Why Is the Read-Aloud a Life-Changing Form of Civic Learning?

The following post was written by Pam Allyn and is part of an ongoing monthly series from the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

—Mem Fox

The academic reasons to read aloud are profound: building comprehension skills by modeling a deepening engagement with text, building fluency as the child listens to the smoothness of a mentor reader, building vocabulary and grammar skills as the child marinates in literary language. But the benefits of the read-aloud extend far beyond improvements in reading ability. They also have a powerful impact on the child’s social and emotional development and the ineffable benefits to the child’s human spirit.

What does the read-aloud do to benefit the child’s spirit? The read-aloud:

1. Builds empathy and understanding

Reading aloud gives children a lens through which to understand the experiences of others. The characters who become dear to us collectively in the warm embrace of the read-aloud are characters who, through the voice of the reader, become alive to our children. They are in the room with us. We can witness the other side of a story or the internal struggle of a beloved character. Authors such as Mo Willems, Charlotte Zolotow, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Kwame Alexander all create a tenderly reverberating world of empathy and compassion, of knowledge building, of how we are all human in this great big complex world we live in.

2. Scaffolds cultural engagement

A story in literary or informational form is honoring the experiences and lives of a whole world of people living in a variety of cultural and linguistic contexts. The read-aloud is powerful when it can be a way to bridge divides and also to illuminate differences that are compelling and wonderful to the listener. Let us select books to read aloud that represent a wide range of characters and cultures, languages and dialects. Host a virtual read-aloud to share across cultures. Don’t worry if everyone doesn’t understand every word. Hearing stories read aloud from different cultures and languages gives a child the powerful sense of all the diversity in the world. Great writers give us exquisite examples of how the world is full of colors and sizes and sounds that all add up to our humanity, and great writers also write specifically from their own cultural perspectives and language to share the details that make us profoundly and beautifully different. Beyond all else is the fact that reading aloud is a powerful complement to the oral tradition around story sharing.

The sound of the human voice passing along stories has a deep tradition across many cultures, and the presence of the read-aloud in our classroom is a way to honor that.

3. Cultivates the power of deep listening

Reading aloud builds listening skills in an unparalleled way. These skills extend far beyond the world of reading. Research of children’s reading habits conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that reading aloud to kids every day will put them a year ahead of kids who are not read aloud to daily, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. Listening deeply means we are not only encouraging answers in response to preordained questions, but also that we are encouraging listening to the sound of an author who conveys his or her particular style, that we are listening to the unique dialogue characters speak, that we are listening to tone and rhythm and the sheer delight of literary sound.

4. Creates excitement for the beauty of vocabulary and grammar

Reading a Walt Whitman poem to a group of fourth graders is a powerful immersion in complex grammar and vocabulary. They don’t have to understand every word or even most lines to soak up the sophistication of his text. The cadence and intention of his ideas carry them along as a boat carrying its passengers, riding the high seas boldly and bravely.

As I Walk These Broad, Majestic Days

As I walk these broad, majestic days of peace,

(For the war, the struggle of blood finish’d, wherein, O terrific Ideal!

Against vast odds, having gloriously won,

Now thou stridest on–yet perhaps in time toward denser wars,

Perhaps to engage in time in still more dreadful contests, dangers,

Longer campaigns and crises, labors beyond all others;)

–As I walk solitary, unattended,

Around me I hear that eclat of the world–politics, produce,

The announcements of recognized things–science,

The approved growth of cities, and the spread of inventions.

There are certainly complex words and phrases in this poem, but the overall theme and the soaring rhythm and even a small amount of background knowledge will give our students the thrill of a lifetime. Your voice conveying that excitement and fearlessness is what helps them to tackle difficult grammar and vocabulary in their own independent reading lives.

