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 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.