Reading to Students as a Loving Practice
Unrelenting tears dripped onto my open book as I cackled with laughter, surrounded by freshmen in a circle on the floor, consumed by the deep, contagious giggles that stop time. In moments when something cracks you up so completely, it’s natural to think this is life now: forever howling at a needlessly self-conscious character who panics at the threat of encountering her crush, so she grabs a brown fur formerly keeping warm her dead great aunt, and drapes it over herself in disguise, only to be mistaken for a bear and chased through a field by said crush who considers her a danger to the town. I wish I could have bottled the joy in the classroom when I read aloud this scene. It was a potent antidote to last November’s slog.
While some think the act of reading aloud to high school students is coddling, I disagree. They fear it robs students the opportunity to practice reading aloud. However, I think this line of reasoning mistakenly conflates reading ability and agility (impossible to resist a joke about reading accuracy here). By the time students reach high school, through no fault of their own, a lot of them have developed a mechanical cadence that they slip into when reading aloud in class. So, having them read aloud is having them initiate a coping mechanism that blocks them from learning how to highlight nuance in what they’re reading. They can rely on this automatic tone and rhythm because it is technically correct. But it is too technical in that it overrides natural speaking patterns, which are crucial to auditory comprehension and to bringing the written word to life. Students need to learn how to navigate artful deviations from conventional syntax and pops of unexpected diction. The most simple and effective way to teach them is to show them how we do it. Just as we model sophisticated writing, we have to model sophisticated reading.
More broadly, I think we need to reexamine how quickly we apply the term coddling. With caution about making things too easy for young people, we do have to question if a classroom practice or policy is doing that, especially if it seems to teeter on the edge. If coddling is to excessively eliminate challenges for our students, it goes without saying that we don’t want to eliminate good challenges for our students. We need to leave those alone as pillars that uphold the integrity of our courses and make academics worthwhile. So, questioning our practices involves discerning which challenges are valuable for students to overcome vs. the challenges that are non-inclusive, otherwise insensitive, out of date, and probably low-yielding.
Requiring students to read aloud in class poses the latter type of challenge. For many students, not just those with learning differences, this requirement spikes stress, sometimes to the point of hindering focus and comprehension. I recently asked my juniors how they feel about having to read aloud in front of a class. The response was a resounding groan. One student shared that she hardly retains anything she reads aloud in front of other people because she channels the bulk of her attention on proper pronunciation and keeping pace. Afterwards she feels self-conscious that she may have stumbled on words, but she can’t remember because she fell into the ‘dreaded reading daze’ that we all know and hate. The words wash over and past us when we aren’t actively engaging with their meaning. Ineffective reading is a bad outcome, but the even worse outcome is for students to associate reading with distress, like facing a tidal wave, like the too-relatable experience of this junior. Instead, asking “Is anyone in a reading mood?” invites students to lend their voice at will. There is always a batch of students who enjoy volunteering, likely because they are confident in their reading ability and agility. The question also implies that whether or not you can comfortably read aloud well, you may just not be in the mood. Some days you are better suited to talk and other days to listen. Similarly, as humanities teachers, we could consider the in-class reading we offer to student-readers as separate from the reading aloud we should do ourselves. I think this consideration should expand beyond simply that whatever must be understood clearly, such as instructions, the teacher should read.
The benefits of reading literature aloud to students allow an English classroom to become beautiful, enlightening, transformative, and all the other dreamy descriptors that feel idealistic in the abstract, but wholeheartedly life-affirming in reality. Immersed in the world of a story, students can relax and appreciate the text without pressure. Reading to them is a reminder that in addition to educational value, literature has entertainment value; we are meant to enjoy it. Go ahead and invent character voices (I know you want to). Reading to students is the most direct way you can ensure they are consuming the text and comprehending it. You can pause to provide context, point out a cool use of a literary device, and organically draw them into a discussion: “Wait a minute, why would Tom mention his mistress right in front of Nick?!” or “What do you notice about how Mr. Lindner talks to the Younger family?” When you come across a complicated moment, you can pretend that you need clarification, and ask the students to help you. Hopefully none of my students are reading this to discover they’ve been duped.
It is crucial for students to observe your authentic reactions to a text (e.g., “Oh... Oh my god”). Gasp sometimes. Put your hand over your heart. Show them the twists that stop you in your tracks, the questions you’re compelled to ask, the moments that actually puzzle you, the sentences that bowl you over they’re so lovely, startling pangs of truth about life that they will recognize when they read this book again in ten years. Share with them the experience of reading. Let them see how you personally engage, and they’ll learn how to tap into the intoxicating power of literature when they have to continue reading on their own outside of class.
Then over time, when you ask, more students will be in reading moods. You might braid their voices into a rotation with you, softening the barrier between teacher – student, as you model and support dynamic reading alongside them. One way I gauge the success of this approach to reading aloud is not just the increasing number of volunteer readers. I observe the students who are not volunteering to see if everyone’s pen is moving over the pages in her book. Are they finding other ways to participate, such as answering / asking a question during a pause? I’ve noticed that yes they are, possibly more so than during normal discussions. Is there a phone in sight? Rarely.
Of the boundless effects of reading, all researched and proven—mind-expansion, stronger literary foundation, etc.—students should realize that it is also meditation, stress-relief, escapism. It has a restorative property. Reading to others is a loving practice.
In her eighth year of teaching, Biz Kechejian currently teaches English to freshmen and juniors at an all-girls independent school in Dallas, Texas. She taught English and coached Cross Country at a coed independent school in Houston before moving up to Dallas. Originally from Milton, MA, she has a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Boston University and an MFA in Creative Writing, with a concentration in Poetry, from the University of Florida. Through literature, she guides her students to realize the essential qualities of being human and with in-depth character analysis, tries to teach them how to understand other people. She encourages her students to play with language in creative assignments and applauds their analytical writing as it in turn becomes more colorful and precise. Her ultimate goal is for students to develop, and feel empowered by, their powers of perception and express their insights in a sophisticated voice unique to them. She is a night person, loves experimental flower arrangements; lavender lattes are her new kryptonite; she believes in signs.