Early in the year, as we’re getting into our routine of setting weekly goals, we’re sure to mention to our fourth-grade students that we find that reading in our head almost always feels smoother than reading aloud. We are always met with nods and reponses of “Me too!”
“If that’s true for you,” we’ll say, “reading aloud more smoothly might be a goal you set for yourselves this week.”
Our running records often reflect this. When reading aloud the first 100 words of the running record, many students read texts that they can comprehend and discuss with short two- or three-word phrases and awkward prosody.
When considering what we saw in running record data as well as our students’ self-chosen goals, it became clear to us that we needed to give our students some time to focus on improving their oral fluency.
In upper elementary grades, working on fluency can feel stigmatizing to some students, so we wanted to find a way to work on it that would be appealing and engaging to our students. Enter read alouds.
Introduce the Purpose
We start by letting our students in on a secret: When we read aloud to them, we’ve almost always read what we’re reading first to ourselves, and often at least some parts of it out loud. That is, smooth reading doesn’t just magically happen; it happens through rehearsal. As teachers, we know the value of repeated readings of accessible texts: Copious research has shown that it improves fluency. Inviting students to practice reading aloud a picture book that would be shared with younger students gives an authentic purpose to practicing fluency.
Choose a Book and Read It from Start to Finish
Next, our students choose a book, keeping their audience in mind. We tell our students we’ll be sharing their read alouds with kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classrooms, some out of our district. Some of our students choose books we’ve read aloud as a class, and others look at our picture book library to find something they think young students would love. Favorites have included A Very Big Bunny by Marisabina Russo, the five little picture books in Kevin Henkes’s A Box of Treats series, and One by Kathryn Otoshi.
Before beginning the work of rereading to build fluency, we’ll ask the students to read the text from start to finish silently, so that they have the context of the story as they begin to work on reading aloud. That will help them with using intonation or phrasing appropriately to reflect the story.
Repeated Readings and Providing Support
We treat the students working on fluency like a small group, and have no more than four students in a group at a time. We pull the students together and move from student to student in the group to do assisted readings, during which we ask each one to read along with us so that our model of more fluent reading is layered over their reading.
When we hear students struggle with specific parts or pages, we’ll look together at the punctuation or line breaks and talk about how that affects our reading. Sometimes we’ll step back to read the page aloud first as the student follows along with their eyes, then invite the student to reread the page along with us before finally moving to the student reading on their own.
Students are encouraged to do many readings of each page before moving forward, and to keep a sticky note on the page to mark their place in the book. That is, they move forward in the book when they feel confident in what they’ve already read aloud. We leave it up to them to decide when they’re comfortable enough to move forward, though as we move from student to student in the group, we begin by asking them to read aloud what they’ve practiced so far, and offer them compliments and suggestions for their reading. We might do some assisted readings of tricky parts or ask them to practice a certain page a few more times when it seems necessary.
Once we’ve met with the group a few times, we let them know that they might decide to work on their read aloud anytime they’re reading, and can take a break from their just-right book for a few minutes to practice anytime they think it makes sense. They can find a private spot in the classroom if they’re not comfortable practicing at their seat or move to just outside our door if they’re worried about distracting others. Students in the group often partner up or find a classmate with whom to practice their reading aloud.
Recording the Read Alouds
After a week or two of rehearsal, most students feel confident and ready to record their read aloud. We use iMovie and our class set of iPads and invite the students to bring their lunches to eat in the classroom for a few days while they work. Our students have always been excited for this part, and giving up lunch in the lunchroom is no big deal, but we’ll find another time for any students who are opposed or sensitive to this option.
We start by showing students how to take pictures of the covers and each page of the book, and then crop the photos so that they show just the page as much as possible. (Because students are digital natives, we have to model just a few pictures for them to get the hang of it.) Once the pictures of each page are taken and cropped, we show them how to drop them into iMovie and begin recording their read aloud.
Although we’re sure other apps or programs would work, iMovie works well for us because we have the iPads available and our students pick it up quickly if they’re not already familiar with the app. We usually have students record by reading the book from start to finish or, if it’s really long, read a chunk of the text at a time so that not too much is lost when there’s a mistake and it needs to be rerecorded. This works because iMovie allows us to adjust the length of time a photo stays in the video so that the photos of the pages match the students’ reading.
Sharing the Read Alouds
Once the read aloud has been recorded, we upload it to our class YouTube channel so that we have a shareable link for it. We give the option of the read aloud being shared with our class to the student who recorded it, and then send it along to other classes. Since we’ve done this in fourth grade, we’ve always sent the videos to younger grades. We also send a link to the students’ families so that they see the result of some of the students’ small-group work.
Some classes have used the videos as a whole-class read aloud, projecting the video so that it can be enjoyed as a class. Others have used the read-aloud videos for listening centers, giving students an iPad or other device to watch and listen to the read aloud with headphones.
The read-aloud videos aren’t perfect by any means—but neither are the read alouds we do as teachers to our class, and perfection isn’t the goal anyway. At the end of the group, students appear and sound more confident reading aloud, have been given repeated chances for assisted and repeated readings of an accessible text, and feel proud of creating something that serves a purpose for younger students.