More on Reading Novels to Teens

  • academic vocabulary auding
  • 30 April, 2017

            Recently, I received a letter from a middle school teacher who was being pressured to read novels to his students. He questioned the appropriateness of the practice given the great amount of time that takes and the learning needs of his students. He wanted to get my opinion or to find out what research had to say about the practice.

            In response, I explained that there were definitely some benefits to be derived from reading to kids; though in fairness almost all of that research has been done with preschoolers (with a handful of additional studies conducted in the primary grades). That means we are going to generalize from studies of 4-year-olds to determine the appropriate instruction for 14-year-olds. However, even with that, none of those studies have ever reported that reading to kids improves the kids’ reading ability (though such shared reading does improve vocabulary—at least when measured with the kinds of vocabulary tests that are not particularly related to reading).

            I didn’t rule out the practice of reading to teens altogether, including doing so sometimes “just for fun,” but I did suggest that the time could be better spent, and that reading to teens should be kept brief and targeted (that is, purposeful).

            There was much heated and opinionated response to that research-informed advice. So much so, that I thought it would be worth a little further analysis.

            How long does it take to read a novel to students? Obviously there are a lot of factors that would determine the time, but given that adults typically read aloud between 150-175 words per minute, a good estimate might be that it would take roughly 16 hours of class time. I estimated that with the idea that the book would be about the length and challenge level of The Scarlett Letter (kind of an average length).

            The teacher had asked about “novels,” so let’s say he meant two… then it would take 32 hours of class time to read those two books to the students. Of course, many of the angry responses pointed out that kids enjoyed being read to and that reading novels to them is a good way to get engagement. Fair enough, but I suspect that would mean it would take the teacher somewhat longer to read these novels than I have estimated, since an engaging presentation of the texts would require added teacher explanation and student discussion. My time estimates then are a bit short since they only count the reading itself. But, for the sake of argument, let’s stay with what I’ve come up with so far, as conservative as it is.

            Some of the respondents pointed out that it wasn’t just reading to kids that engaged them, but having them reading self-selected texts on their own was important, too. None of them gave any time estimates for that activity, but over the years what I think is most commonly recommended is about 20 minutes of this kind of reading 3-5 times per week. Let’s go with the low end of this suggestion… which would mean kids would be doing their “on your own” independent reading for about one hour per week (or 36 in a school year) in the classroom.

            English classes vary in length, but I’ll do my calculations on the basis of a 45 minute English class—longer than some, shorter than others. Plugging all these estimates into this schedule, you end up with kids spending 42 days per year doing nothing but listening to teacher reading, and another 48 days per year doing their home reading at school.

            Where does that get us? It leaves teachers with only 67.5 hours per year to teach reading comprehension and literary interpretation, composition, grammar/usage/mechanics/spelling, literature, and oral language. Not much!

            For those who complained about my unwillingness to devote roughly 25% of the English program to reading novels to secondary students (heck, 4-year-olds who are read to do better on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test), I would point out a few facts:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress estimates that about 1/3 of American high school students are prepared to do college reading by the time they graduate high school
  • That 60% of students entering college require remedial coursework
  • And, that 80% of the professors who teach freshmen and sophomores indicate that those students are unable to read the complex texts required.

            It might be easier—it might even be more fun—to read to kids than to have them trying to make sense of a novel through their own reading efforts, but don’t confuse that kind of reading to kids with teaching them to read. (And, sending them off during class time to do self-selected reading, instead of the typically-more-demanding reading of texts in the English curriculum with the scaffolding and accountability a good teacher brings to the mix, won’t get the job done either).

            A less pleasant way to think about the implications of this issue: Kids who are reading self-selected texts on their own need books and safe, quiet places to sit, but they don’t need teachers. And, these days there are spectacular recordings available of novels read by skilled actors with trained voices. No need for certificated teachers to hit the on/off switch on recorded books. If this is what English teaching has devolved to, then these calcuations suggest that we could easily employ 50% fewer English teachers (since those are arguing so vociferously for 50% less English instruction than districts have budgeted).

            Teaching matters. Even with the cacophony of responses, I still can’t think of a single reason why a secondary teacher would read a complete novel to his/her students, and I have given many reasons for not doing so. In the original posting, I explained that there were places for reading to kids within the secondary curriculum, but they should be brief and they should be targeted. After considerable additional thought, I agree with myself.   


