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!

21 Responses

  1. I always loved being read to! and also it’s extremely valuable for modeling especially for younger kids but also for older kids.

    • “Everything in moderation” is an age old adage. Read alouds are incorporated not only in the classroom but in libraries every where. Read alouds allow students and teachers to interact on another level. Teachers model fluent reading practices, comprehension through guided reading, and opportunities to develop listening skills and vocabulary development, in context, as another component of discussion and comprehension. Read alouds inconjunction with independent reading with purpose and clearly identified expectations for the reading assignment will lead to a varied reading experience and incorporate more children in the procees of reading as reading skill are fostered and developed.

      • This post properly defines the roles of dependent and independent reading. However, Mr. Peck has valid points re: our over-reliance on read-alouds, apologies to the Jim Trelease fan club.

        Mr. Peck’s chief rationale for independent student reading was vocabulary acquisition. As a reading specialist, I would certainly agree with the author that reading along with the teacher does not allow the student time to access context clues for unknown vocabulary or use resources, e.g. a dictionary. Thus, vocabulary development suffers.

        Teachers struggle with how to teach reading comprehension. The implicit-instruction teachers hope that reading out loud for and with the students really will teach comprehension through some form of reading osmosis. Not true. Our job as teachers is to equip students to do the tough job or reading comprehension on their own. The post I am responding to puts this mandate into perspective in the instructional setting.

        Check out my blog on the seven research-based reading comprehension strategies with multiple links at to find strategies that will help turn the task of reading comprehension over to students.

  2. Did I notice an inconsistency in Mr. Peck’s interview giving audio books a pass?

  3. You said it perfectly! Well done.

  4. I read a whole short book to my students over today (Pearl Verses the World – which is poetry, and since we have poem in your pocket tomorrow, seemed appropriate) and I had kids crying at it!

    We’ve had similar reactions to the other books we’ve read – five children raced to reserve the sequels to Clementine, a couple of students read The Lord of the Rings after reading The Hobbit, Number the Stars turned other students to reading about World War Two. Without reading them out loud, it would be unlikely they would ever come across these books.

    Of course I’m preaching to the choir here 🙂

  5. As you know, reading aloud is staple in my classroom. Years ago I heard Peck speak very harshly of teachers, but since then I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of his books so I sort of forgot until this. Most unfortunate, I’d say. Thanks for this post.

  6. […] For more on what I read aloud in my classroom and how, here are a bunch of those posts.  Even better, go read this talented 6th grade teacher’s response to Peck. […]

  7. Ditto me on reading aloud. Huzzah for a well-written response!

  8. Bless you!!

    I’m an elementary school librarian and yesterday when a class came in, they all started BEGGING to check out Matilda. Turned out the teacher was reading it to them and they were on FIRE to read it or anything else by Roald Dahl. I loved it.

  9. There are many quasi-experimental studies that give us quantifiable evidence that listening skills are a vital part of the reading process. Listening comprehension improves vocabulary because students hear the word pronounced and used in context. No list of words required.

  10. Terrific response!

  11. I agree I think read alouds are vital. I would read the first chapter or so to students last year when I worked as a Library Media Specialist. It is amazing how that book and author would be checked out and gone from the shelves. I also think it exposes students to genres they wouldn’t normally read on their own. After reading a bit of a book they find they like that genre and will read more. I also think it is a way to expose students to books that are more difficult then what they are able to read on their own. I love to that it exposes students to books that wouldn’t normally read in their free time.

  12. With all due respect, Mr. Peck, who I’ve met and adore, is wrong.

    In urban districts we are BEGGING parents (and teachers) to read aloud to students. Why? Because as a college recruiter I can tell you that a lot of children aren’t hearing advanced language at home and need to hear it spoken in context. Because studies have proven that literacy rates are HIGHER among students who are read to at least 15 minutes a day.

    I have even advocated that parents who are too busy to read to their children, use audio books as a substitute and listen together.

    When my daughter was younger she couldn’t keep up with her much older sister’s reading habits – so we supplemented with reading aloud and audios. As a result, she was testing post-high school in reading and auditory comprehension. Her vocab was sky high.

    Yes – she needed to “see” the words to spell them correctly, but I was also accused of writing her (mispelled) homework papers because her language was so advanced. A quick quiz by the teacher revealed that, in fact, she was ahead of her peers in that respect and we received an apology.

    Mr. Peck – I only wish MORE people would read aloud to children. It would solve two literacy issues at the same time (the adults and the youth they are tasked to raise).

  13. I was completely incensed by Richard Peck. I was mad enough to shun his work…but I will take the high road now, like you did, and separate his often brilliant and charming writing from his ignorant knowledge of education.

  14. […] Author scolding teachers for reading books aloud? […]

  15. I have parents now that I taught in 5th grade and they ask if I still read aloud and if I am reading certain books they loved. I cant check out at the grocery store or Walmart without a former student remembering a read aloud or asking what I am reading now. Read Aloud is essential and your rebuttal was perfect. Thanks!

  16. […] I adore Richard Peck I agree with The Reading Zone, he is really off the mark.   Leave a […]

  17. If you can read aloud effectively, it often builds rapport with students. They come to associate the teacher with the feelings they had as they listened to that wonderful story. I have fond memories of many teachers reading a great book to the class, yet I don’t remember many stories out of the textbook. I do think it’s important to know these Top Ten Reading Comprehension Strategies:

  18. […] An Author Scolding Teachers for Reading Books Aloud?  from Sarah Mulhern at The Reading Zone […]

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