Putting More In, Getting More Out of Read Alouds

Big goals, careful work produce academic and social growth

For Middle Level

In the past, "read aloud" meant ten minutes of my reading to the class followed by a few minutes of whole group student discussion. Most students had been uniformly excited about read-aloud time in the past, yet I suspected some students wished to feel less anxiety about or improve their participation in the post-reading discussion. I hoped to make it an activity in which all students participated as a means to addressing curricular content and building community.

Make the story come alive.
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Goals for students 
My read-aloud goals for this year's
students were: 
1) students will practice discussion skills, becoming more comfortable and skilled in whole-group discussion both in public speaking and active listening skills 
2) students will develop a greater range of ways of responding to literature 
3) students will develop a sense of collaborative learning.

Read-aloud talking pieceImproving class culture in two basic ways 
Knowing that productive, respectful discussion would be rooted in a healthy climate and strong self management skills, I took steps to improve class culture. I wanted students to be less aimless and chatty at the start of class, so I have been rigorous about meeting students at the door and greeting them individually, trying to have a brief one-to-one interaction with each student as class begins in order to build individual teacher-student relationships. Now, if I need to redirect someone, our interactions are quick and not inflammatory. I have fewer interventions because students know I see them as respected individuals. Daily relationship building has helped make this possible.

To focus on developing a positive culture around how we take care of one another, we created a Y-chart that helps students see how we all thought group work should look, feel, and sound. I hoped that students would ultimately appreciate the explicit expectations we had for one another.

On the chart, we decided to include: 
Look: eye contact, focus on work 
Sound: appropriate tone of voice, positive responses to my interventions, participation in discussions through various types of student contributions (questions, inferences, literal vs. abstract thinking, vocabulary), and student reflections of the effectiveness of various discussion structures 
Feel: inclusive behaviors, intellectual tolerance among students

I was impressed by students' willingness to brainstorm ideas. Although it seems an elementary procedure, some students seem to appreciate the reminders, and students always volunteer ideas.

Unexpected benefits 
Students took leadership in some directions I hadn't anticipated. For example, students suggested forms of discussion not on my Developmental Designs list! Some suggested using a chalk talk. I wrote a question on the board. After students silently reflected, they added their own ideas to the board and drew lines to illustrate connections among the ideas. Chalk talk became an effective tool for talking about visually rich essays.

As I gave leadership to students for planning and reflecting on read alouds, more reluctant speakers came forward.

When I looked at the data for one student in particular, whose vocabulary level and academic performance concerned me, I noticed that, over the fall, her read-aloud contributions grew in range and depth. Last year, she rarely spoke up, and when she did, it was to ask for definitions. She was reluctant to contribute to discussion due to shyness regarding her comprehension and the faster speed with which her peers interpreted text and verbalized ideas.

I held quick conferences with her to offer her a variety of strategies for participating in the read-aloud discussion. After a conference about how it was OK to offer an opinion at any point in a discussion, and how an opinion usually isn't right or wrong, she appeared to become a little more comfortable. She has begun to verbalize connections, express opinions, and even wonder aloud! Watching her also led me to make an adjustment for the whole group: After asking them a question, I started providing "think time" for my students before opening the discussion.

Having peers adopt the mantle of valuing varied voices and expecting all to speak changed the reluctant speaker's mode of participation. The implication for my students is that they grow more fully into complex thinkers in a more democratic and nurturing environment. I am very excited to see this potential avenue for growth.

Read aloudNotes deepen discussion 
I have documented read-aloud discussions. With these notes, I have been able to guide students, by reminding them of what they said, toward improving their discussions. I would like to have students use the notes to reflect on the content of the discussions as a group or perhaps to have individuals reflect on their own contributions.

Everybody wins 
Developing this teaching goal within the Developmental Designs 1 graduate credit process created a deep sense of accomplishment. I identified specific questions, goals, and outcomes, and then worked to realize my plan. Given the fast pace of each school day, the lack of public support for teachers, and the slow nature of deep growth, this has been valuable. Enjoying my students more makes me a happier and better teacher.

Rachel Hayashi teaches seventh and eighth graders at Heath School in Brookline, Massachusetts.