5. Fuels happiness

Happiness really matters. Ask any parent what they most want for their child and happiness is one of the top two answers (good health is the other). Yet when we talk about school and about teaching, we talk about outcomes to the exclusion of happiness. We talk about test scores and formative results of portfolios and improvements, all of which most certainly matter, but at the end of the day, for me as a mother and as an educator, the smile matters most. I think we truly underestimate the importance of happiness in school. I have sometimes said that the only assessment we actually need would be to ask children: “Were you happy in school today?” Their response would tell us everything we need to know, from the quality of the teaching to the quality of the physical environment to the interaction of peers.

The read-aloud fuels pure happiness. When done in a comfortable setting with a wonderful book, the entire community is lifted up, and the children are energized, excited, included, and joyous. All the conditions for great learning are met.

P.S. Visit my organization litworld.org to find out how you can join us for World Read-Aloud Day!

Making the Grade

This post is written by guest writer Courtney Waugh. 

Recently, a student came to me asking what she could do to get her “B” to an “A,” because she would receive cash from her grandparents if she had an “A.” I chuckled because I remembered doing the same thing as child. If I got the “good grade,” my parents would buy me something. After chuckling, though, a realization hit about what grades truly represent.

As a student, I just went for the “A” and collected my reward, but as a teacher, I question what that “A” really means. Grades are often used in education because that is what we are used to. Grades, as we know them, date back to the nineteenth century. In school, I, like many others, focused on the letter grade because that determined whether I was “smart” or “dumb.” I did not focus on improving or growing as a learner; I focused on the task of getting an “A.” I have realized I need to think about what grades are promoting and measuring in my classroom. More importantly, I need to think about what grades are doing to my students.

As an early career teacher, I have talked with more experienced teachers about my grading woes and many stressed how grades are beneficial for providing feedback to students and parents. However, research has proven that grades are not an effective form of feedback and lower a student’s self-efficacy. Even if teachers provide written/oral feedback along with the grade, students are so consumed with the letter that they cannot focus on the other feedback, resulting in little to no growth on future assignments. I remember getting a graded paper, quickly glancing at comments while flipping to the rubric, focusing on my letter grade, and then telling my parents I had no idea why I received a “C.” The same thing happens in my own classroom. I had a student who struggled with writing, but put everything he had into an argument paper and was excited to turn it in. However, he did not meet the “grade level” expectations and received a low score. I will never forget his face as he saw his grade and crumpled up the paper. Let’s face it, that letter grade isn’t providing valuable information and is taking away from the feedback that actually matters.

I have many responsibilities as a teacher, so it makes sense to want a quick way to evaluate what my students have learned. However, is this what I am actually evaluating with grades? If two students received an “A,” does that mean they both were engaged in the learning process and showed growth throughout the unit? What about when a transfer student comes to my class with a “D” from his /her prior school–does this tell me their strengths, weaknesses, or interests as a writer? Do I know what that teacher included in the grade? No, it tells me that this student is “unsatisfactory” and labels this child as struggling before I even meet him/her. While this method may be “quicker,” I have to ask myself, am I doing what is in the best interest of my students?

I hate to admit it, but I, like many others, have used grades as a motivation tool. Brophy discusses the fact that using extrinsic motivators such as grades can encourage an intensity in effort, but does not encourage thoughtful and quality work. So, what should I value more: using grades to get assignments turned in or receiving work that shows critical and thoughtful thinking? I used to take points off for assignments being late, but students continued to turn assignments in late, and my grade may or may not have been an accurate measurement of their growth in the content. Yet, I continued to use this in hope that it would magically work rather than figure out the true meaning behind why students were not turning work in on time. While students do need to learn responsibility and time management skills, are grades the place for it?

I would love to shout, “Let’s get rid of grades and focus on the enjoyment of learning!” I know it will not be this easy, because grading is a longstanding structure in education, but I believe it is worth a conversation. We can discuss with each other how grades could represent fair and accurate measures of student growth and learning. We could create and encourage individualized feedback for students and parents that focus on growth and a high-expectation curriculum rather than a letter. We can all help take a step in the right direction by creating grades that encourage students to become critical thinkers, productive citizens, and as our standards strongly address, college- and career-ready.

No matter what, one thing is for certain: our students deserve to be more than a letter.

