Over the years of using read-alouds in my classroom and as community outreach events, I have discovered that most people have not had the experience (past the age of 5) of having a story or even a poem read aloud to them. Many have been influenced by the misconception that the only practical reason for reading aloud is to help young children to enjoy a story before they can read on their own. However, my own experience with reading aloud has been much richer since both my parents and teachers read aloud to me and my siblings long after we could read on our own.
Before the digital age when TV shows and movies (or more recently TikTok videos) took over this cultural role, storytelling was traditionally the way a community connected with one another in a shared sense of identity and expression of purpose and values. When done well, incorporating reading aloud into your classroom can create a shared sense of discovery as well as personal reflection which can deepen the dimensions of meaning for the entire class community.
One step that is of critical importance for this kind of engagement within your class is the careful selection of the story or scene that you want to share. A well-selected read-aloud can provide a springboard for discussion and reflection that can lead to a deeper understanding not only of the theme explored but also of the listeners themselves. Discussing characters in stories or poems often provides a safe space to explore hidden fears and struggles and complex value-laden decisions. Reading aloud creates a place where moral dilemmas and spiritual realities can be investigated through discussions about character choices, the use of names and symbols, and the conflicts and problems experienced within the story. However, depth of engagement does not typically happen without intentional planning. In order to find a read-aloud selection well suited for your class, there are a few key ingredients to keep in mind: 1) interest of the audience, 2) adaptability of the text and 3) purpose of the selection.
Interest of the Audience
One thing that is important to gauge with read-alouds is the age and ability of your listeners to follow the selected story or poem. Depending on their language proficiency, you may want to provide the text for them to follow along individually as you read aloud. You will want to find a story or poem which has some theme or element your listeners can readily recognize or identify with. At the same time, a successful read-aloud selection will also include an element that is surprising or unexpected to keep them in the mode of discovery about “what happens next.” This is not only true of young listeners, but adults as well.
Adaptability of the Text
In other words, how well does the text translate into read-aloud material? There are many great stories and poems that simply do not make good read-alouds. These include texts with a lot of numbers or details that are hard to remember, or they may have wordy sentence structure that is confusing when read aloud. For this reason, I recommend either choosing from a list that has already been vetted as good “read-aloud” material or recording yourself reading a sample of the text to see how it sounds when you play it back. You are looking for something that has an easy rhythm and flow that paints vivid pictures and lends itself to the natural pacing of oral storytelling.
Purpose of the Selection
Another important ingredient is to choose a read-aloud selection that fits with your intended purpose of the discussion or engagement with the text. It is important to be intentional with why you want the class to engage with this particular story or poem. What is the main take-away or wrestling point that you are hoping your listeners will be able to recognize? For example, I have used The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis to talk about the role of wonder in our lives and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt to talk about how we are defined by the place and time in which we live.
Each of these underlying elements can be found in the way the Master Teacher shared stories with his own listeners. He told stories that painted a memorable picture that his listeners would have been familiar with, and each story was told with a specific purpose in mind. He was inviting his listeners into a deeper engagement with truth and with one another.
- Read-aloud Book Title List (compiled by Aliel Cunningham). This list is collaborative. Please join our collaboration and add your favorite read-alouds.
- Other book lists: 1) for children and beginning level learners and. 2) for older and higher level learners.
- The Instructional Value of Digital Storytelling by Patricia McGee.
- Sarah Mackenzie author of The Read-Aloud Family also has her own website and podcast: Read-Aloud Revival.
What’s your perspective?
We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.
- What is a story that has always been memorable for you? What made it memorable?
- What are some themes or experiences that you think might resonate with the students in your classroom?
- How can reading aloud in a group change your experience with a text you usually read silently?
Aliel Cunningham, from West Virginia, is a writer and a teacher in the TESOL field who has taught both in the United States and in schools around the world. She enjoys good conversation, listening to hammer dulcimer music, and taking hikes in the mountains. She loves reading aloud to others and listening to read-alouds.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash