being a teacher

On Selecting Better Read Alouds

When the Global Read Aloud was founded, I added the word “Global” because I wanted to connect kids around the world.  I wanted to make the world smaller.  I wanted to bring the world into my 4th-grade classroom in Middleton, Wisconsin, and help my students understand just how many others like them were out in the world.

A few years into the project someone pointed out, in a not so nice way but still, that perhaps the word “Global” should also mean books that weren’t always written by American authors.  That perhaps global also meant global authors, not just global connections.  I stood corrected and have tried as much as possible since then to include authors not from the US.  While distribution problems arise at times when a non-US author is chosen, it is an important part of the project.  Not every child involved lives here, therefore, not every book should be set here.  There is much more to the larger world than just this…

The read aloud is a central part of many classrooms, something that we value for the experience it gives us.  In fact, according to The U.S. Department of Education Commision, the most important activity for building the skills and background for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.  And it should be, reading aloud to our students, at all ages, allows us to not only build community but to build knowledge together.  To dive deep into a text and have rich discussions.  To model what it means to be a reader in thinking and in fluency.  Read aloud weaves us together and it is the stories that we remember as we look back on our students and the year we had together.

This is why choosing the right book to read aloud, whether globally or not, is such an important action.  No longer can I simply pick a book just because I like it, more thought needs to be given than that.  Examining the books you read aloud has to be a central part of your educational grounding, because it is not enough to simply pick a book because it is fun, or because you loved it for many years, or because you have to.  There are many different questions to ask before you start the book.

Is it meaningful? 

An obvious question to ask, of course, but is the book something that will add value to your experience together?  Will you come out changed at the end?  Better?  More thoughtful?  The experience that your chosen read aloud cerates should be one that students are excited about and remember after your year is over.

Is it relatable?

Is there something in the book that the students can connect to?  Not that the book has to feature characters like them, but is there some aspect of the story that students can recognize within themselves so that it can be a book that means something to them personally.

Is it pushing our thinking?

Will new conversations arise from this read aloud?  Will new experiences be sought after so that we grow past the book?  Read alouds work so well for starting deeper conversations because it is safe to start within the pages of a book, rather than just dive into it.

What else have you read aloud?

Is this book just like the others or does it bring a new facet to your year?  While it is great to do one tried and true read aloud, there is immense value in experiencing something new together, something different than the norm.  Also look at mood, if every book you read aloud is heavy in nature, then what does that do for your community.  read alouds can tackle complex topics and still be funny.

What does the main character look like?

If we are only reading books with characters that mirror what the “norm” is projected as in America: cisgender, white identifying, heteronormative families, we are doing our students a disservice.  Where are all of the books that show off families and children that are unlike the supposed norm?  Where are all the books to further own understanding of what it means to be a person?

What is the gender of the main character?

For a long time, I read books with male protagonists.  It wasn’t on purpose, I just hadn’t thought about it.  It wasn’t until one of my 5th graders pointed out that she would really enjoy a book with a strong female character lead that I realized what had happened.  Study the characters of the books you have chosen and make sure to add variety.

What is the issue of the book?

Is the issue of the book always how someone who is seen as being on the fringes of society is struggling to fit in?  Is it that a disabled character is shunned?  Is it that an LGBTQ child is struggling with society’s acceptance of their identity?  While these books are vital they cannot be the only books that we introduce students to.  How about a book like The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson which is a mystery that also discusses embedded racism and even has a parent that comes out to their child?

Is the book problematic?

There are so many books that we have clung on to as our read-aloud books that are truly problematic, look no further than Little House on the Prairie.  If we are creating inclusive classrooms where every child’s identity can be fully accepted then we have to examine the choices we make for read aloud.  How do the books handle race?  How do the books handle history?  What is represented as the norm? Who wrote the book and are they an #ownvoices author, does it matter whether they are? A read aloud can be a seminal experience in a child’s life, we want it to be that for the right reasons not because it made them feel marginalized or pushed outdated and even dangerous thinking on them.

Is the book a window, mirror, or door book?

The work of Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop has been seminal within the children’s book industry and it should be in our classrooms as well.  Are you only reading one type of book where students only see characters like themselves (mirror)?  Are they never seeing themselves in books (windows)?  Are the books opening up to new conversations, learnings, and connections (doors)?  The choices we make as far as the texts we use to tie our community together speaks volumes of what we hope for our readers.

Is it worth it?

Choosing the right book to share with a class is no laughing matter, even if the book itself brings plenty of laughs.  Don’t be afraid to abandon a read aloud that isn’t working, there are some books that are better experienced by yourself than read aloud.  Don’t be afraid to do nothing but listen, read aloud is about being together, about listening, about going on a journey within the pages of a book.  Not just listening to understand or find evidence for comprehension.

The Global Read Aloud started as a small dream of making the world a little bit smaller.  To think that an idea thought of on a long summer drive could reach millions of kids around the world is almost inconceivable.  But it did, and it does, join us as we do it again starting on October 2nd with some incredible new read alouds.  Because the GRA would be nothing if it weren’t for the books.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



3 thoughts on “On Selecting Better Read Alouds”

  1. I do believe that author Neil Gaiman said that Read Aloud is the most important part of the school day. In my 26 years of classroom experience (around the globe), Read Aloud is of the first things cut due to time constraints, especially in schools that follow scripted LA programs.

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