When’s the last time you read aloud to your class? Or if you’re a coach or administrator, when’s the last time you walked by a classroom or dropped in when the teacher was reading aloud to her kids?
The fact is, many of us could probably say our read aloud sessions are few and far between. As the pressures of teaching have increased, and the test looms over the not-so-distant horizon this spring, anything that has the stench of “enjoyment” and that can’t be directly tied to an increase in test scores is abandoned in favor of activities that are.
But it’s not just during testing season that reading aloud books falls by the wayside. Too many people (teachers, administrators) feel if kids are listening to a book, or even interactively responding to a read aloud book, that rigorous instruction is not being provided. “You can’t just read for fun! There’s too much to do – skills must be drilled, worksheets must be worked upon, and circles must be bubbled.”
Recently, I had the good fortune to hear Katie Wood Ray speak at the National Reading Recovery Conference in Columbus, Ohio. She was a keynote speaker, talking in front of about 2,000 Reading Recovery certified (and those of us who were not certified) teachers about the power of reading aloud.
Kids deserve to hear the beauty of language spoken aloud, she said. They need to build a knowledge base of what good writing sounds like – otherwise, when we ask them, “Does that sound right?” they won’t know. Students need to practice reading their own writing aloud, which she practices herself when she writes professional books for teachers. It’s what makes books eminently readable – the sense that there’s a person behind the words, that it sounds like spoken language.
Katie led us in an exercise that made a big impression on me. First she posted on a large screen a memoir piece by Cynthia Rylant from “The Milestone Project” and she asked us to read the entire piece to ourselves. Then she read aloud, slowly, in her sweet Southern voice, and she let herself linger over some parts, pause at others, and luxuriate in the words. She then asked us to read the last paragraph to ourselves again, but this time to read it with her voice inside our heads, and as I did I realized that her voice was slowing me down, forcing me to slow at commas, stop abruptly at dashes, that before I’d quickly rushed through on my way to finishing the piece. Her voice echoed in my head, and I really did enjoy the piece, and connect with six-year-old Cynthia on her way to the school bus in the dark, much better than I had the first time.
The point, Katie says, is that when we read aloud, this is the gift we give our kids – to let them hear our voices inside their heads. When we listen to someone who really enjoys reading aloud it enhances our understanding of the characters and allows us to tie ourselves to them emotionally.
But for kids who don’t hear text read aloud, how will they know how it’s supposed to sound? How will they know how to write in ways that make their stories come alive to others? Will they connect as deeply to characters without the sounds of their dialogue echoing through their heads? Or without the sound of our read-aloud voices echoing as well?