Why you’re never too old for a read-aloud

Last night, my daughter and I gathered a pile of books to prepare the serious business of choosing our next bedtime read-aloud.  It’s not a decision we make lightly; this is a book that will bring us together and linger in both our thoughts every night for a while.  It can’t be too scary or too sad.  (When we read THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, wonderful as it was, we had to read parts during the day, because who wants to wake up with those red, puffy, crying eyes?)  We settled on SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET by Elise Broach for right now and Rebecca Stead’s FIRST LIGHT is on deck in the book-cubby that hangs from her bed.

My daughter’s been reading voraciously on her own  for years, and occasionally when I mention to a parent that we read aloud every night, I see raised eyebrows. Why read aloud to a kid who’s been tackling Harry Potter on her own since first grade?   But I believe read-alouds have special powers.  They do. Powers to bring us together and create a shared reading experience that’s different from the one we have, even if we’re reading the same novel on our own, at the same time.

That’s why I’m a huge advocate of reading aloud to older students in schools, too.  When I taught 7th grade English, we always had a read-aloud book.  Sometimes, all my classes read the same title, but other times, they voted by class and came up with vastly different choices that suited their collective personalities. One group of classes chose OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper, SCRAWL by Mark Schulman, GIRL, STOLEN by April Henry, and BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu — four titles that really couldn’t be more different from one another. All four were perfect for the group that chose them.

Many older students who are struggling readers have fallen out of love with stories.  Ask a preschool class, “Who loves to read stories?”  Every hand goes up.  But ask that same question to a group of 5th graders, 7th graders, 9th graders…and you’ll see the numbers dwindle as the kids get older. Somewhere along the way, our kids who struggle have learned that reading is hard work — and often, hard work that they’re not especially good at. That makes it hard to love a story.

Unless….

Unless someone shares one with you aloud, with no strings attached, no test at the end, and that someone reads with expression and does all the voices.  Teachers of older students have the power to give stories back to struggling readers, to reintroduce books as a joy rather than a struggle.  It’s such a powerful thing to see.

A few years ago, a guidance counselor stopped by my 7th grade classroom one morning to let me know that one of my kids was having a particularly rough day and probably wouldn’t make it through class. When he arrived, I could tell he wasn’t himself, and he came up to me right away to tell me he was leaving for the study room so he wouldn’t get in trouble.

“I can write you a pass to go if you want,” I said, “but we’re reading CHAINS. And we’re at that good part. Do you want to give it a try and see how it goes?”

He nodded and went to his seat, and I kept an eye on him as I read. I watched the story change his afternoon. I watched his hands unclench and his face relax, and watched him leave in a better place than he was when he came. And it wasn’t my doing; it was Isabel and Curzon, I think, who made him feel like things might be okay, and it was those funny British soldier wives who made him laugh.  I saw him later in the day, too, and he still seemed to be doing all right.  I wasn’t surprised.  Stories stay with us.  They nurture us, long after the reading is through. That’s why you’re never too old for a read-aloud.

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26 Comments

  1. Posted March 7, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Yes, yes and yes. Beautiful, Kate.

  2. Posted March 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Back when I did a lot of work in urban schools, I’d sometimes find myself with a class so difficult, I almost gave up. Instead–I’d pull out a book and begin to read. It never failed. (And I’ve been known to still read aloud to my daughters, who are all in their 20’s!)

    • Posted March 7, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      It’s the best classroom management tool around, isn’t it? Thanks, Tricia!

  3. Posted March 7, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Great article. My Mom was a fourth and fifth grade teacher and always shared with my sister and me the benefits of reading aloud. Now we get to share them with our kids!!

    • Posted March 7, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      And you’ll share with your kids…and they’ll share with theirs… Love it!

  4. Linda Urban
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Exactly right. Love this.

  5. Posted March 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “Stories stay with us. They nurture us, long after the reading is through. That’s why you’re never too old for a read-aloud.”

    Yes!! Love this. Thank you for your post.

