Looking Back @ Books: Read Alouds & Free Reading

Looking Back @ Books: Read-Alouds & Free ReadingSchool Librarians love books and tend to be prolific readers. One reason we became School Librarians was to share our joy of reading with others. Any elementary School Librarian can tell you that an effective way to ‘hook’ students into reading is to read a story aloud—young students never seem to tire of hearing read-alouds. Many folks may think that once students move beyond the elementary years, their fascination with read-alouds dissipates, but I can assure you that is far from true!

Older students enjoy read-alouds! 

When I returned to education after a ‘mom’ hiatus I taught in an alternative high school. It was truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The 15-19 year-old students in my school were “at-risk” of not graduating high school for a variety of reasons that made for poor performance in the regular classroom:

  • Poor reading or math skills, some as low as 2nd grade
  • Jobs to help support their family that kept them up late or missing days
  • Extended stay in a hospital for severe illness/accident or in rehab for addiction to drugs/alcohol
  • Lack of interest in or depression about the regular classroom, including social trauma

I learned early on that many of these kids had severely dysfunctional parents and many had never had a parent read to them as a child. One of their happiest memories was when an elementary school teacher or librarian read aloud to them.  In our school, each teacher had an Advisory of 8-10 students that we met with daily, and I wanted to introduce my Advisory to children’s books my own children had enjoyed and that these students had never heard.

The first book I read aloud was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, an early Dr. Seuss book, and I felt the theme of the story—perseverance in spite of criticism and intimidation—would inspire these kids. It was such a hit that I reread it each year to my Advisory, and even though some had heard the story before (we had our Advisory kids until they graduated) they loved hearing it again. I also read aloud other topical Dr. Seuss and Caldecott titles, almost all of which generated fascinating discussions among my high school students. This experience convinced me that we are never too old to appreciate the simplified presentation of complex issues in children’s books, and I used them later on during my years as a middle school librarian, to equal success.

A particular middle school read-aloud success was our Multicultural Cinderella lesson. 6g students study plot early in the school year, and this collaborative co-taught lesson is designed to illustrate plot elements using the original Perrault Cinderella story as an exemplar. The 6g ELA Teacher introduces each plot element, and I, the School Librarian, read the associated story segment. While most students are familiar enough with Cinderella, courtesy of Disney, many have never heard the original story. Though abbreviated for time, the read-aloud had students rapt with attention! For the follow up activity students choose a multicultural Cinderella picture book on their table and, in pairs, read it to compare and contrast with the original story. The group discussion after compare/contrast emphasized to me that, not only do students enjoy being read to, but the combination of read-aloud and self-reading increases comprehension of concepts(If you’re interested, this lesson is available in my TPT store, No Sweat Library Lessons.)

Read-alouds are also particularly powerful with ESL/ELL students, who need to hear English spoken in a fluid manner to fully grasp the rhythm and flow of their new language, and also with very low-reading-level SpEd students who struggle with comprehension.

About Books in Classrooms

In my middle school our ELA teachers all have classroom libraries, which are handy for “in the moment” book selection, but they just can’t compare to a good School Library. No matter how spacious a classroom, a teacher can only stock a few hundred books for her students— commendable collection—but our middle school library has 9,000 current Fiction booksand mine is the smallest MS in my district! My ELA teachers understand the difference, so that is why they schedule regular library visits every other week throughout the school year.

About Free Reading

My ELA teachers and I discovered that 10 minutes of reading at the start of each class period is not really “free reading”; it’s a sponge activity. If students have never had free reading time on a regular basis, then giving them 10 minutes per day to read is a great way to begin, but it can’t be the end goal. Ten minutes isn’t long enough to truly become engaged in a story: prolific readers want to read longer, and reluctant readers just want to get it done, often jumping from one book to another and never finishing any of them.

To really build readers we give students a 30-minute time period every week to become immersed in a story. When our ELA teachers bring their students to the library every other week for book return/checkout I rarely have a lesson, and when I do it’s no more than 10 minutes of the 50-minute period. Students always have 7-10 minutes to browse and then they sit down and read for the rest of the class period. During the last 10-15 minutes of the period I go to a couple tables at a time, signaling students it’s their turn to check out. This is a more orderly checkout and preserves the quiet reading atmosphere.

Our students have time to become involved in the stories so they continue to read on their own and finish their books faster. Some students decide after a few minutes they don’t like the book they’ve chosen, and they still have time to find a new one and get started reading it. The ELA teachers also provide a 30-minute reading time in the classroom during the interim week between library visits. The success of this strategy became evident to us with improved word recognition and reading comprehension, and we significantly raised State Reading Test Scores.

Interestingly, one year our district pushed for 10-minutes-a-day reading, and before the end of the first semester our ELA teachers realized it was a disaster, so we abandoned it and went back to our tried-and-true method with greater success. No matter the grade level you teach, you can engage students with the power of reading using a combination of read-alouds and free reading time!

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