Hi everyone and welcome to the Books Between Podcast! I believe in the power of stories to connect us to others in our world. My goal is to help you connect kids with incredible books and share inspiring conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen. Every other Monday, I bring you book talks, interviews, and ideas for getting great books into the hands of kids between 8-12.
I am Corrina Allen - a mom of an 8 and 10 year old, a 5th grade teacher, and now making multiple visits to the orthodontist for both of my daughters. Farewell popcorn and hello palate expanders!
This is Episode #45 and Today I’m discussing some ideas to make your read alouds even better and then sharing with you a conversation with educator Colby Sharp about The Creativity Project!
Two quick announcements. First, the March MG at Heart Book Club pick is The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street and the April book is The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. So adjust your TBR pile if you want to join us for those conversations later this spring. And remember that #MGBookMarch is going strong this month, and I have been so inspired by all of your responses. If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll jump into the conversation!
How to Rock Your Read Aloud
Last week, I had to be out of my classroom for three days for special ed meetings and various professional development training. And so I left some short picture books for the sub to read while I was away and the students foisted some of their favorites on them as well. And let me tell you - my students had OPINIONS about those experiences when I got back! And it got me thinking - it is SO hard to grab a book you’ve never read and be open and vulnerable enough in front of an audience to read it aloud well. It takes some bravery to take those chances to give yourself over to the book. In case you were wondering, it was The Book With No Pictures - the incredible book that “tricks” the reader into saying silly things.
So today I am going to share with you some ways that you can rock your read aloud with your students, your own kids, or any group of children. I’ll chat about what to do before, during, and at the end of your read aloud. And I’ll read aloud some non-spoilery samples from one of my all-time favorite books - and the one whose sequel is released tomorrow - The Wild Robot.
Before the read aloud.
There are some things you can do to prepare ahead of time to make that read aloud really come to life.
Some books just aren’t that great to read aloud. My daughters asked me to read aloud El Deafo a few years ago and it worked...okay… since they could sit on either side of me and see the illustrations, but I think a whole class read aloud of a whole graphic novel would be tough. Books with short chapters are really great. Books that have tons of internal thinking or long sections of description can be tough though. Also, some of the classics have tricky sentence structure or difficult vocabulary. Or contain messages or stereotypes that we don’t want to perpetuate anymore. So - look to resources and people you trust for some good recommendations.
If you want to improve, listen to other people read aloud to pick up their tricks. And listen to audio books. There are often samples you can listen to on Audible that will give you some ideas of voices to do. Or how to modulate your voice and tone and speed to match the story and the characters. We’ll chat more about that in a bit, but I have learned SO much from Jim Dale’s performance of Harry Potter. And Neil Gaiman’s readings of his novels, or most recently, the masterful performance of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Robin Miles. Listening to those examples, helped me realize that a good read aloud IS a performance.
It really helps if you’ve at least read the chapter before so you don’t get lost in the sentences. And read it out loud - even if you’re just mouthing it to yourself. Three things to pay attention to: new characters you’ll have to voice, punctuation, and dialogue tags (the part of the sentence that says “she yelled”, or “he said angrily”). I am reading The Wild Robot with my class right now. I’ve read it before so I thought I was all good, but I didn’t skim Chapter 45 first so when we got reintroduced to the otters, I forgot that the first otter speaking was Shelly and so I read it in a low male voice - and so I backed up and reread it in a more female-coded voice. (I could have decided to just have our Shelly have a low voice - sometimes I think it’s good to adjust expectations a bit. But, I’d recommend just being intentional about it.) Or sometimes the dialogue tag at the end will say, “he whispered.” and oops! I didn’t whisper that. Skimming the chapter ahead of time will help.
When continuing a read aloud of a chapter book, I have found that it’s helpful to do a quick recap of the last section. In my class, we call this “Previously in The Wild Robot” and I’ll call on a few kids to refresh our memory of what happened and where we left off. And sometimes I’ll even reread the last paragraph or two just to pick back up the threads of the story to get that momentum back. I notice that my Audible app does this automatically - when I stop the book and restart, it goes back about 15 seconds - which is so helpful.
During the read aloud
As you are performing the story, there are three elements that when they are working well, you will have a memorable and awesome read aloud! Those three elements are your voice, your body language, and your audience.
Let’s talk about your voice first because there’s a lot going on here. First of all, project your voice. And probably more than you think you have to. I don’t know about your space, but I am battling a TON of white noise in my classroom - the heater is blowing, the projector is whirring, the class across the hall is making some noise. So you have to cut through all that and angle your mouth further up than maybe you naturally would.
