To Raise a Reader

(I wrote this post last week for our families on my school blog.)

If parents want to raise a reader, someone who engages in reading regularly and voluntarily, they should read aloud to their children. Put away the flashcards and take down the sticker charts for number of books read. Make reading aloud every day a priority.

As a parent myself, I realize that this task can be sometimes difficult. There have been evenings when reading aloud didn’t happen in our home due to work or other obligations. However, we have made it a ritual, as regular as brushing our teeth.

The science that supports reading aloud to children, both at home and in school, is clear. Next are some of the biggest benefits, although this list is not exhaustive.

Reading aloud to children:

  • Increases vocabulary acquisition
  • Improves reading comprehension and fluency
  • Increases engagement in reading
  • Broadens their imaginations
  • Improves student writing
  • Fosters relationships between the adult and child
  • Develops listening and speaking skills
  • Facilitates meaningful conversations

Two books reference much of the research on reading aloud: In Defense of Read-Aloud by Dr. Steven L. Layne and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Trelease’s resource is in its 7th edition now and should be in the home of every family. Some hospitals will send The Read-Aloud Handbook home with new parents. It was a book I relied on when I taught elementary school.

BUT WHAT IF I HAVEN’T READ ALOUD TO MY CHILD UP UNTIL NOW?

This feeling is called “retroactive guilt.” Educators feel the same way when we discover a new strategy or method and then think about all of the students we had in the past who did not have access to this better practice. The best thing to do is to start reading aloud now and make it a habit. For a list of titles that will engage kids at every age level, go to Scholastic’s list of 100 Best Read-Aloud Books.

MY STUDENTS ARE NOT IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. WILL THEY ENJOY BEING READ ALOUD TO BY ME?

Yes. Tweens and teens may not admit it, as adolescents seem hard-wired to resist any and all direction from the adults in their lives. But they will enjoy it as long as they find it interesting and they have some say in the book. The best read-aloud books are typically plot-driven. They can’t wait to see what will happen next. Consider these lists of possible titles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Older students also enjoy pictures books; they can even read them aloud to their younger siblings. Audiobooks to listen to on smartphones and in the car is another option.

BUYING BOOKS CAN GET EXPENSIVE. HOW CAN I KEEP THE COSTS DOWN?

Two words: Public library. Mineral Point has an excellent public library with helpful and knowledgeable staff. There is an entire floor dedicated to children’s literature. Library staff offers a storytime for little ones every Monday morning at 10 A.M. If transportation is an issue, consider utilizing Overdrive, a digital library of eBooks and audiobooks. Patrons can check out titles and download them on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Overdrive also has dedicated pages for kids and teens.

Reading aloud is an easy and enjoyable activity for any family hoping to raise a reader. At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, some Mineral Point Elementary School faculty heard children’s author Mem Fox speak about the importance of reading aloud. Her ten commandments for reading aloud are applicable to parents and educators.

A Thousand Stories

Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read. – Mem Fox

This is just one of many quotes from Mem Fox’s webpage titled Ten Read-Aloud Commandments. She is the author of several children’s books as well as Reading Magic, a guide for teachers and parents about reading aloud to kids. Mem Fox has several great resources on her website, include audio clips of some of her stories as well as resources for both parents and teachers. It is definitely worth a visit.

This quote also reminds me of when my son came into this world six years ago. Still teaching at the time, I was very aware of how important it was to read aloud to kids, regardless of age. I immediately planned to apply this same philosophy with my new family.

One of the first books I purchased for my son was Your Favorite Seuss: A Baker’s Dozen By The One and Only Dr. Seuss. Once we got home from the hospital, I spent a lot of my time reading and rereading these stories to him. I know he didn’t understand the words, but I think just hearing my voice started to create a bond between the two of us. I also enjoyed reading aloud poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Both of these anthologies are still in his book collection in his room.

Once my son got older and started to respond to what I was reading to him, we discovered lots of board books that he enjoyed. Some of his favorites included If You Were My Bunny by Kate McMullan, Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I still laugh when I remember how my son used to try and “pinch” the mouse with his fingers in Goodnight Moon, thinking the illustration was real. Once my wife went back to her classroom, I took some time as well to be home with our new addition. We read Mama’s Home by Paul Vos Benkowski every day while we waited for my wife to pull into the driveway.

Two years later, my daughter joined our family. Nothing changed in our routine of reading aloud every day to our kids. Many of the same stories my son enjoyed as a toddler my daughter enjoyed too.

