Choosing a Great Read Aloud

As we move into the start of a new school year, one of my FAVORITE things to think about is what books I will be sharing as great read alouds with my students.  Although I have a few “must reads” that I do every year, I am always on the hunt for new ones as well.

When thinking about what makes  really outstanding read aloud, I asked people on my Facebook page to chime in with THEIR ideas about what makes a really good one.  Let’s see if you agree!

fourth grade novel

What Teachers Are Saying

An amazing read aloud, hooks them in the beginning and keeps them hooked by relating to their lives and giving them great imagery! (Jenn, 4th grade, from CA)

Cassie (@casdahl) writes, “A good read aloud requires three things.  1.  A relatable storyline/characters.  Students need to be able to make a connection with the book.  2.  Time.  A good read aloud takes time.  It is not something that can be rushed or squeezed in.  Discussions need to be had, feelings need to be shared, and predictions have to be made.  3.  Purpose.  You (and your students) need to know WHY you are reading the book.  Having a purpose can set your brain up to be more aware during reading and you can take so much more away from a book!

When it’s a beautiful read!  I tell my students that books are like music, and different for everyone, and some books just feel good to your brain like some music speaks to some of us.  So I love to read them books that I really love to hear read.   (@kategraym on IG)

On IG, @adventurasinamath says, “I love read alouds that have strong main characters that show them life through another person’s point of view.  I like a variety of characters such as: strong girls/females (Esperanza Rising, True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle), boys dealing with emotions (Wonder, Stone Fox…), and characters in tough situations (again Stone Fox, again True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Number the Stars).  

I think when the kids can relate to the story and really embrace and feel the emotion that goes with it, then it’s awesome.  With this comes character development and change over time and solid talking points.  It does what books should do, take you to another place.  (@marielogue15)

I certainly can’t argue with any of those!

For me, I have different “types” of read alouds.  I often use pictures books for “teachable moments” and mentor texts.  I may even read these books more than one time…once for the story, and then again to “study”.  Often I will read them the FIRST time without showing my students the illustrations so they can practice “seeing” the story…then they confirm their ideas in a second read.

“Just in time” read alouds are fun too…might be an article or a cartoon or any other text I find that applies to what we are doing or studying…this is a great way to model “tuning in” to texts.  I love it when students take ownership of this idea and bring in their own texts to share!

fourth grade novel

Probably most PERSONAL, for me, is the selection of read aloud novels that I use as the foundation of my literacy instruction for the year.  Because I do SO much referring to these books with my reading and writing work–and because I can’t read aloud for 2 hours a day–I need to choose these carefully.

Although we do have one text in our grade that we ALL read (The Tiger Rising), we have the latitude to choose whatever texts we want that support our curriculum.  Click HERE to read more about my thoughts about The Tiger Rising as a great read aloud!  For other selections, I have a few questions I ask when considering a text:

My Thinking

Is it LIKELY to be a new book for most of the students?  Not that we can’t reread texts! (I always ask students if they have ever watched an episode of a favorite TV show more than once!) But, with SO many amazing books to share, I like to find things that I know they didn’t hear in third grade.

Does it read aloud well?  This is a tricky one–and one that you can only figure out by reading aloud! A few years ago, I had read the book “The 100 Cupboards” over Christmas break and LOVED it.  I thought all my students who were so into Harry Potter would love it–but the book was SO descriptive and the “action” was more emotional than physical…my students had a very hard time staying with it.  

We powered through–but I knew that it was a MUCH better “read to self” book–and all students I have referred to it since then have loved it.  It just didn’t work well as a read aloud, at least for me.

Read Alouds and Curriculum Connections

Is there something about the book that will connect students to our curriculum?  Now don’t get me wrong…there are books to read just for fun.  “The Willoughby’s” by Lois Lowry is a great example.  I COULD find some literary merit in it (and we do talk about the AMAZING vocabulary in it)…but mostly we just enjoy it.

 That being said, I like to find books that I can connect to our literary units (when we write historical fiction, I want to immerse them in historical fiction), when we build classroom culture I want books with characters that we can talk about and learn from.  I also love to find books that help make connections between topics we study.  We do a huge immigration unit–so  I love to find texts to help paint a clear picture of that era for students.

Great Read Alouds Stretch Readers

Is it a text that will “stretch” the class–both in terms of the literary elements AND the themes involved?  I spend so much time working with students on “just right” books for their independent reading–but read alouds are a time to stretch students.  

Finding books with symbolism, rich language, complicated plots, and interesting character development can be modeled and discussed with ALL students–even struggling readers.  This gives them practice thinking deeply about texts when they may not be able to access texts that are as rich when reading independently.  A few years ago I had a student whose independent reading level was “Henry and Mudge”.

Now don’t get me wrong–Henry and Mudge are great–but there certainly is very little deep thinking or interpretation to be made.  Watching this student  SHINE–and I mean like ROCK STAR SHINE–in our read aloud discussions helped me to see the depth of this thinking, built his confidence, and helped his classmates see him as a reader…something that he desperately needed.

There are a few read alouds I use almost every year. My list evolves as I discover new books.  I will always read “Wonder” at the end of the year.  Always.  I time it so I finish it on the last day of school–so we finish our school year with Auggie.  

I absolutely love the books “Flutter” and “The Eight Keys”–for totally different reasons.  “Flutter” is a story of family…of growing up…of adventure…and is AMAZING for teaching symbolism.  “The Eight Keys” is a bullying story–but also speaks to growing up and discovering who you are. It also addresses how you treat people when you are figuring it out.  It is a GREAT book to compare to “Fish in a Tree”, and students very naturally see the connections in many of the characters.

A Few More Great Read Alouds

There are a few other books that make appearances…I ALWAYS read at least two historical fiction books–I always introduce the genre with Sarah, Plain and Tall (a perfect tie to our curriculum AND it’s a quick read) and then choose from a number of different other texts depending on my group.

 I always read aloud at least a few “first books” in a series or books by prolific authors…I’ve read from the Shredderman series many times…Andrew Clements books many times (Last year’s group got “No Talking” for good reason!), and I’ve read books like “Among the Hidden” and the first Hank Zipzer book as well. I’ve read classics like “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Tuck Everlasting” and books that many people haven’t heard of–it’s fun to “try on” new books with groups!

For the last few years, I have started the year off with “Fish in a Tree“.  I love this book for SO many of the reasons mentioned above by teachers around the world.  It hits home with so many students. Later, when we read “The Eight Keys”, my students make SO many connections between the characters and events in these two texts.

I’ve put all my thoughts together in a resource that has helped a ton of teachers really “dig deep” into this book.  Check it out if you are interested.   If you HAVEN’T read “Fish in a Tree”, I cannot stress enough what a powerful text it is, especially for grades 4 and 5.

Fish in a Tree Novel Study
Thanks to everyone for chiming in with their ideas–I’m sorry I couldn’t publish them all–but I had dozens of ideas shared!