Inquiry Work: Read Aloud vs. Independent Reading

My students came in today so excited you’d think it was the day before Winter Break. I couldn’t figure out why they were so amped. So I asked.

“What is our new read aloud?!” they shouted.

We have read two wonderful books this year: Wonder and Out of My Mind. With the end of one, they can’t wait for the next one. I love this, but they don’t come in that way after they finish their own books. This behavior coupled with some seeds planted in my head by Steve Peterson, pushed me to do a little inquiry.

Exactly how different is the read aloud experience compared to the experience students have when they read independently? How far a part are they? How different? Is it like apples and oranges or more like tangerines and oranges?

There is a difference, even for me. When I prepare for a read aloud, I have probably read the text at least five times, with many lenses. The multiple reads help as does the multiple ideas I get from student input during read aloud. In the end, my understanding is far deeper than what it was the first time I read the text.

I know students are not doing the deep processing in their independent reading like they do during read aloud — there is no way they could. My wondering is: How can the gap between the two become smaller?

I wondered what students thought the difference was and how they thought they could make their independent reading experience more like read aloud. So in small groups, I asked:  How is read aloud different than reading independently?

Each student identified about two issues. Top mentions included…

  • I jot more.
  • I know when to jot.
  • Hearing and seeing the words help me.
  • I have someone near me to ask when I don’t understand.
  • Group discussions help me understand.
  • You are reading, so it’s easier to think.

Then I asked a follow up …

  • How could you know when to jot?
  • How could you hear the story?
  • How could you get group input about your book?
  • How could you make the reading easier?

Here are some of their responses…

  • I could put post its on pages I’m have problems/wonderings about and bring it to my group for discussion.
  • I could use a whisperphone to hear my story.
  • I could use the signposts (Notice and Note) to tell me when to jot.
  • I could jot when I have a wondering.
  • I could jot when I notice a pattern.

Mind you these are all suggestions and teaching points I have given them in the past, but I acted like it was a huge aha for me.

The most interesting and most difficult comment to address was this:You are reading, so it’s easier to think.

Ideally reading is thinking, but for a struggling reader or the reader who is trying to dig deeper, the thinking work is a second step (or maybe even a third step). So we talked about how we could make the reading work easier so it would be easier to think.

Our discussion went like this:

Me: How could you make the reading easier, so you could think?
Student: Read an easier book.
Me: Yes, that’s an option. What else could you do?
Student: Read a book I read before.
Me: Ok. What else could you do?
Student: I could reread.
Me: Do you have to reread everything?
Student: No, only the important parts and when I’m confused.
Me: So how do you know when it’s important?
Student: (He pointed to the charts with Notice and Note signposts), or when I see a pattern.
Me: Ok. So what could be your goal? How are you gonna make your independent reading more like read aloud?
Student: Re read important parts so I can think about it.

Cool I think. Organic close reading.

I know that they won’t necessarily do this every time they pick up a book, but the goals are written. That’s step one.

It is up to both of us now.

They try. I check. We adjust and try again.

It’s not perfect, but perhaps the gap got a little smaller today and the expectation a little clearer.

8 thoughts on “Inquiry Work: Read Aloud vs. Independent Reading

  1. Julieanne,
    One student at a time, one conversation at a time = progress. Kudos for you for stopping to ask the question in your search for knowledge. I can’t wait to see and hear your “and the rest of the story” as this work continues!

  2. Julieanne,
    I love this vignette. It feels real and important to me. And it really does seem like a significant first step. I loved the way you kept pushing your students’ thinking by asking layers of questions, and yet also understood that this kind of deep reading doesn’t just happen, but is created. I can tell that they trust you. That will make them more open to try these hard things!

    Maybe, too, there is no way to arrive at that read aloud experience — no way to experience the closeness of the group, the music of the words, and the play of ideas — except in a space filled with people you trust, and a teacher who you believe is offering something important and beautiful? That sounds kind of sad, even fatalistic, doesn’t it, but perhaps also kind of wondrous, too? They’ll hear the ring of those words for years, and remember in their hearts what it feels like to love the ideas and lives they can live through a book. Every so often I hear the sounds of my father’s voice from summer read alouds in a small log cabin in northern Minnesota, now 45 years later; these sounds appear in my reading, too, magically and unbidden, echoes of that past.

    Thanks for a beautiful post, one that gets me thinking about how I might help my students sail their independent reading towards deeper waters.

  3. I totally agree the read aloud experience is so unique and special.The combination of the words, the people, the books. I do think, in fact I know, that the experience is something students treasure. Former students come back and talk about the books we read. It’s almost like a trip we took together and we can share the memories. I hadn’t really thought about the value of read aloud reaching beyond the world of literacy, but it does. As literature touches our hearts, read aloud magnifies the power of that touch. It builds and sustains our classroom community with a common passion. A place where we all want to be.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your thinking really adds so much.

  4. Every time I read a post about the importance of read aloud, which I have vehemently agreed with for over 20 years of teaching, my heart breaks for my granddaughter who’s 4th grade teacher has yet to read a single book aloud. With all that kids of all ages glean from read aloud, not to mention being a part of a reading community, how can anyone justify not doing it?

    • I know. I’m so thankful my own children got this experience, for a multitude of reasons. But are we preaching to the choir. When I hear of stories like your granddaughter I wonder what more we can do. I do think, at least in my district which is big and has been very basel-oriented, the tide is shifting towards whole child literacy. Hopefully your granddaughter will feel benefits of this shift soon.

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