When the books at home became memorized from the repeated readings, we started making more frequent visits to our public library. The kids observed how we went about the collections and selected books. Pretty soon they were following our lead. Now they are the ones that lead the way through the library.

I come from a privileged background. I grew up around books. I have received lots of information about teaching and reading, in both my post-secondary education and in my later trainings. As a principal, I feel it is my obligation to share this knowledge with everyone I come across. A thousand stories – have I read this many to my children yet? I think so, but I had a head start. It is never too late to start sharing great literature with your kids. What are you waiting for? They are only young once.

Top Ten Tips for Reading Aloud

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1. Schedule It

Reading aloud shouldn’t be left to that few minutes before lunch. Richard Allington, in his ASCD article Every Child, Every Day, states that students should listen to a fluent adult read aloud every day; it is an essential element of reading instruction in classrooms. As a principal, I try to model this practice. My teachers schedule me in to read aloud in their classrooms for half hour time slots, anywhere from twice a week to once every two weeks.

2. Be Intentional

Classroom time is important, so my visits should be connected to learning. What helps are the learning targets posted on the board. As I visit classrooms, I can see the concepts being taught. This information gives me ideas for books that would work well with what students are studying. For example, poetry is a focus at 4th grade, which led me to read aloud Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

3. Start Small

The first book I share usually rhymes, has a beat, is a captivating story and/or is short. These are the “can’t miss” stories, books that are guaranteed to capture the students’ attention. Titles that come to mind include Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin and Neville by Norman Juster at the primary level, and Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco and The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg for intermediate grades.

4. Assess Your Listeners

Teachers know that every class they inherit is different from year to year. To get a read on my new listeners, I pay attention to how the students respond as I read aloud to them. I use formative assessments to alter my instruction for learning. A great resource about formative assessment is Checking for Understanding by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Strategies they recommend include noticing nonverbal cues like puzzled looks and boredom, as well as having student “Think-Pair-Share” during the story.

5. Plan Ahead

Classroom success comes to those prepared. For me, I don’t read aloud a book to a classroom until I have read it myself. This is the best way to determine if it will make a good read aloud. Did I have a hard time putting the book down? Would I recommend it to others after I finished it? Was it character or story driven? If I don’t have time to do this, I often refer to The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It has great recommendations for read alouds as well as research and tips for supporting this practice. I have also nixed books I had high hopes for, but realized it is more of a read alone story upon review.

6. Build Stamina

Unfortunately, some kids enter school without a lot of stories read aloud to them. This is evident when we assess our five year olds and too many cannot even recognize sounds and letters. To expect kindergarteners to sit through twenty minutes of James and the Giant Peach on the first day of school may be unrealistic. Once I have Started Small (#3), I recognize their growing abilities to listen to stories with specific comments such as, “Wow, you sat for ten whole minutes while I read you A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting!”. For more on building reading stamina, check out The Daily Five by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser.

7. Pick the Right Text

Just because a book is an award winner doesn’t mean it will make a good read aloud. In fact, many of my favorites don’t have this recognition. I get recommendations from colleagues, local bookstores and on Goodreads. These experts help me find stories that have short chapters, limited dialogue, interesting plots, and characters kids can relate to. I also read aloud nonfiction and informational text. Two of my favorites are Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz and Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon.

8. Set Up the Story

In Strategies That Work, Stephanie Harvey describes the process of introducing the think-aloud (a guided version of reading aloud). The idea is to get students thinking during the story, not just at the end. Reading a book cold doesn’t activate students prior knowledge, which is necessary for getting the most out of it. I start a story by first reading the title and the author’s name. Next, I might ask an open ended question related to the book or do a picture walk and make predictions. This modeling creates a bridge to developing independent readers.

9. End as You Began

As I read, I give opportunities for students to predict what may happen next, ponder a question, or make an interesting observation. Once completed, we go back to how we started. For example, when I have read aloud The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, the students and I first discussed what “courage” means. I collected their responses and started the story. As I read, I asked students to identify examples of courage and marked that text with a Post-it note. At the end, we took our notes and revised our previous definition as a whole group. Other fun ways to wrap things up are writing a book review and doing book talks on stories in the same genre or by the same author.

10. Stick With It

No doubt there are days when I feel like I don’t have time to get into classrooms and read. That is why scheduling it in my calendar is so critical. I also remind myself of all the benefits: Kids are introduced to authors and stories that might not otherwise have been exposed to, both students and teachers see how much I value literature, I am able to stay current on what kids are reading, and I connect with students in a positive and fun way. I cannot think of many things I do as a principal that are more important than sharing myself as a reader in school.

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