On the Importance of Reading Aloud to Teens

The class is almost entirely silent and utterly rapt. Some students make sustained, unbroken eye contact with the teacher. Others take notes in writing or images. Others still put their heads on their desks and close their eyes to better listen and visualize.

nightWhat am I doing at the front of this room full of sophomores to have captured their attention so thoroughly? Simple: I’m reading aloud to them, out of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night.

I’ve recently started my student teaching at Newburyport High School, under the guidance of master teacher Wendy Crofts. One of Wendy’s practices that has particularly struck me over our first few weeks of working together, and one that I’ve adopted as I begin to take over her classes, is that of reading aloud.

Maybe it sounds like a cop out, a way to avoid designing and implementing a “real” lesson. But over the past few weeks I’ve witnessed firsthand the many powerful advantages of reading aloud to high schoolers:

  • Increase student engagement. Wow. It’s hard to express how much my students enjoy being read to. And I can relate — as a teen, I would beg my parents to read out loud to me. At one point during my reading of Night, I suggested we stop shortly before the end of a chapter to switch gears. My students’ response? “PLEASE can we finish?” This type of deep, personal engagement with a text — among a community of readers — is immeasurably valuable in ensuring that students have positive experiences with reading in high school.
  • Model close reading practices. This is another major benefit of this teaching strategy. Reading to my students gives me the opportunity to think aloud with them, pausing to comment on content, point out important textual features, ask questions of the text, from comprehension to higher order, and suggest annotations. Close reading is such an important skill to the discipline of ELA, but students, particularly underclassmen, won’t become natural or proficient at it without being instructed in it first.
  • Model pronunciation of vocabulary. Research by Margarita Calderón has shown that students need to be exposed to new vocabulary at least seven times before they can truly be said to have mastery over that word’s meaning. Correct oral usage and aural comprehension are major parts of that seven step process. My students, for example, have struggled with the pronunciation of key Night vocabulary like “Auschwitz.” Hearing these words read aloud multiple times reinforces students’ understanding of them through repetition.
  • 8435321969_c1eea0631a_oModel reading fluency. Popcorn reading, while often thought to increase reading fluency through practice, can have an adverse effect on fluency by increasing student anxiety. On the other hand, when I read aloud to my students, I am able to intentionally model fluent reading, making sure to speak slowly and clearly, pausing at or emphasizing certain moments as indicated by the text. Students are exposed to fluent reading in a manner that is, for them, completely low stakes, increasing their comprehension and engagement.
  • Differentiate for diverse learners. Some students may need to hear a text out loud in order to more fully comprehend it — for example, ELLs whose aural comprehension is better than their reading comprehension, students with processing difficulties, students with dyslexia, and students who are aural learners. Reading out loud is just one more way of differentiating instruction to reach every kind of learner.
  • Make complex, grade level texts more accessible. On a related note, the Common Core State Standards call for students to read complex, grade level texts. But some of these texts may be out of reach for students who are not reading at grade level; when I read challenging disciplinary texts, like Night, aloud to my students, I help to bring those texts within their grasp.

This, by the way, is by no means an exhaustive list of the benefits of reading out loud to teens. Do you or would you read aloud to your students?