  6. Posted March 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Yes!! I totally agree. I still read every night with my 10-year-old daughter–we alternate reading pages out loud, and have for years. We’re finishing HOLES tonight, and she asked if she should bring GREENWITCH home from school so we could start together.

    That time together every night includes some of my favorite moments in the world. Last night I found myself hoping it would go on for years–that she wouldn’t suddenly decide she was “too old”. But then her school has read-aloud time every day, so to her it’s normal.

    I’m glad to see other parents do it too!

    • Posted March 7, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      HOLES was one of our favorite read-alouds. Have you two read WHEN YOU REACH ME yet? Amazing.

  7. Posted March 7, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU! My son is eight and is a very strong reader. I know he can read books on his own, but why…why would I willingly surrender that magic time together when we hunker down with a good book? In the cooler months we curl up in bed with a cup of tea. In the summer, we read outside in the tent with a flashlight and the sounds of the night to inspire us. Thank you, Kate, for the wonderful books you write and for what you do every day in your classroom.

    Hilary

    • Posted March 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      This… “why would I willingly surrender that magic time together…” is exactly what I meant. Thanks!

  8. Posted March 7, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Kate, I couldn’t agree more. We continued to read aloud to our boys all the way through high school. One time our younger son Wyatt was home ill. I think he was a junior in HS. After I had prepared soup and taken him the typical creature comforts, I asked, “Is there anything else that you’d like?”
    “Please, read to me, Mom.”
    “What would you like to hear?”
    “Edgar Allen Poe.”
    And so I sat and read and read and read until he eventually fell asleep.

    Today my husband and I always read aloud to one another while on vacation. If we’re driving in the car during the daytime we take turns driving and reading. Sure, sometimes we get books on tapes, and they’re great. But reading a book to one another is the best!

    • Posted March 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      I love this story, Lola – thanks!

  9. Posted March 7, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I loved the post!

    Today we celebrated World Read Aloud Day at school. I organized 22 teachers to visit 22 different classrooms (all different grade levels) to read to the kids. Our classroom was visited by the vice principal and an 8th grade teacher – the kids loved it! I read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to 8th graders and they read along with me – it made my day!

    Even after listening to three picture books in my classroom, the kids asked, “Are you going to read aloud to us today?” I had to oblige, so I read them a few chapters from Tuck Everlasting. It was nearly the perfect day!:)

    Happy reading and thank you!

    • Posted March 10, 2012 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      It sounds like a perfect day to me, too – glad you had a wonderful World Read Aloud Day!

  10. Posted March 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I just wrote about the power of reading aloud today, & agree with your beautiful words. How great are the words that we share with our children, our students, our spouses! That sharing means so much. I just read a blog post that mentioned reading aloud your new book, Eye of The Storm. It sounds very exciting. Thanks for encapsulating this for us!

  11. Posted March 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    My kids are 12 and 14 and we still read aloud every day. It’s such a beautiful thing to share a story all together, and I can’t say enough about what it means to us.

    • Posted March 10, 2012 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      I’m learning that there are many of us who believe in the power of continued read-alouds. Thanks!

  12. Posted March 9, 2012 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    Like others, I absolutely loved this post, both as a teacher and as a mom. I was glad that the Stenhouse blog led me to your post!

    • Posted March 10, 2012 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      Thank you! It’s nice to know that read-alouds still strike a chord with other parents & teachers, too.

  13. Posted March 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    My mom and I read aloud together through my middle school years. I think one of the last things we read aloud together was RILLA OF INGLESIDE… yes, we read the entire ANNE series together, except maybe for RAINBOW VALLEY!

    Now I read aloud every night with our 1st grader, and typically he’ll grab the book when we hit the end of a chapter and want to read more by himself after I say goodnight. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome!

    • Posted March 10, 2012 at 3:14 am | Permalink

      It’s the best, isn’t it? Thanks, Pam!

  14. Posted March 11, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Loved this. I have great memories of being read to when I was a middle school student, and of course, reading to my middle school literature classes is one of life’s little pleasures.

    • Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      It’s always a pleasure, isn’t it? And reading aloud, I discover new things – even if I’ve read a book before.

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