Thursday, July 13, 2017

Story Time: Reading Aloud in History Class

I started reading aloud to my students from time to time for two key reasons:

1.  I liked doing it, which was reinforced by the fact that they seemed to enjoy it.

2. Practical reasons. There were longer things I wanted them to read, but for one reason or another I didn't want to assign for homework. 

You might wonder why I wouldn't have students take turns reading. And the answer is that sometimes I do. There are students who really love reading aloud. Some of them are good at it, and some are not. I admit, that there are times when I will call on the "good readers" because I don't have time for the slower readers. But I will also make times for all to read who choose to. When I do that, I will usually just go around the room in order. I always allow a student to pass. I don't see the point in forcing a student who really prefers not to read. 

But for longer readings, especially of the narrative/story type, I simply loathe having students read aloud. I hated it as a student and I dislike it as a teacher. I found my reasons well summarized in a Edutopia article, 11 Alternatives to "Round Robin" (and "Popcorn") Reading. Here is an excerpt from that:

Round Robin Reading . . .

  • Stigmatizes poor readers. Imagine the terror that English-language learners and struggling readers face when made to read in front of an entire class.
  • Weakens comprehension. Listening to a peer orally read too slowly, too fast, or too haltingly weakens learners' comprehension -- a problem exacerbated by turn-taking interruptions. 
  • Sabotages fluency and pronunciation. Struggling readers model poor fluency skills and pronunciation. When instructors correct errors, fluency is further compromised.

The article goes on to list 11 alternatives to having students take turns reading aloud. I have mixed thoughts on some of the 11 alternatives. But one of them is having the teacher read aloud. 

If you want to delve into why round robin/popcorn reading is not such a great technique, check out the articles below.

So why should you read aloud? One of the best authorities on this topic is Jim Trelease. I first became acquainted with his work after I had my own children. I was in the children's library with my two toddlers and saw Trelease's book, The Read-Aloud Handbook on display. I was hooked. You can read a brief overview of his work in this brochure. Also check out the New York Public Library's discussion of the book for more info.

Another benefit of reading aloud is it might convince students to read more from whatever it is that you have chosen. I have had students ask to borrow my book afterwards or show me that they bought their own copy of the book. I haven't followed up to know whether or not they actually have read it, but this is an encouraging first step.

Alright, so hopefully now you are convinced that this is something you should be doing. What should you read?

There are all sorts of wonderful things out there to read. For starters, I like to read aloud the famous documents, especially those that were speeches. All the famous things -- the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address, Wilson's War Message to Congress, F.D.R's inaugural address--you get the idea. I've mentioned this site before, I hope, but if you haven't seen it, be sure to check out the website, I have found it useful for stressing to students the significance of things they might not have realized were so significant (hey, students, note that Executive Order 8802 is one of the 100 documents on that website we looked at).

But you probably already read the famous stuff. So what other kinds of things can you read aloud?

Excerpts from actual history books.

I think this sends a powerful message to students, one that they need to hear: your history teacher reads history books. And, surprise, surprise, most history books are far better written than the textbook you use. Many books are complex and too challenging for the average high school student, and certainly for middle schoolers. But students can understand things orally at a level above that which they can read themselves (this is supported by some of the research I mentioned above). Reading a paragraph or a page or two can really add to the content of what you are teaching. And if you read aloud, you can edit. I like to read from the ACTUAL BOOK, not a photocopied section. I have been known to bring in a book just to show students they exist ("The material for this lesson comes primarily from this book."). It stresses the importance of citing the source. Students should know that my lessons don't just materialize from the air. It also subtly sends an important message about being a "lifelong learner."

You can edit what you read aloud.

Just as you may give students an edited version of a text to read for themselves, you can edit what you read aloud. Especially after I have read it aloud to myself, I sometimes find that a particular paragraph is unnecessary, or slows things down too much. Or I might skip a few sentences that are too complex or describe something disturbing in ways that might be too graphic. (See here for a time when I made this mistake.) I always tell students I am reading them an excerpt. If students have a copy of the reading that they are following along on, this would be noted on that copy. As I read aloud from All Quiet on the Western Front, (see below for more info on this) I skipped a few passages. Students had the entire thing in front of them, and I told them in advance that I would skipping parts because I felt they were too disturbing to read aloud. I am sure that there were some students who then tuned me out in order to read those parts. I did not have a problem with that. I just didn't want to be the one reading that part.

Do students follow along with the reading or do they just listen?

It depends, but most of the time, students are following along. If it is a longer text, I usually just photocopy a class set, or post it online to our school's learning management system. If it is something like a key document, I would want students to have their own hard copy so they can annotate. Other times, they are just listening.

Do I really have to read aloud every period? That's a lot of reading aloud, multiplied by all my classes.

