Teaching Content with Read Alouds

In my last post Why I Hate Abridged Audiobooks, I expressed my frustration in listening to an abridged version of The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley. The author, a New Orleans native, astutely described the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Although a few of the details are for adults’ eyes and ears only due to their graphic nature, this event in our history should be a topic for discussion in our classrooms, especially with what just occurred on the East Coast.

With such a big focus on literacy and mathematics today, how do teachers keep science and social studies a part of the instructional day? I hear stories about content being taken out of the classroom because there just isn’t enough time anymore. While I can understand and appreciate all that is being asked of us as public educators, I don’t think these different subject areas should be mutually exclusive. In fact, I have long felt that they all can be taught in an integrated framework in order for each to be more relevant and to help students see the connections.


I have tried to apply this concept when I visited classrooms in the past to read aloud. Spurred by Brinkley’s writing, I found some age appropriate books that would help me convey the concepts of weather and change (I have shared or plan to share the following texts with second graders).

Hurricanes by Seymour Simon

With topics such as this weather event, I feel it is important to front load students’ knowledge base. This book, like many of Seymour Simon’s other nonfiction titles, combines easy-to-read text with real photos of hurricanes. There are many other books about the same subject, but few have this level of authenticity in their visuals. I may not read aloud the whole book, but I will share many of the sections in order to prepare the students for the next story.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

Upon first reading this book, I thought it was only a story about a person’s love for reading. However, if you read the back flap of this book, you will discover that the author was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. He spent his time after the hurricane distributing books to kids while they waited for their schools to reopen. With this knowledge plus the information from the previous book, students developed a better understanding of the story. When viewing the illustrations of Morris being blown around by a storm, plus the despair he felt afterward, we discussed why the author wrote this book and how it came to be through Mr. Joyce’s experiences. As a bonus, I showed the class the eBook version of this story on the iPad (I point out that this was a movie first, then an eBook before it finally took paper form). I also like the eBook because of the great audio and video affects that depict what the storm might have been like.

A Storm Called Katrina by Myron Uhlberg

This is a realistic fiction everybody book. It is about one family that did not evacuate before Hurricane Katrina hit and then follows their journey out of the devastation. When I compare this fictional story to the real accounts described in The Great Deluge, it appeared the author did his homework before writing this book for kids. What is also nice is the list of resources he referenced on the last page. It is a great example for kids to see how fiction and nonfiction can support each other.

Throughout all the titles I shared, I targeted key points to stop and reflect on. Sometimes I would share my own thinking out loud. Other times I would ask an open-ended question and have students turn and talk about it. If a student had a question, we spent time responding to it and asking follow up questions. Were we reading directly from a social studies textbook, I don’t believe that our conversations would have been nearly as engaging and thought-provoking.

I don’t believe kids should be only hearing great language from the books I share. A lot more of their instructional time should be spent reading and writing about topics of their own interest. This type of thematic study could occur within a Daily Five literacy framework. The mini lessons could be the opportunity to share these read alouds as mentor texts, with the intent of pointing out both content information and important literary elements from the text. Students could take that knowledge to their Read to Self, Read with a Partner, Work on Writing, Listen to Reading and Word Work areas, where they would find leveled fiction and nonfiction reading materials related to hurricanes and other weather events. The teacher could take things even further and turn the Work Work station into a science activity, such as making Tornados In a Bottle while labeling the parts of this weather event on a separate sheet.

To wrap things up, I plan to do a shared expository writing activity summarizing what we learned about hurricanes, within the overarching concept of weather and change. The hardest about this is, as a principal, I am not able to stay in the classroom and see these activities connect with everything else during the school day. How do you connect reading aloud and content instruction within your literacy block? Please share in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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