See what others have to say about this topic.

Debby Briscoe
Apr 30, 2017 09:48 PM

I am commenting from the perspective of an "older" teacher who treasures memories of sixth and seventh grades.
In the early 1970's, I attended school in Central Virginia, near Longwood University. I had a "fresh out of college" teacher who was young and enthusiastic. Most of the teachers were beginners as it was quite rural, and I'm sure the pay was well below average. Those teachers - Miss Byrnes- in particular changed my life.
The teachers developed stations after lunch. A student could visit Teacher X's room to study art, including art appreciation, drawing, pottery, etc. Teacher Y might have a physical fitness station, etc. Miss Byrnes had "read aloud" area.
I was an avid reader. I read every book in the library in our small town. However, I always attended "read aloud" because I loved it. I listened to her read 80 Days Around the World, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jane Eyre, and the book I loved the most ( and still love to this day) - Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Of course I learned math, science, social studies, and took multiple standardized tests. But I remember the read alouds more than anything else.
I recently ran into a restaurant manager who had been in my 7th grade class. The first thing she said was, "I remember when you read Ghost Cadet to us. I loved that book so much. When my brother went to VMI, I walked all over the campus hoping to see him (the Confederate ghost)."
Many of our students aren't exposed to literacy at home or are not motivated to deeply explore books, libraries, or any type of reading material. Teachers can open the doors.
Test results and getting the job done efficiently are super important- but sometimes it's just as important to "stop and smell the roses" and remember why we become literate in the first place.

Timothy Shanahan
May 01, 2017 06:55 AM

Thanks, Debby. Beautiful story, and what you describe is idyllic; great for the kids who are really good at literacy in the first place... not so wonderful for those who may love being read to, but who can't read very well for themselves. Of course, literacy levels didn't matter much in the 1970s in central Virginia because there were lots of jobs that didn't require literacy or college, and if kids struggled, perhaps they could join the military. A teacher who read to kids instead of teaching them to read wasn't necessarily putting them at a disadvantage. Very different from today's situation. Schools were just getting desegregated in Virginia during those years, so the school experiences of African American kids probably weren't much like what you describe and immigration was just starting to perk up--but not so much in your part of the country. Thus, the schools had a fairly narrow responsibility when you were at school. It might be important to stop and smell the roses, but I fear that if we continue to maintain 1970 literacy levels in the U.S., it won't be roses that our kids are smelling.


Faith Gerber
May 05, 2017 02:06 AM

It seems like the principle you describe is similar to one I've heard about fishing: "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for one day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll feed himself for many days to come." The same can be said of reading. If we only read for our students, they will never need to do it for themselves. It is FAR more work on the teacher's part to teach them to grapple with complex text (this is where short stories are very useful), but in the end they will be able to read for themselves. The students with significant reading difficulties can access the audio-books and keep up with everyone else.

I taught grades 3-8 for twenty years before going back to school for my Master's degree in literacy. I have changed my nostalgic views on the hours I spent reading aloud (especially to my middle school students). While it does provide plenty of material to reminisce about later, it provides very little opportunity for improving students' reading skills. It is the literary equivalent of feeding a teenager from a jar of Gerber baby food (and not ONE of them would tolerate that insult!). I was also a huge supporter of having students read at their "instructional level"--another conviction that has been slain by current research. We must provide the necessary scaffolding and guide them deep into that "Zone of Proximal Development" (Vygotsky) beyond their comfort zone, where they can grow into truly independent readers.

Apr 05, 2018 05:47 PM

I have mixed feelings on all of this. I think a teacher I had in high school worked through this in a way I felt appropriate at the time. We would read some together to discuss the beginning of the chapter (we really were reading The Scarlet Letter) and then we would read the rest as homework for discussion the next day. This lead to a mix of reading the novel to us, yet not taking up 30+ hours of class time for that sole purpose. While I don’t think that reading aloud to older students can hurt, it also is not something that should take up so much class time that is impedes learning and discussion of the content being read. Like said in the post, I don’t see this as a way to improve reading, but to bring the class together and initiate discussions/foster comprehension. I will begin my first year as a middle school language arts teacher and have thought for many hours how to incorporate reading together without using popcorn reading and other methods of that nature. I think this can be a fun way to read as a class without humiliating students. I would also ask that they may follow along, what do you think? Of course all of these methods rely on the fact that all students have their own copy of the novel. Thank you for this information.

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