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?