An Author Scolding Teachers for Reading Books Aloud?

I love Horn Books monthly email, Notes from the Horn Book.  This month’s issue has been causing quite a stir on Twitter, though.  I admit to being a part of that stir, but the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

Richard Peck has a fantastic interview in the latest issue, Five questions for Richard Peck. Having heard Peck speak, I was looking forward to reading his latest thoughts.  However, my eyebrows were definitely raised when I read this:

You talk a lot with young readers. What are they telling you?

Things they didn’t mean to. Over and over they’re telling me that the books I wrote for them to read are being read to them by their teachers. And hearing a story read doesn’t seem to expand their vocabularies. If a teacher is going to take limited classroom time in reading aloud (and even giving away the ending), the least she could do is hand out a list of vocabulary from the reading to be looked up and learned.

Wait a minute.  WHAT?

No offense to Mr. Peck, a former high school teacher and prolific author, but I have to disagree with this.  Vehemently.

Read alouds are a vital and integral part of my reading workshop.  We read approximately 10 books each year as a class, and I have the only copy.  With school budgets in such dire straits, there is no way I would be able to get enough copies for my students to read along.  I have 100 students!  There are almost 700 students in my school.  It’s not even remotely possible.  If I waited for enough copies for each student to read along with me, we would read only the few class sets available in school.  The class sets we have are all wonderful books, but I want to be able to expose my students to more books, more genres, more authors.

Read alouds in my class are introduced as “fun”.  What does that mean?  For the students, their only responsibility is to listen.  Without fail they begin participating in classroom discussions after listening to only a few chapters.  But just because they are fun doesn’t mean students aren’t learning.  I model think alouds, comprehension strategies, and good reading habits.  I don’t hand out a vocabulary list, but we define words as we come to them.  We talk about author word choice.  Students become familiar with vital vocabulary.

What would happen if I handed out a vocabulary list along with read alouds and asked the students to define the words for homework?  Nothing.  Very few of them would do it.  And it would turn them off to reading/listening to the book.  Read alouds are a vital part of my class but they are only one tool in my arsenal.  I do use whole-class novels and literature circles/book clubs and students are responsible for vocabulary when we do that.  But we don’t hand adults a vocabulary assignment when they purchase a book at the book store.  So I don’t hand my students a vocabulary list for our read alouds.  I do everything possible to turn my students on to reading and into lifelong readers.  For me, that means read alouds are fun and not busy work.

I am hoping that Mr. Peck is being misunderstood in his interview.  Hopefully, he is referring to teachers who read aloud to students and do no other reading with them.  Those teachers tend to be the ones who read aloud because they think their students can’t or won’t read on their own.  Read alouds need to be part of a wider reading initiative, not a way to put students down.  When books are read aloud to make life easier for the teacher it isn’t right.  But when books are read aloud as part of the curriculum as a way to turn students on to reading, teachers need to be praised!

My own anecdotal evidence shows me that read alouds work.  Students become invested in the story and will even go out and do research on their own.  When my class read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains last year, they became obsessed with the Revolutionary War and the part that slaves played. They did research on their own in order to be able to debate during our class discussions! They had learned about the Revolutionary War in 5th grade, but it was in one ear and out the other. But when it was something they were learning about for the joy of learning (and because they wanted to), they suddenly wanted to go above and beyond to learn more! Months later, they were making connections to Chains, citing references they never would have remembered if we just read a textbook.

Inevitably, read alouds lead to social reading.  And social reading leads to kids picking up more books.  Could we ask for anything better?

Read alouds work.

I’ve seen it in my classroom. Thousands of teachers see it in their own classrooms daily. Jim Trelease has the research to back it up.

Sorry Mr. Peck.  But we will have to agree to disagree here!

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