issue on which they will reflect throughout a unit of study
10–15 minutes over two consecutive days
A picture book that highlights a specific issue. Fourth graders are reading biographies and studying both the issue of creating change and the personality traits of change makers.
How It Helps Students
Read alouds that raise students’ awareness of an issue also start them thinking, discussing, and clarifying their understanding of an issue. The more students consider an issue, the better able they will be to connect it to books they are reading during the study.
Preparing the Lesson
Select two or three (or more) picture books that you will read aloud during your unit of study so students can hear different perspectives on the issue and deepen their understanding of it. Listed are the picture books I have 4th graders listen to:
- The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (Scholastic, 1995)
- Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (Putnam & Grosset, 1992)
- Mama Went to Jail for the Vote by Kathleen Karr (Hyperion, 2005)
- Barn Raising by Craig Brown (HarperCollins, 2002)
Presenting the Lesson
- Pair up students and ask them to discuss, for two to three minutes, the term change maker. Use these prompts to stir discussion:
- What kinds of changes can people make?
- What kinds of changes affect the world? A family or community? One or two people?
- Circulate and listen to students’ discussions. Allow more or less time depending on what students’ conversations show you.
- Ask students to write their name and the date on a journal page and head it “Change Makers.” Then have students write all they recall from their conversations, adding any ideas that pop into their minds as they write.
- Invite volunteers to share their thoughts.
- In one class, I read aloud all of Mama Went to Jail for the Vote, as the text is short. At the end, I write these prompts on chart paper:
- Was Mama a change maker? If yes, explain the change she worked toward.
- What personality traits helped Mama achieve these changes?
- Ask partners or groups to discuss the prompts and share their findings. Tell them that after discussing and sharing, you’ll ask them to write. Here are some ideas 4th graders shared:
- “You don’t need to be violent to make change — you can use votes.”
- “You can get your message to the president by marching in a huge parade in front of the White House.”
- “Mama ignored Papa, who thought women should only serve men. She didn’t argue with him. She did what she knew was right.”
- “You can picket like Mama with a message you want the president to see.”
- “You could go to jail to show how much you believe in getting the vote.”
- “Mama was determined to get the vote. Even six months in jail didn’t stop her.”
- Have students head a journal page with the title and author of your read aloud, then write what they recall from the discussion and sharing. Tell students to use the prompts on chart paper to jog their memories.
- Continue exploring the issue with other read alouds. Follow steps one to seven so students talk, share ideas, and then write...
Suggestions for Following Up
- Have students reread their journal entries that explain both the term change maker and the personality traits needed to create change. Ask students to clarify their ideas and jot down new ideas that surface as the study unfolds.
- Invite pairs or small groups to discuss why the persons in their independent reading biographies are or are not change makers, as well as discuss their character’s personality traits. Partners or groups can share what they’ve learned with the entire class.
Remember that in any context, read alouds are the key to being able to differentiate. By rethinking the role of read alouds, you can discover that they can help you set the stage for differentiation in three powerful ways:
- They help all students enlarge their prior knowledge.
- They ensure that all students learn to apply reading strategies and explore issues and themes.
- By making read alouds your teaching text, students can then read other texts at their instructional level.