Yep, this is the downside. Drink lots of water and keep throat lozenges in your desk.

Three alternatives: first, you can also use audio books. Sometimes they read better than you do, and it certainly is a good break for your voice.

Second, invite in an administrator, your librarian or a parent! (Just make sure they are a good reader and understand the purpose of the text you have selected. And give it to them in advance.)

Third, I know students get tired of hearing me talk. So I have also asked student volunteers (in advance, and give them a copy ahead of time) to read. You know who the strong and eager readers are, and they might welcome this opportunity. I have done this quite successfully with an excerpt about Ernest Green and the Little Rock from Ellen Levine's, Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories. (Pages 42-49 from the hardback edition. It's soooo good. Find this book!). In fact, I prefer having a student do this because it was the story of a student. I like the idea of a young person reading this instead of me. Note that there a lot of great stories in this book that would be suitable for reading aloud.

Some other examples I have used in my classroom:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front, chapter 6 - this is something that all the history teachers at my school were doing, which is why I did it. And I loved it. I asked the students how they liked it on the written assessment they did at the end, and over 90% of students found it a worthwhile experience. Some of those 90% qualified their response by saying the reading was sad, and some students felt that three days was excessive. I read aloud chapter six from the book, as students followed along, for three days. We paused often to discuss, and give them the opportunity to write about various themes developed in the book. Personally, I found it rather grueling to read aloud for 5 periods in a row for 3 days, but I discussed that with the students. The point of the chapter (and the whole book) is that war is hell. And so in a way, the reading "simulated" this experience. We discussed the merits of reading something that was painful and dreary for so many minutes, and that in and of itself was a "teachable moment." 
  • A related piece, we read the famous poem by Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est." And rather than reading it myself, I found a video of the English actor, Christopher Eccleston, reading it aloud on youtube. Check it out. And if you are interested, here is the introductory handout I created.
  • Chapter 9 of Uncle Tom's Cabin - my 7th graders just ate this up last year. Seriously! They begged me to keep reading. I wrote about using this in more detail a post about Seneca Falls. Check it out for links to discussion questions and other resources. 
  • As Uncle Tom's Cabin was to the Civil War, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. What teacher doesn't read this aloud, right? The part about the rat droppings.... 
  • Excerpts from Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass have also worked well with both high school and middle school students of mine. I especially like the part about he learns to read and write. You can find that here or a longer excerpt here.
  • For the Harlem Renaissance, there's some good excerpts you can pull from Langston Hughes's autobiography, The Big Sea in the chapter called, "When the Negro was in Vogue." I also love Zora Neale Hurston's How It Feels to Be Colored Me.  And of course, you should read poetry when you teach about the Harlem Renaissance. See my earlier post about Langston Hughes's poetry for some examples.
  • And for the flappers, check out "Me and My Flapper Daughters" - this copy is my edited version. I used this with high school students, but opted not to use it this year with 8th graders. (A little too PG13, I thought.)
  • Dr. Seuss, "Yertle the Turtle" - I like to read this storybook style-- tell the students to gather round and show them the pictures. I do this during my World War II unit. After having seen a number of political cartoons by Seuss, they have no trouble figuring out that this is an allegory of totalitarianism.
  • Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II- the very beginning of the Prologue tells a good story about Lt. Den Brotheridge who is the first soldier to be killed on D-Day. It's a great way to get students to empathize with the soldiers before going on to study the facts about D-Day. (pp. 19-21).

How can I find other examples?

As you read, whether for school or for pleasure, be on the lookout for excerpts that would work for your students. For example, when reading David M. Kennedy's Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 I noted a wonderful couple of pages (pp. 41-42) about the "typical American" man of 1930 that would make a good introduction to the Great Depression. The Prologue of this book, titled "November 11, 1918" is also fabulous. It tells the story of what Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and FDR were all doing on that day. I haven't tried it myself, but it could be a way to start the Depression or World War II. At least, that is the note I scribbled to myself in the margin when I read it!

It occurs to me that biographical accounts make especially good topics to read aloud. Reading a short section from a biography, or a few paragraphs that describe a historical figure would work well. Things that are descriptive or tell a story are two of the key things to look for...the details that draw them in.

Happy reading!


  1. I've missed your postings. Happy to wake up to it in my inbox.
    CT US history teacher

  2. Thank you so much! Glad you like the blog.

  3. Thanks for so much to think about! One book I can suggest that my middle schoolers loved is Woodsrunner by Gary Paulsen. It is set during the Revolution and is a great read! I read roughly a chapter a day (times 6 periods) for about 3 weeks while we studied the events leading up to and during the war. They loved it and complained every day when I stopped reading!

    1. Thank you for replying with what sounds like an engaging experience for your students.