I had a lot of trouble deciding on the last read aloud of the year for my class of fifth graders. Nothing felt like the right match. Finally, I decided to end the year with the book I’d ended with the year before. It didn’t feel like the perfect match, but I was hoping that once we got started, this group would be as engaged as last year’s group.
I seldom read the same books aloud from year to year. I have found that the books that meet the needs of one group don’t often meet the needs of another. I have also found that my expectations for conversation are affected by previous years’ conversations.
Late in the book, when we were afraid we wouldn’t finish it before school ended, a student admitted that it would be okay if we quit the book. Looking guilty, he said, “We all really hate this book.” He seemed very hesitant to tell me this. Although I knew that kids weren’t as engaged as they had been the year before, I had missed the undercurrent of conversation about this book.
I decided to dig a little deeper by creating a Google Form asking kids to reflect on their year of read aloud. I asked them to answer the following questions:
- What was your favorite read aloud?
- Why was it your favorite?
- Which was your least favorite read aloud?
- Why was it your least favorite?
- Which of the read aloud books do you think I should read to next year’s class?
- How did annotating help you during read aloud this year?
I do not expect every child to love every book I read aloud. I actually don’t choose books because I think kids will enjoy them. I choose each book because I think it will help us all grow as readers. I have come to learn the difference between engagement and enjoyment, and when a book doesn’t fit your tastes, you have to work differently to engage and understand.
Through read aloud I want my students to experience books they love as well as books they would not choose to experience on their own. I want them to be comfortable engaging with a book they do not love and honest about the reasons why. I also want them to be comfortable struggling through a book, because I know that as books get more complex, struggle is part of the reader’s experience.
There were some surprises in the results of the reading survey. I was surprised to see that some of the books students loved during the reading were not ones that stuck with them. I was also struck by the fact that for every child who marked a book as their favorite, another child marked it as their least favorite.
What the survey taught me:
- Read aloud is a different experience for each child. I cannot try to pick books that every child will love. Instead I need to continue to choose books that give every child a way in, that give them new experiences as readers, and that invite a variety of thinking.
- I realized that I need to talk more to students about this idea of “loving” a book. I’ve talked to other classes of students who were more comfortable letting me know their tastes. I am not sure how we got to the end of the year with this class of students thinking they’d hurt my feelings if they didn’t like our read aloud.
- This class needed more words and ways to think about why they liked or didn’t like a book. They said very broad things like, “It wasn’t my kind of book” or “I didn’t connect with the book.”
- Plot was very important to this class of students. Keeping track of plot was the main issue for many of them, and confusion around plot was something that kept them from enjoying a book. Following plot was something many of them were still working on.
Since the experience, I’ve been thinking about what students expect from a read aloud and what that means for my teaching. The main lesson I relearned is how critical it is to make sure the book matches the group of students in front of me. I know better than to rely on books that have worked in past years. But more than that, I learned that not enough of our conversations during read aloud center on what readers do when they like or don’t like a book. I want my students to know their tastes as readers well enough that they can say more than “It wasn’t my kind of book.”
Helping students move beyond “I like” or “I don’t like” will be a goal of mine as I move into this next school year. Specific ways to think and talk about a book can grow from these stems, but the growth and specificity is what I will focus on.
We did end up finishing the last read aloud of the year, and everyone had a lot to say about the ending. I realized that even though it may not have been the best choice for our last read aloud, it was one that moved us forward. But more importantly, it invited conversations about books and read aloud that helped us all reflect.