"As far as I’m concerned," educator and performer Rebecca Bellingham writes, "there is no one busier than a teacher." Fitting it all in can feel impossible. Still, the benefits of reading aloud to students of all ages are vast and comprehensive – so if you’re going to skip something, Bellingham argues, please don’t let it be read aloud! This week, in an excerpt from Rebecca’s The Artful Read Aloud, we’re going to hear how reading aloud is essential to becoming a lifelong reader, and the perfect moment to slow down, take a breath, and give students – and yourself – time to think and make meaning, even in the midst of impossibly packed days.
Below is a transcript of the episode:
Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. Educator and performer, Rebecca Bellingham, writes, "As far as I'm concerned, there is no one busier than a teacher. Fitting it all in can feel impossible. Still, the benefits of reading aloud to students of all ages are vast and comprehensive. So, if you're going to skip something," Bellingham argues, "please don't let it be the read aloud."
On this episode of our commuter podcast series, we're going to listen in on an excerpt from Becca's audiobook, The Artful Read Aloud. We'll hear how reading aloud is essential to becoming a lifelong reader, and the perfect moment to slow down, take a breath, and give students and yourself time to think and make meaning, even in the midst of an impossibly packed day. With that in mind, here now is Rebecca to read aloud to us.
Reading aloud to children every single day is one of the most important things any teacher can do to help children grow and become better readers, better thinkers, and frankly, better human beings. The more I read to children in classrooms, and to teachers and graduate students with whom I work, the more convinced I am that it is one of the most powerful tools we have to raise kids, teach kids, and create compassionate and civil communities. Scores of researchers and literacy advocates agree with me.
A 2018 International Literacy Association Leadership Brief states, "Reading aloud is undoubtedly one of the most important instructional activities to help children develop the fundamental skills and knowledge needed to become readers. Reading aloud was also called the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading, according to the seminal publication, Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985."
One of my favorite literacy leaders, Donalyn Miller, says it best, however. "I make sure that I read to my students every day, no matter what else I cut." When I was a classroom teacher, I did the same: no matter what, I read aloud to my students every single day. And as a parent, I do too. Sometimes I send them to school without really brushing their hair, but I never skip reading aloud. And yet, many teachers still feel they don't have enough time to read to their kids. I hear from teachers all the time about the pressures they feel to fit everything in and to make sure everything they are doing meets the standards for quality instructional time.
My response to this is always the same. There is virtually nothing you could do that would be more valuable and important than reading aloud every day. Not just because kids love it and are able to experience the joy and delight books can provide, but also because it fuels their ability and desire to read. Teaching children how to read is not a simple thing, and every child's reading journey is unique. There are a few things, however, that are indisputable. Children need rich and varied exposure to books and words, and positive experiences with books and reading that set them on a course to become lifelong readers.
Young children also need explicit instruction in the technical aspects of print, which includes instruction and phonemic awareness, spelling patterns, and phonics. While this book is obviously not intended to be a primer on how to teach children to read, there is no question that the interactive read aloud is an essential part of any classroom's comprehensive literacy curriculum. Everyone I know is busy. Even when we go on vacation, I find myself itching to check my phone to see what new alerts are there. I think I sometimes have fooled myself into thinking that the busier I am, the more important I must be, but deep down I know that's not true.
In the words of On Being columnist, Ahmad Safi, "How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?" This is something I am working on as a person and a friend, definitely as a mom, and always as a teacher. I don't ever recall a single moment as a classroom teacher when I finished for the day and thought to myself, "Nothing more I could do here. Every box checked." As far as I'm concerned, there is no one busier than a teacher, and there is an urgency to teaching that is real and valid, because there really is so much to do in such a precious amount of time. But I think way too many of us are living and working at a pace that sometimes feels impossible to sustain.
That brings us to the point of this chapter. We all need to take a breath. We need it, the kids need it, our classrooms need it, and our world needs it. Two of my favorite phrases to use throughout my read alouds are, check in with yourself, and think silently in your own minds. Which begs the question, doesn't all thinking take place in one's mind? But as we know, kids often like to think out loud, and this is a good reminder that we are not exploding into conversation, but staying quiet and internal for a moment before talking to each other. Before I prompt them with a turn and talk or whole group question, I often say one of these phrases slowly, carefully, in a way that feels like shifting gears.
