The importance of reading aloud to teenagers

I teach a novel study with every year group, from 7-12. Novels, after poetry and drama, are the backbone of literature. Despite once being shunned by the elite as being trashy and trite, the novel is very much considered a valuable art form today. Unfortunately not everyone enjoys reading novels – especially, it seems, teenagers. Don’t get me wrong, there are many teens who LOVE to lose themselves in a good book, but there is likely equal numbers (or more?) who don’t.

Over the years I have realised that setting a novel for students to read on their own, quietly in class or at home, is just unrealistic. Most students find it really hard, simply because reading a novel is not something they do often. I’ve found that reading a novel aloud to students actually engages them more in deep and critical thinking. We have some wonderful conversations about characters, motivations, style, plot etc. It was great to read on the English teacher’s Association facebook page that a lot of other teachers are beginning to use this strategy as well. Nearly always the experience of being read to engages students more deeply in the narrative and encourages them to want to read other novels in the series, or of a similar genre/style.

Here are a few tips that work for me when reading aloud to teenagers:

– SPACE: I must admit that I’m a little unconventional in how I approach our read aloud sessions, my students sit together in a large circle and I read to them. The ideal space is more flexible than my square room with 30 square tables and plastic chairs, one with comfortable furnishings etc… but reality is that tables moved to the edges of the room and chairs pulled into a circle works well enough. This allows my students to be inadvertent role models for each other – if most students are focusing their attention on their books, so will the rest. It also makes our discussions more intimate.

– TEACHER VOICE: I always read to them. I ask students who want to read to have a go, and those who are confident and competent readers will put their hands up and have a go. Primarily, though, this is a listening, following and thinking activity. It’s obvious, but make your voice interesting to listen to – put on different voices for characters. There’s lots of research that has gone into the impact of reading aloud to children, it has massively positive impact on learning and success. I reckon it’s just as relevant to teens as children.

– VISUALISING: I talk to my students about ‘turning on the little video in their brains’ (a strategy stolen from my former HT) to help them visualise what is happening in the narrative. We like to talk about what everyone is imagining, especially when not too much description is given of a character or setting. I use questions like, ‘What colour hair did he have?’, ‘What was the lighting like?’ ‘Was it rainy or sunny?’, ‘What did (character) look like when (character) did (so and so)?’ Of course, these questions are always followed up with every teacher’s favourite question, ‘Why?’ I love asking that question.

– COMPREHENSION STRATEGIES: I am a big fan of the Super Six Comprehension Strategies. I introduce these slowly to my students – one each lesson. I talk to them about the importance of understanding what you read, really ‘getting it’ to the point that you can critique it or have a long conversation with someone about it. The Super Six are: monitoring, visualising, questioning, predicting, summarising and making connections. I use a lot of post-it notes based activities to assist students in mastering these strategies. You can read more about these activities on the SSCS PDF here.

– LEARNING MATRIX: This sounds more fancy than what it is. It’s basically a table that we fill in as a class. Most often when we set a novel as a text, we have a focus question, theme, concept or task in mind. It’s very difficult for students to focus on a theme/question/concept/task at the same time as trying to understand and appreciate the narrative they are reading – especially when it is a long or dense novel. With my students we break down our focus into four or five parts, and then as we read we take notes (as a class) on what we have identified that is relevant to each part. So, in year 10 my students are reading ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ to help them answer the driving question, ‘Why do English teachers value literature?’ They have to write a personal essay answering the question, with reference to their teacher’s favourite book and why she might love it – yes, that’s right, Catcher is my favourite novel. In order to help them make connections between the novel and their task, we use a table with headings like ‘narrative techniques’, ‘significant moments’, ‘literary quality’, ‘life lessons’. I allocate a student a scribe and he/she copies our class constructed notes onto an A3 table. This will become a reference point for my students when they write their essay. This isn’t a ground-breaking, innovative strategy, but it does help my students acknowledge that they are thinking and learning as they read.

