I need your help in teasing out reading instruction in middle school. When we are modeling and reading aloud with a mentor text, do we use shorter texts rather than longer novels? If we read aloud a novel, I worry that approach takes so much time away from students actually reading. Thank you in advance for your insight.
Let’s consider why a teacher might read to students.
First, reading to infants is a powerful way of bonding. Studies show that when parents/caretakers read often to their children during their first year of life, they end up closer emotionally. The children, for example, are more likely to talk to the adults about their feelings (Sato & Uchiyama, 2012). One suspects that parents who hold their babies close and talk to them for extended periods of time using adult language might have the same impact… and, yet, reading a book to a baby is a wonderful and easy way for parents to accomplish that.
That probably won’t buy you much in middle school teaching, but the images it arouses are kind of cute!
Second, reading to young children has been found to positively impact oral language development (Karrass & Braugart-Riehur, 2005; NELP, 2006; Westerlund & Lagerberg, 2008). This impact has been found all the way through early childhood, and I know of some studies that show that even older kids can pick up the occasional vocabulary word from being read to.
That makes sense, since books expose kids to words they wouldn’t hear otherwise. I assume that can even happen with middle-schoolers—as long as the teacher is reading a text that introduces unknown (to the students) words. (There is also a small amount of weak research showing an impact of shared reading on listening comprehension—particularly with younger students).
Despite the ubiquitous advice to read to kids, there is really no research showing the practice has much direct impact on reading. It does improve oral language, and that may (or may not) translate to improvement in reading—but that has yet to be proven.
Importantly, there are studies showing that reading to primary grade kids is not as powerful as having those students reading to adults (Senechal, 2004). One wonders why parents aren’t told to listen to their children’s reading! Your suspicions/concerns seem well in line with this research.
Third, reading can be an efficient way of sharing information that might not be otherwise accessible. This makes sense when there is only one text and it is important to get the information to everyone, or when the text wouldn’t be otherwise understandable. For instance, the principal might issue a memo explaining an upcoming change in school entry rules or lunchroom procedures. Or, maybe there are some directions in a teacher’s guide that need to be shared with kids. No research seems needed on that one.
This kind of oral reading obviously will be occasional and brief—in middle school or anywhere else.
Fourth, when teaching particular skills, reading to students can provide useful modeling. For example, when teaching oral reading fluency, many schemes present a text aloud to students once or twice, and then the students give it a spin. Or, another example: you want to teach students to use a particular comprehension strategy, and you have them try it as a listening strategy first to see how it works. You mention a mentor text, so perhaps you are reading a complex text to the kids to reveal some aspect of text construction—how an author organizes the information, or uses literary devices, or creates suspense—that the kids will then look for in the text they are trying to read.
This kind of modeling makes sense at any age (and there is a small amount of research supporting it with fluency, at least), but this reading tends to be brief, relative to what the students will be asked to do, and it needs to be targeted on a particular skill or text feature.
Thus, in the fluency example, the teacher might read a sentence, paragraph, or page, and then the students try to read and reread that piece. Or, with the comprehension strategy, an entire class period might be devoted to demonstrating the strategy through listening, but then kids would likely practice that strategy through their own reading over the next couple of weeks (in other words, the teacher reading is proportionally small).
Fifth, reading to kids may be motivational in some way. This motivational power may interest kids in a particular story, article, book, or topic. I remember that from my own teaching days. I would read a book to kids, and then some of them would like to take a run at it themselves. I know some teachers who use read-alouds with first chapters as a form of advertising the books to the students. Nothing wrong with any of that.
Sixth, reading to kids can be fun. It just adds a bit of pleasure to the school day for teacher and student.
What does that mean to your middle school classroom? I would suggest it means minimizing the teacher reading, while maximizing student reading. It is very sensible to share critical information with kids, but that will be very occasional and brief. Modeling is sensible, but that needs to be very targeted and brief, as well, relative to the student reading. And, reading something to your kids, just for fun, can be a good idea, too, once in a while. Follow your instincts, reading a novel to middle school kids is not a sensible use of time.
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