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January 1, 2018
Vol. 60
No. 1

How to Pick a Good Read-Aloud Text

Long-time read-aloud practitioners share their tips for selecting read-aloud text, as well as some of their all-time favorite books to read aloud.

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Instructional Strategies
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Give Students a Choice

"When we're picking a book, I offer three choices to students," says Amanda Zieba, who teaches middle school English language arts and reading in La Crosse, Wisconsin. "I show them the cover, tell them a little about the plot and the author, and then I let them pick. Having a choice and a voice in the read-aloud selection really helps students buy into the process."

Go with the Flow

Above all, you want the read aloud to stoke student interest and love of reading. Sometimes that means abandoning books you've started reading—even good ones—if students aren't into it, says Pernille Ripp, founder of the Global Read Aloud and a 7th grade teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. "Some books are amazing when you're reading them on your own but fall flat the minute they're a shared experience," she notes. "Some books call for more intimate sharing and others get better when you share them."
When scouting a new book that will hook students, Zieba says sometimes a safe bet is just to go with a new book from a really popular middle grades author. "I know that anything I read by Margaret Peterson Haddix will be fantastic. Jennifer Nielsen is another great one."
Other read-aloud favorites from Zieba include
  • Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
  • A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen
  • Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
  • The Worst Class Trip Ever by Dave Barry
  • The Thief of Always by Clive Barker
  • Capture the Flag by Kate Messner
  • The Always War by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • Stay Alive series by Joseph Monninger
  • The Neptune Project by Polly Holyoke
  • The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

Keep It Realistic

"Personally, fantasy is my favorite genre," says Zieba. "But I've found that, in terms of reading a novel out loud, realistic fiction works a lot better than fantasy. A lot of times, fantasy stories have weird names for places and characters and more complex plotlines that are hard to follow in five-minute chunks. You could sit down and read these for an hour and get really engrossed, but for the time constraints of a read aloud, realistic fiction is better." In general, Zieba tries to avoid books over 250 pages so that students get to cycle through a variety of book selections throughout the school year. She finds that a wider variety of students can relate to realistic fiction stories.

TIP

Give Them Something to Talk About

Text selection criteria shifted when the goal of read alouds became higher-order, student-led conversations, says Tanya Friedman, an educator working with teachers at P.S. 369 in New York's South Bronx. "Once you're thinking that your goal is to have a student-led, higher-order conversation after the read aloud, [then consider] texts that are going to lend themselves to that purpose," she suggests.
"There has to be something bigger to a book; it has to move you in some way," says Ripp. "I want my kids to walk away changed, and our classroom to be changed, because they have been a part of this book." Ripp says this goal sets the criteria for how she selects books for the Global Read Aloud, too. "It doesn't have to be super emotional, but it has to leave a mark. Which books will start bigger conversations than the ones we're having now?"
Global Read Aloud extends and connects these discussions around the world. Many authors of young adult fiction also have for low-cost or free book chats using Skype or other methods. As part of her read-aloud practice, Zieba sets up one or two Skype chats with book authors each year. This February, she ha's booked a free 15-minute chat with Mary Amato, author of Our Teacher I's a Vampire and Other True Stories. She says talking with authors opens up the possibility for students' own authorship. "When I was younger, it seemed like authors lived off in this magical fairy land. It's really amazing to see kids realize that this is a real person, real job, something they could do."

Make It Relevant and Representative

At P.S. 369, cultural relevance—books connected to the actual interests and experiences of students—is a guiding criteria. "Listen to kids," says Friedman. "What matters to your students right now?"
"When selecting a book for Global Read Aloud," says Ripp, "I think about who are the voices being represented, how are they being represented, and by whom? I think about these things with the books I bring into my own classroom, too, especially because I teach a predominately white student population. It's so important that they are exposed to books, authors, and voices that they might not be picking up on their own."

Laura Varlas is a former ASCD writer and editor.

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