My school has a new principal, and I had my first observation last month. It did not go well. This was a first for me, and my ego is reeling a little bit. Guys, I get good observation scores. But, alas, not this time. In our post-observation conference, I was told that this was because I “wasted” fifteen minutes of class time reading aloud to my students. They should be reading at home, I was told. They’re not always going to have somebody to read to them.
Exactly, I should have responded. They’re not always going to have somebody to read to them. And some of them never have before. Some of these kids have never gotten lost in the world of a novel, never been so absorbed in a story that, when the bell rang, they didn’t move because they were hoping their teacher hadn’t noticed and would read just a few more pages. Some of these kids—hell, most of these kids—have never fallen in love with a book.
It’s not because they’re lazy and it’s not their parents’ fault, and it’s definitely not some kind of intellectual failing on their part. They’ve simply never had the opportunity. My kids are immigrants; they haven’t been read aloud to in English, and many of their parents have limited education and aren’t confident readers in any language. My kids went to disadvantaged elementary schools with low test scores that focused on “drill and kill,” teaching reading skills necessary to answer constructed response questions on a standardized test. My kids devour stories, whether they find them in TV shows, movies, video games, or personal anecdotes. But they have had few opportunities to develop a relationship with three-dimensional characters and complex themes over the course of a full-length novel.
And I only get these kids for one year. I get 180 days to make them love books. I’m going to break out every weapon in my arsenal, and reading aloud is the best one I’ve got. There’s tons of evidence out there about the importance of reading fiction; it builds empathy. It improves interpersonal relationships. It boosts memory and vocabulary. A love of reading, according to some research, is the greatest predictor of future achievement for students, far surpassing standardized test scores or even grades in its ability to predict success in both academics and relationships.
Yeah, my kids need to learn to read on their own. We’re working on that. Given that half a dozen of them read below a second grade level, two are completely illiterate, and close to half choose either the Magic Tree House or Junie B. Jones series for their independent reading, that’s a little bit of a struggle, but we’re working on it. We do close readings of nonfiction texts. They read and annotate at home, and we discuss in class. I model reading strategies, then let them practice in groups, then have them try it on their own just like a good teacher. But we mostly do that with nonfiction articles (which generally have a tie-in to whatever novel we’re currently reading.) When it comes to fiction, my number one priority is that my kids learn that books are a source of joy. That people from hundreds of years ago can communicate to us from beyond the grave, that fictional characters can become friends and confidantes, that we can understand and even love those who inhabit totally different worlds.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want people to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.” That’s what reading aloud does for my kids. If they fall in love with books, they’ll develop all the skills they need to read them without the drill and kill that’s been used on them since they were five.
I can live with a crappy evaluation score. I mean, I’m not thrilled about it, and a substantial amount of chocolate has already been required to help me move past it, but I can live with it But I will not stop reading to my children. This is the greatest gift I can give them, and they have a right to quality narratives delivered in a way they can appreciate. They’re not always going to have somebody to read to them. But right now, they do.