Courtney Waugh teaches 8th grade in Bloomington, Illinois, and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Reading at Illinois State University. She is passionate about providing students with a high-expectation curriculum that encourages them to appreciate learning.

Fostering Dialogue in the Classroom: Lessons Learned While Teaching Cultural Literacy

This post is written by member Ruth Li.

In teaching, I aim to cultivate in students an understanding of literacy as a form of civic participation. Yet in my daily interactions with students, creating a balance between engagement and control has been a constant challenge.

To invite a space for generative, yet genuine intellectual inquiry, it is important to balance guidance and freedom in equilibrium: to offer a foundation for ideas, yet open up multiple possible pathways and positions for students to pursue. In navigating these tensions, I have constructed journal topics based on essential questions that are sufficiently broad to allow a variety of entry points as well as backgrounds and experiences; for example, while teaching Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch: “In what ways do our cultures affect who we are?”

In a similar sense, while experimenting with various formats for discussion prompts and procedures, I have found that planning and posing each question for the class to discuss in turn can be stifling in its structure. On the other hand, providing a few potential issues for exploration can be liberating in enabling learners to delve into unexpected topics and ponder unique perspectives. As a discussion flows organically, the most rewarding moments have arisen when students posed original questions to each other in a dynamic dialogue, blurring the lines between the roles of teacher and student. In opening up opinions and weaving new webs of ideas and insights rather than following a predetermined path, learners are able to attain agency and contribute constructively to the conversation.

Students are, after all, social creatures, agentive and interactive beings, whose combined consciousness coalesces into constellations of complexity. In contrast with a framework of passive reception, in the Freirean sense, learners transform their own experience as much as they are transformed by it. In a process of actively constructing knowledge through collaboration in the Piagetian sense, students navigate the negotiations between the self and the other as pluralities proliferate, ideas intersect, and contentions collide. Dialogue, therefore, liberates the pedagogical praxis.

To engage and empower our own and others’ voices, to welcome a diversity of perspectives within the context of civil discourse, to encourage civic participation in the Ciceronian ideal of democracy for which Hirsch has argued, to resist conclusiveness while opening up to the complexities of experience: these are the aims toward which we as citizens must continue to live and strive in the classroom and in the world.

Ruth Li has taught high school English for the past three years in charter schools in Utah and Florida. She will join the Ph.D. program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the fall.

Entry Points: Moving Students toward Literacy

This post is by member Lauren Nizol.

What do students truly need from us to engage in literacy? As an academic interventionist of students who have difficulty engaging in reading and writing, I am often reflecting on this question.

While unpacking my room this year, I stumbled across senior pictures and notes from students. Reading over the notes of gratitude reminded me of just how important it is to be present as an educator.

By present, I mean our students need us to connect with them. And by connections, I don’t necessarily mean that students and teachers know each other’s deep, dark secrets or even the nuances of our personal lives. Students need to know they are supported and cared for when walking into their teacher’s room. When I consider just how vulnerable and risky it is for some of my students to be readers and writers, this notion of presence is not just good practice—it’s practically nonnegotiable when it comes to literacy instruction.

An Invitation

Being a strong presence with my students has shown me just how far this one simple factor can take a struggling reader or writer. Low skill levels can actually appear as apathy, disruption, and avoidance on the surface, and especially if this relationship is nonexistent. Through building this rapport, I have been able to determine which students need my targeted and intentional support. Furthermore, this rapport has led me to determine what kind of support my students need.

One thing I’ve observed is that many underperforming students do not feel a part of the literacies going on in our classrooms. Literacy is a mammoth exchange of ideas, and we assume that many of our students know how to enter this conversation by the time they reach the secondary level. Yet, many of these students need an invitation to the conversation because reading and writing can be very intimidating for students who feel as if they don’t belong in an English classroom. That is why taking extra efforts at the start of the year to build and nurture positive connections between students and teachers is so vital.