That little pause before the conversation is important. It offers a space between the reading and the talking, and it provides a transition while kids consider what they might share or talk through with their partner. Sometimes, however, I ask kids to check in with themselves instead of inviting them to turn and talk. This can save time and help us get through more text. It also helps them remember that readers are always pausing to reflect, and makes the turn and talks we do have even more productive and dynamic.
Prompts that create a space for internal thinking. Check in with yourself about the picture you have in your mind right now. Can you see the scene, character, or moment in your brain clearly? Check in with yourself about what you are learning, wondering, or thinking right now. What new ideas, thoughts, or questions do you have? Think in your mind about what just happened? How does this fit with what you already know? Think in your mind about why the author might have chosen to use the word blank here. Let's reread that part, and as you listen again, think about why the author might have chosen that word, or written it that way.
Think in your mind about what details we have learned about this setting, or place and time. What ideas are you starting to get about this place? If you choose to stop in order to talk, reflect, or even jot, it's presumably an important moment in the text and kids are likely leaning in. They are ready and willing to do some thinking, so you are well positioned to take that second or two for quiet reflection. I always take advantage of those moments when kids are sucked into the read aloud experience, when I have their complete attention and the room is quiet and focused, I don't rush the invitation to think. I take a breath and shift into thinking and talking mode. That small moment really does make a difference. It settles the room and sends a message that you are not rushed, this time matters, and that thinking is valuable.
Even if you are feeling rushed, try to let this be a real moment of thinking and not a forced one. Otherwise, we probably should have just gone to PE in the first place. I use a few key phrases to help kids deepen their thinking and give the time that thinking needs and deserves. Whether I'm listening in to a partnership talk, or a child offering an idea to the whole class and the speaker comes to a stop, I often say simply, "Can you say more about that?" Or even more directly, "Say more about that. What else goes with that idea?" Then I wait with an expression that says, "I've got nowhere else in the world to be right now except right here with you, and I'm patient and eager to hear your ideas."
More than anything, I think kids and all humans, really, crave that experience of someone really listening to their ideas, even if it takes a minute to figure out exactly what they're trying to say, so we can't rush these moments. Another key reason to give thinking more time, is that our first stab at anything isn't usually our best work. Creating something beautiful, a painting, a poem, even a well-crafted thought, takes time and reflection. It's not easy or comfortable to dwell in uncertainty, to stay in the struggle. It can also be similarly uncomfortable to take that extra minute of silence to allow a stronger thought to emerge or take root in our classrooms. And it's often doubly uncomfortable for us because we feel so pressed for time.
But integrating moments of silence into our daily practice is critical. Tina Chang, a classmate and friend of Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, described how Smith would allow everyone else in the circle to speak, listening carefully to their comments before she took her turn. "That's a lot of where her wisdom came from. The value of silence and pause," said Chang. As a classroom teacher, it can be difficult to resist the urge to move quickly from thing to thing, child to child, but when we give children time to think, when we integrate moments of silence into our practice, we all notice more deeply. That is what helps us become wise.
Among the many benefits of reading aloud to students every day, building space for meaning-making is an easily accessible one. Give it a try. When you're reading aloud today, give your students and yourself an extra moment to just check in. That's all we have time for on the podcast today. If you'd like to hear more from Rebecca, you can stream and download her audiobook, The Artful Read Aloud, wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you'd like to learn more about in our time together. You can learn more about Heinemann's audiobooks at heinemann.com/audiobooks.
Rebecca Bellingham is a teacher, literacy consultant, college instructor, and performer. After receiving her master's in elementary education at Lesley University through Shady Hill School's Teacher Training course, Rebecca began working as a teaching artist in the South Bronx with DreamYard, a nationally recognized community arts organization. She went on to teach at the Berkeley Carroll School in Park Slope, where she was a fourth-grade teacher and literacy coach. She received a master's degree in literacy specialization at Columbia University Teachers College and began working at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as a staff developer and later as a full time instructor in the Literacy Specialist program. Currently, Rebecca leads professional development within the San Diego Unified School District, partners with many nonprofit, arts-based and literacy organizations, and continues to teach courses on the integration of the arts and literacy at Teachers College. As an actress and singer, Rebecca has performed in numerous off-Broadway and regional theaters around the country.