So those are some of the main strategies I use to support successful reading aloud in my classes. I find that the first couple of chapters of a novel can be quite a turn off for teens – especially with classic novels – and it definitely helps to read these together as a group and discuss how the author is developing character, setting and plot in these important initial stages of the narrative. Maybe you might only want to read aloud the first few chapters, or like others suggested on the ETA fb page, get an audio book and have students listen to key passages and then quietly read others. What are your thoughts on reading aloud to teens? Do you love it or loathe it? Do you have some cool strategies you can share with me to make my students’ experience of being read to even better?



12 thoughts on “The importance of reading aloud to teenagers

  1. This is absolute gold, Bianca. I’ve had success with a very similar model, the major difference being that I get each student in the circle to read at least one sentence – more if they are confident – whereas I read a page or so. Some people mislabel the approach of reading with students as teacher-centric, but I’ve found it gets great results and students really engage with the text.

    • Wow! Your blog post is awesome – I’ll be using your ideas in the future, especially reading the sentence wrong to see if they are listening! My husband does that all the time with his Kindy class 🙂

  2. I loved reading aloud to kids at about 2-3 grade levels ahead of where they were currently reading on their own. Which means that I had to group them by ability, but I did it happily. I also did this as a lunchtime activity where kids got their lunches, then came to me. It was optional, but I sold it as a super-cool thing and most kids bought in because in out school, we’d made it cool to be smart and I was reading TOUGH books to them.

    Two of my favorites (because the kids loved them so much) were “The Red Badge of Courage,” a US Civil War story. Most people cringe when they remember having to read it, but aloud, the kids LOVED it, discussing what was going on. Having me pause — on their choice — to talk about something. 7th/8th grades

    The second that we truly loved was “The Ugly American,” by Lederer and Burdick. It’s a 1958 story, set in “Sarkan,” a very thinly-veiled Vietanam, that warns us that soon, the US will get into a war in Southeast Asia that they will not be able to win. We talk geography, history, politics, culture, and basically learn all the ways we can inadvertently be jerks in the world. 8th grade

    All the books were graphic, wordy, and hard. And they always asked me to choose more books for them! Thanks for posting this! It absolutely fits in a PBL classroom!

    • Thanks for this awesome reply! It is SOO true that it depends on the novel, it needs to be something a bit out of the ordinary, or what they wouldn’t likely read on their own. Mine are LOVING The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s taking ages to read it cos we have so much to talk about, haha! Read aloud is definitely part of my PBL classroom 🙂

  3. This is a great strategy Bianca. I’m sure your students enjoy the experience of being read to. I love listening to audiobooks (it helps to pass the commute time and wish it were longer!) and especially enjoy it when the author reads. Perhaps listening to some author-read books could be another way of engaging students.

  4. Interesting post Bianca. I remember when I first started teaching I would read aloud the WHOLE NOVEL. I actually lost my voice in my first few weeks. With the belief that if I had read it all to them that the students had automatically followed. In recent years, this seems to have been abandoned. Now students are often left to their own accord (I no longer teach much English). However, I think that something is lost.
    I like your focus on reading out sections. I also like your purpose of having a purpose for reading out loud. The reality is that students are often only judged on their responses and whatever helps them grapple with the text that allows them to gain a deeper insight can only be a good thing.
    I believe that the reason that it isn’t done more is that it is a fine line between being interesting and being boring when reading aloud and opening up commentary – it is about balance. This is why I think some teachers jump off the bandwagon.
    I really think that it is one of those things that will never be stopped talking about.

    • Hi Aaron,
      I do hope that people continue to read aloud to their children and students. It’s so fun and young people really learn a lot about expression when they hear someone read them 🙂

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  7. I agree. I love how the students get really involved in the novel as a group, and it can be very soothing to those who are troubled to be immersed in a wonderful novel or story and it can open up a whole new world to them, as it does to those who are blessed and naturally read a lot.

    • Thanks Viv! I hadn’t thought about young people going through tough times would enjoy being read to, especially those who may not have the skills to read to themselves. Really great point!

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