Why do read alouds fail? When I first started teaching, I wasn’t given much direction in terms of read alouds. In my literacy class I had read that a read aloud was part of a balanced literacy program and that I should do one. I wasn’t really told anything more but my professor did read us Thank You, Mr. Falker and cried. Read alouds could be powerful, but my first year as a teacher (and sometimes even now), my read alouds fail. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about read alouds and every year less and less of my read alouds fail. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about why read alouds fail and how to prevent it using strategies I’ve learned over the years.
Fail #1: Not Doing A Read Aloud
When I was student teaching with a Kindergarten teacher, she NEVER did a read aloud. When you read that she never did a read aloud, you probably thought that she just rarely did read alouds. Nope. I came in to student teach for spring semester and she had never done a read aloud. I remember she was sick a few times, so I did a couple read alouds on those days. To see the kids’ faces hearing an adult read them a book. With them being Kindergarteners you got the full gambit of emotions. It was like they were seeing and understanding for the first time that reading could be…*gasp!* FUN!
Fail #1 is not doing a read aloud. Why is doing a read aloud so important? Hopefully this is self-evident for you and you’re all skipping this part, but unless kids see HOW to read and the WHY, it’s going to be really hard for them to become good readers. This is especially true of more and more students who come to school and their parents have never read with them. Kids need a strong example of how readers read and need to see the specific reasons that people read: for entertainment, to find information, and to learn.
Those students in the Kindergarten class I worked with, most of whom had never heard an adult read, were what my cooperating teacher called excellent readers. She defined being a good reader as being able to read the words. If they could answer a question about the book that was a bonus. However, if you heard these kids read, they sounded like robots. They sounded out every syl-lab-le. These kids didn’t know what a reader should sound like. They didn’t know that reading could be FUN! That’s what I call a tragedy.
How do you prevent this?
You’re probably hearing all of this and saying well of course you should read aloud to your kids, but some people are afraid to read aloud to their kids. This is especially true in bilingual classes when a teacher is reading in their second language. They feel uncomfortable reading aloud because they don’t want others to hear their imperfect pronunciation or show their students that they don’t know what a word means. Especially if you’re a new teacher, a lot of times you feel this pressure to prove yourself and show that you’re an expert.
I’m telling you, though, that the students don’t care if you aren’t a native speaker. They NEED to see that there are words that you don’t understand because then they can see what an expert reader like you does to understand new words. Your students need to see what expert readers do when they read or they’ll be nothing more than word reading robots who read words in books because their teacher gave them the book.
In other words: get over yourself and read to your kids.
Fail #2: Not Reading The Book Beforehand
Before I became a teacher, I was a teaching assistant and the teacher I worked with would just give me a book and have me read it to the kids. While I did the read aloud, she called kids to do a running record to determine their reading level. She was a good teacher and it was usually pretty evident what connection I should make to her reading mini-lesson. Sometimes I didn’t, though. I had to make it up along the way.
My first year as a teacher, I continued much the same way. I picked a random book from my classroom library and read it. The library had been handed down to me, so I didn’t know most of the books other than the popular books like Kevin Henkes or Eric Carle. When I was reading the books to the students, though, I was running into words I didn’t quite understand. Some books were too complex. Some were too simple.
To this day, I am afraid to teach poetry because I tried reading a few poetry books that frustrated my students so much. I’d start reading and the students’ faces would quickly go blank, shoelaces would become the most interesting thing in the world, and everyone would end up with a case of the wiggles.
How do you prevent this?
Become a student of your own classroom library and children’s literature. Read the books that your students love to read. Talk to other teachers at your grade level and find out what books they like to read to their students. What if you’re a first year teacher? Get to know your library little by little. Find a few good, quality books and read them. You know what? Kids don’t care if you read the same books over and over. As you feel more and more comfortable with your teaching, you can slowly find more books to add to your repertoire.
Fail #3: You don’t have a plan
Okay, so you read to your kids and you’ve read the book at least once before you read it to your students. The next fail is not having a plan for when you read the book to your kids. As teachers, we don’t have time to waste in our classrooms. There are so many things that our kids need to learn when they’re with us. It’s hard finding time for all of it. If you have unplanned time during your day, you are losing time. Don’t get me wrong, every minute that you spend with your kids is time well-spent.
If you don’t go into a read aloud with a reason for having the students listen to the book, you are not maximizing your time. Think about your students who are below grade level. In small group and independent reading times they are reading books that are below grade level. At what other time are they getting exposed to books that are at or above grade level? They aren’t. And if your students are not exposed to books that are at grade level and are only seeing books that are at their level, how can you expect to accelerate their growth and guarantee that they are being exposed to grade level content?
How do you prevent this?
Go into each read aloud with at least a rough plan. If you’re in a fiction unit, highlight how you read a fiction book: all the way through, read with different voices for different characters, analyze figurative language, show how to infer. A rough idea will take your kids far further than going into a read aloud and having no plan. Think about it: if this is the one time of day that ALL of your kids are exposed to grade level reading content, it is the MOST IMPORTANT time of your day at least for reading. Find a lesson plan template that you like and use it. Talk about the reading with your kids and have them talk to each other about the book.
What makes YOU the expert?
It’s simple really. I’m not. I’ll tell you one thing, though, my most highly planned for time of day is my read aloud. Granted, this is 6 years into teaching. In my first year, as I said I was flying by the seat of my pants. My second year, though, I took a deep dive into read alouds, and I’ve seen it pay dividends in terms of how students can talk about texts, analyze texts, and comprehend books read aloud to them. AND IT STICKS WITH THEM!
Here’s an example: As a first grade teacher, I read the book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. And it helped my students understand The Chronicles of Narnia. How?
Well Sam and Dave decide to dig a hole and dig until they find something spectacular. All of these things happen until the very end when their hole runs out. They somehow fall down the hole and fly down through the sky. They land in a world that appears very much like their own, but students can see with some VERY subtle details that it is a different world (or is it?).
3 years later…
…now in fourth grade, one of my low readers is pushing herself to read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. That’s a challenging book for a struggling reader! I conferred with this young lady, and she told me that the book was like “that book in first grade where the boys dig a hole.” I asked her to explain that to me, because I couldn’t see the connection. She said, well the two books were similar because in both books the kids go to a new world.
I’m not much of a sappy teacher, but I just about hugged that girl and cried. I had her share that at the end of our readers workshop. You know what? A lot of my kids made that same connection. All she had to do was say that the two books were similar.
If that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is.
What are some of your read aloud fails? Are you as afraid of poetry as me? Is there a more important time of day than your read aloud? Tell me in the comments.