Thursday, November 24, 2011

Making Connections: Reading Aloud with a Purpose

Why create a Digital Talking Library?
“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” -- Richard C. Anderson, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Judith A. Scott, Ian A.G. Wilkinson, Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading (Champaign-Urbana, IL: Center for the Study of Reading, 1985), p. 23.
This is striking isn’t it? Read it again. Reading aloud is the single most important activity we can engage students in to build successful readers.
Reading aloud is a joy in my house. We read the same books over and over, we read new books, we read classics, we read chapter books, we read pictures books, we read from the Kindle App, we listen to books on CD from the library, we go to story hours.

But that’s my kids, what about the students I teach? What about my kids’ peers and friends?

Who is reading to them?

Considering this gap between those who know well the pleasure of listening to a story come to life as it is read aloud and those who have no such association, I decided that the middle school and high school students I work with would create a Digital Talking Library for an elementary school.  We would work to build a wide selection of audio books that these elementary students could learn to treasure much the way my own kids adore their books on CD.  To make the experience as rich as possible, we would not just record ourselves reading books, we would create a digital think aloud. We could model reading strategies as we read the books aloud.

We would make a Digital Talking Library so that the older students could model fluency, vocabulary and self-monitoring strategies.  In addition, by creating Think Alouds instead of Read Alouds our project would more closely align with fair use principles and copyright policies. We were creating this digital library as an instructional strategy. We weren’t doing it to replace commercial products.
I also knew that the secondary students needed help internalizing reading strategies. The fact was, most of these students also needed to work on their fluency, vocabulary, and self-monitoring strategies.  My readers were students who were, for the most part, reading well below grade level.

And as it turned out most of the "big kids" hadn't been read to much either.

When I brought in the stack of high-quality children’s literature for them to read aloud there was barely a glimmer of recognition. That’s right, I had a 7th grader look at a stack of fabulous picture books by Kevin Henkes, Cynthia Rylant, Bernard Waber, Vera Willaims, and Helen Oxenbury and tell me that he didn’t recognize any of them. His eyes were cast downward and he mumbled that he never read much as a kid. It hurt my heart to realize just how little he knew about the enjoyment of reading. It was then that I realized this project was going to be as valuable for my “big kids” as it would be for the kids that got to listen to the finished products.

How we went about creating a Digital Talking Library

To select books, I coordinated with an elementary literacy coach and an elementary classroom teacher. We brainstormed a list of children’s books that would make for excellent read alouds and excellent think alouds. We looked for books that most teachers would have copies of in their classroom libraries so that students would have a text to look at while listening to the books. Once I had 15-20 titles that seemed promising, I gathered hard copies up and brought them to my “big kids.”
The Language Arts teacher and I shared the project idea with the middle school and high school students. We discussed how good readers make connections while they are reading and described text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text connections. We gave several examples and then gave the kids a stack of Post-Its and let the kids at the pile of books.

I was definitely surprised at how difficult it was for students to make connections to the children’s books. This wasn’t because the texts were children’s books, it was because these high schoolers and middle schoolers definitely needed help being metacognitive readers. It took a great deal of prompting and prodding to get them to identify connections they could make to the text. It took more work to get the students to be able to elaborate on their connections in such a way that it would be meaningful for the elementary students who would be listening. For instance, when reading Dr. De Soto by William Steig one student expressed that he couldn't think of any connections. His teacher and I asked if he'd ever been to a doctor or a dentist. He was then able to say "This reminds me of when I went to the dentist." So then we asked him about how it feels to go to the dentist and what he'd been thinking about. Then he was able to elaborate, "This remindes me of how scared I was when I had to go to the dentist and I thought it was going to hurt." As we continued in this process, students were able to realize that they could be making connections as they read and that doing so is part of being a metacognitive reader.
 What didn’t surprise me and was another important piece of this project, was that the middle schoolers and high schoolers had lots of pronunciation and definition questions about the vocabulary contained in the picture books. A few of our English Language Learners worked hard to get the phrasing and the words right. I remember the pronunciation of “relative” was especially tricky in Cynthia Rylant’s The Relatives Came. One sweet 7th grader worked hard on getting the emphasis on the correct syllable. This project might be one of the first times anyone ever gave him feedback and a chance to hear his pronunciation versus the Standard English pronunciation.

We used Audacity (free audio editing and recorder) to record the students. It was great seeing how swiftly the students became accustomed to the ins and outs of Audacity. They quickly learned how to record, pause, playback and start a new track.  Something I look forward to as we revisit this project is having students do more of the editing themselves. I would love to assign one or two students to be editors and teach them how to merge tracks as well as add the introductory and concluding musical track we created using freeplaymusic.

Plans for more Digital Talking Libraries

I’m looking forward to building on our small Digital Talking Library again this year. The Language Arts teacher and I are working on finding some tighter content connections this time around. Since myths and folktales are a consistent part of the Language Arts curriculum, we want to target some fantastic children’s literature that highlights myths and folktales (The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner). Or, we might look at children’s literature that discusses content from other subject areas (The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and The Story of Abraham Lincoln by Patricia A. Pingry)

Having witnessed how much guidance students needed with making connections to the children’s books, we know we want to continue to use the read alouds as a chance to develop more reading strategies. We hope to create 10-15 digital think alouds for each of the following reading strategies: visualization, inference, questioning.

Finally, I am hoping to reach out to a wider group of elementary school teachers to find out the impact the project is having on the elementary school students. I was thrilled that the First Grade Teacher I partnered with had her students write thank you notes to the “big kids.” These notes were precious in their sincerity and frankness. It was a great authentic writing assignment for her students and powerful validation for my “big kids.”

Summing it all up:

  • All kids need more opportunities to hear stories read aloud and to read stories aloud
  • Adolescents who are reading below grade level have a great deal to gain from creating think alouds of children’s literature
  • Adolescents will self-monitor more often and more accurately when creating a read loud that will be used by real children
Great Resources about Reading Aloud:

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