Entry Points

While instruction and curriculum are critical parts of the classroom, establishing a positive classroom environment is ultimately what shapes instruction and curriculum. If the environment is not ideal, it doesn’t matter how competent, well-learned, or experienced a teacher is—students who struggle need to have a connection to their teacher. When students feel connected to their teachers and peers, they are more willing to take risks as readers and writers. The first week is always a rush, but building community in week one is the best way to connect with students who are disengaged with school.

Greeting students by name at the door is a simple entry point. At the start of the year, I took attendance while students entered my room. This prevented any mispronunciation mishaps and gave me a chance to ask them how their day was going. New teachers are often told to “stand firm” the first day. Yet, this can be intimidating for kids who don’t know how to “do school.” A warm welcome is your first entry point toward establishing a positive relationship.

Creating small groups rather than rows also helps students feel comfortable for speaking and listening tasks. Students are more willing to speak and offer ideas to the group when they feel recognized by the group. I often mixed up the seating chart, so it was the norm that students were exposed to many perspectives and voices. During instructional time, this arrangement allowed for strategies like “think-pair-share” to take root. In addition, by the time we reached a class discussion of a text, students were much more ready to share their ideas.

Small-group seating also supported the reading and writing routines that I wanted to establish during workshop time. I found that many students were hesitant to ask for support or clarification after a traditional “sit and get” lecture. Yet, when I shifted away from lectures to mini-lessons, I saw a marked increase in engagement.

After the lesson, we transitioned to workshop time, and I circulated around my classroom checking in with students for understanding and creating a comfortable space to ask questions. For disengaged students, creating such a space is the most important entry point to boost their achievement. In addition, when struggling readers and writers hear their peers asking for support, they are more likely to ask as well. Normalizing support and fostering a classroom environment where students feel comfortable expressing that they need help is an entry point that will move all readers and writers, not just those who are disengaged, struggling, or at risk.

Conclusion

At our opening professional development, students from our district presented data from a student survey about staff-student relationships. Though students expressed how knowing their teachers well was important, many explained that a simple smile or greeting goes a long way. One student even said, “We don’t need you going on about your life for 20 minutes. We just need to know you care about us.”

Working with students who resist reading and writing may be the biggest challenge some teachers will face in their career—I know it was for me. However, by growing a supportive relationship with their students, teachers can invite disengaged readers and writers into the conversation. Creating a comfortable space and environment for learning is the driving factor in student growth and achievement. And it all starts with a smile and warm greeting.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge, and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in history, English, and secondary education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Master’s in English education at Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions. 

Why Banning Books Doesn’t Work

Complaints about the use of various technological tools in classrooms are similar to objections to the use of certain books. FEAR—fear that the tool or book will taint the student, prevent them from learning as the complainers imagine they should learn, teach them something real-world that they don’t want them to learn, cause them to think beyond the lesson into reality.

“Seymour Papert, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, was an influential theorist and passionate advocate of student-centered learning…He championed the idea that the best way to learn in the post-internet world of interactive communication is literally by constructing something: making, doing, exploring, experimenting, failing, analyzing the failures, and trying again.”

In English language arts classes, we use texts to give students a playing field where they can start with what they know from experience, and while looking in on the experiences of characters in a text, begin to construct and understand another’s world through the very same methods that Papert and many others championed.

That’s reason one of why banning doesn’t work. Students deprived of texts that will enable them to construct their learning rather than have it forced down their throats to be memorized, don’t learn and, worse, don’t learn how to learn.

Reason two is that we humans are curious folks and every time a book has been removed from the classroom with the students’ knowledge, that book has become the most popular book in town—students want to read it to see why it was banned.

Reason three is that students are usually way more resilient and knowledgeable than their parents know—they can handle, they often need, the texts some parents want to tear out of their hands.

Reason four is that our democracy was designed for a knowledgeable electorate and having someone dictate what we can or cannot learn does not produce such an electorate.

Next week is Banned Books Week,  a time during the year when we stop to honor books that should be read and disparage why someone might take them away. This year, in particular, we honor The Students’ Right to Read.