When I was in sixth grade, I had an amazing language arts teacher who utilized the workshop model of literacy. Twice a week, she would read aloud to us from our current read-aloud novel as a way to teach reading strategies. That’s how I fell in love with Roald Dahl. After she read us Matilda, I was smitten with Dahl’s prose and word play. While I don’t recall the other books she read aloud to us, I remember them being great choices. My year in sixth grade helped direct me towards reading and writing. My dual major in college was creative writing because of the fire that Mrs. Lacombe lit within my soul in the sixth grade.
Now, although she made it look easy because she had carefully chosen the read-aloud novels ahead of time, there is a fine art to choosing the right book to read aloud to a class. My teachers from other grades read aloud to the class just like Mrs. Lacombe did, but you see, because they didn’t carefully choose the novels they read aloud, I found myself usually quite disengaged and bored while they read. This was typically the time I got into a lot of trouble as well because I was so disinterested in the story being read aloud. Had those other teachers taken the time and put in the effort to carefully choose engaging and fun read-aloud novels, I might have started to enjoy reading at an earlier age. I also might not have gotten in quite so much trouble either. Regardless, the moral of the story is that you can’t just pick any old book to read aloud to a class; you have to choose one that is interesting, fun, well written, and engaging.
As I want my students to enjoy reading and see it is an adventurous experience, I make sure to take the time to carefully select just the right read-aloud novels to drive our Reader’s Workshop mini-lessons. I spend hours online researching engaging books that will also tie our curriculum together. I then read each book first to be sure I enjoy it because if I’m not into it, then it’s going to be super hard for me to sell it to the students. Once I choose a read-aloud book, I try it out on a class. I then seek feedback from the students. While I usually don’t have to change the books we read aloud to the students unless we are altering our curriculum, I did drop one book a few years ago because the students did not like it. It’s important that the students enjoy the book being read aloud to them. Throughout this process of selecting books and trying them out in the classroom, I’m always looking for new books as well.
As today was host to a Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, we began the period with our class read-aloud. Now, about four years ago, I was looking to try a new read-aloud book with the students as Sacagawea by Joseph Bruchac just wasn’t doing it for them anymore no matter how much I liked it and tried to sell it to them. The boys hated the book. So, I went on a quest to find a new read-aloud novel. After much searching and research, I decided to try three and then choose my favorite. While two of them were fine books and may have actually made good read-aloud options, the third selection, was by far the best choice. Not only was it one of the best books I had read in a while, the prose was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. The story was inspired by true events and took an alternative approach to storytelling. Instead of going with the typical third person approach or even the first person human method of telling a story, Katherine Applegate decided to tell her story from the perspective of a gorilla. After reading The One and Only Ivan, I knew that I had found a special book that would remain in my read-aloud library for years to come. Year in and year out, the students cite that book as being their favorite of our read-aloud texts. They enjoy the story and the way in which it is told. Ivan’s character is relatable and it’s easy to empathize with him and the other animals in the mall. As we are almost 200 pages into the book this year, the students are loving it. As I close the book to signify that we are transitioning into silent reading and conferences every Monday morning, shouts of “NOOOO!” can be heard for meters and meters. My students love this book. They enjoy learning about Ivan and his story. They laugh at his jokes and the cute way the author tries to get inside the mind of a gorilla. They just can’t get enough. They hang on my every word. One student even tried to find a copy of the book in the library about a week ago so that he could finish it on his own. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective of the situation, the library at my school does not have that particular title in stock.
So, not only are my students loving this book and its story, they are finding enjoyment in reading. Those students who began the year as reluctant readers are now voracious reading machines. They love reading and finding new books. They look forward to Mondays and Reader’s Workshop as much as I look forward to going to concerts. They love listening to our class read-aloud novel and then curling up with a good book and getting lost, for a few brief moments, in another world. Helping our students find their love of reading starts with our approach to teaching it. We need to offer students choice in the books they read, but we also need to choose interesting books to read-aloud to them as these are the vehicles by which we teach the critical reading strategies they will need to grow into mature and careful readers and thinkers. Choosing the right read-aloud novel requires much time and energy, but pays dividends at the end of the day when the right ones are read aloud to our students.