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The Magic of the Read-Aloud

By Heather Miller
 | Aug 21, 2018

The Magic of Read AloudThe picture book read-aloud is one of the hallmarks of the early childhood and elementary classroom. As children gather on the rug around their teacher, they experience one of the most basic pleasures of being human: the love of a good story. Of course, they profit in other ways; their vocabulary, understanding of syntax, and grasp of story structure all expand with every new picture book.

Not every teacher loves reading aloud, however. In my work in schools, I often observe teachers reading to children with a lack of confidence and enthusiasm.

Fortunately, teachers and parents who wish to improve as dramatic readers now have an unprecedented array of resources to support them. So, whether you’re a teacher interested in improving your read-aloud skills or a teacher wishing to connect your students’ parents with great resources to support literacy acquisition, web-based read-alouds and audiobooks have you covered.

Mastering the art of dramatic reading

The first step in reading aloud well is genuinely liking the material. Think back to your own favorite picture books from childhood and be sure to include them in your curriculum. Then, go on a reading tour at your local library or bookseller. Librarians are outstanding—and underused—resources for recommendations of great read-alouds.

Once you have a bundle of picture books on your desk, read each one to yourself. Notice what delights you. If a picture book leaves you cold, set it aside. Align the picture books you like best with your curriculum. For example, the legendary picture book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak may be ideal for identifying character traits or for comparing and contrasting settings. Identifying the specific reading skills each picture book supports will allow you to match the best read-aloud to each unit of instruction.

When it comes to mastering the art of reading aloud, learn from the best. Thanks to Storyline Online, you can watch first-rate comedic and dramatic actors read aloud picture books. The service is free and available on YouTube.

The following read-alouds offer a great starting point. Each one lasts about five minutes.

  • Harry the Dirty Dog read by Betty White
  • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch read by Héctor Elizondo
  • Rent Party Jazz by Viola Davis

As you watch each read-aloud, notice the following characteristics of great dramatic readers:

  • Enthusiasm: The reader is brimming with enthusiasm for the story.
  • Wit and warmth: Just like a great conversationalist, a good dramatic reader is both friendly and fun.
  • Story knowledge: The reader knows the story so well that she can help her audience notice any aspect of it, whether it be humorous, touching, or painful. And yet, the reader seems to be enjoying the story for the first time.
  • Commitment: The actors on Storyline convince us that nothing is more important to them than the picture book in their hands.
  • Pacing: Notice how the actors do not rush through their reading. They let the natural pace of the story dictate the speed at which they read.

When we mimic the enthusiasm, commitment, pacing, story knowledge, and wit and warmth displayed by these exemplary readers, we are on our way to learning how to delight young children with our own read-alouds. In doing so, we will enrich our entire ELA curriculum.

Although audiobooks lack the visual component of Storyline’s read-alouds, they still have much to offer to the ELA classroom. The lack of visual context forces children to rely entirely on their language processing skills to make sense of the story. Some of the greatest actors in history have narrated audiobooks of classic children’s literature. From fairy tales to fables to chapter books, there are audiobook masterpieces to enjoy with your young students.

Connecting parents to online resources

Just as not every teacher is an enthusiastic dramatic reader, many parents are reluctant to read aloud to their children. Sometimes this is because they were not read to as children. Other times it is because they are English language learners who lack confidence in their reading or pronunciation skills. Either way, both Storyline’s videos and audiobooks can help fill this gap. Provide links to the Storyline videos and audiobooks that you use in class and recommend that parents play them at home.

The best children’s literature only gets better with repeated listening, reading, and viewing. With each rereading, children benefit from increased exposures to diverse sentence structures, vocabularies, and plots. The best scenario is having parent and child actively watch or listen together and discuss afterward. However, when that is not possible, listening to an audiobook while drawing at the kitchen table or watching a Storyline video is a fantastic activity—and a more engaging alternative to TV or videogames. Over time, you’ll notice an improvement in your students’ love of stories and in their linguistic power to tell them.

Heather Miller, a member of ILA since 2018, is the author of Prime Time Parenting: The Two-Hour-a-Day Secret to Raising Great Kids (Hachette USA/ September 2018) and the director of LePage-Miller, Inc., an education and professional development firm in New York City.

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