When you are reading aloud a text, you want to try to find the music and rhythm in the language. It’s about how the cadence and inflection of your voice matches the tone of the scene and how the characters are feeling. If it’s something mysterious is happening, add that little question to your voice. If it’s a sad moment, then you’ll want to slow down and maybe read more carefully with that emotion coming through.
For example, on page 58 of The Wild Robot, there is the part where Roz falls down the cliff:
Expressing the right tone is about finding that rhythm, but it’s also about volume. If a character yells - you yell. And whisper those poignant lines so your class leans in to hear them. Use the dramatic slow down. Speed up when there’s energy or a chase or big climatic scene.
And repeat important parts - look up at the kids. Give them a moment to digest and think. Those lines in the book that give you a deep message, that foreshadow something later, that are the heart of the story - repeat them! And maybe emphasize a different word the second time.
Here’s an example from Chapter 37 of The Wild Robot where we first meet a new character - Chitchat the squirrel.
SO in that section, based on the cues of the text - I made my voice bouncy when Chitchat bounces across the lawn and then fast and sort of nervous when she’s talking.
Another hugely important aspect of using your voice to convey meaning is by what most kids call “doing the voices”. That’s often their biggest compliment to an adult who reads out loud to them - that they do the voices well. And it takes some practice and some planning to figure out how to perform and almost embody those various characters. Something that has really helped me is to think about what actor or actress might be cast in that role and then try to “do” their voice. In The Wild Robot, I modeled Roz on Alexa. The older goose, Loudwing, was Julia Sweeney for some reason. Here’s an example from Chapter 44, The Runaway:
Now, YOU and the students might not hear those actors in my voice, but it helps me to keep the character’s voice straight and consistent throughout the book. And it gives me ideas of different ways that I could do different voices.
Now let’s talk about your body language! First of all, move around the room instead of just sitting in one spot. And try gesturing with the hand not holding the book. If a character is described as doing an action, like pointing, I’ll point. If the author has the character cough or sneeze - do that! And let your facial expressions reflect the tone of the story and mood of the characters. If there’s anxiousness in the description, furrow your brow and curl into yourself. If they are described as smiling, I’ll smile as I say that part. And you can hear that smile in your voice. The children look for visual cues to understand the text so add a little performance to it.
A last way to really boost the engagement of your students or children during the read aloud is to get them involved in some way.
But it’s a bit trickier when you are reading aloud a novel. But - there are some ways to do it. One idea is to include your audience in some kind of small action.
I remember when I was taking a graduate education class, my professor read us Seedfolks. And I vividly recall her gently placing imaginary seeds into the palms of each of our hands as she read. Just that small little thing brought us into the story, and I’ve never forgotten it. (It also goes to show that you are never too old to enjoy a read aloud! And that you can get cool ideas by listening to experienced people read out loud.)
In our class, one of the mentor texts we use a lot is Eleven by Sandra Cisneros. And there’s this part where the teacher dumps this nasty old red cottage-cheese-smelling sweater on the desk of one of her students. So, of course when I read it aloud, I mimic dropping that sweater on a student’s desk and then aim the teacher’s dialogue at that kid.
Or one time I was reading a poem where one of the characters got their shoulder bumped by another person, so as I read that part and walked past a student I dipped down and (gently!) bumped their shoulder with mine. Now, you have to know your kids well enough to know who would respond well to that. Adding those little actions can really get the audience more invested and involved in the story.
At the end of the read aloud
At the end of the read aloud time, when you’ve got to stop. Always try to end on a cliffhanger - even if it’s the middle of a chapter. A lot of authors are really skilled at those chapter endings but you want to leave them wanting more! Begging to read just one more chapter! And sometimes - indulge them!
Most importantly - enjoy yourself! If you are having fun reading the story and you are getting into it - your kids will love it, too.
There a hundred reasons why read alouds are so important. Of course it models fluency and introduces sophisticated vocabulary. I’ll just end by mentioning that many accomplished readers talk so fondly about those early experiences being read to that sparked that passion for story in their lives. For me, that’s my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Simile, reading The Search for Delicious to us. I just fell head over heels for that story in a way that it became part of me. Read alouds create this shared experience that you and those children will have forever.
And now - I would love to hear from you! I am always looking for ways to improve my read alouds, and I’m sure our listeners would love more ideas as well. And I am sure you have some awesome suggestions! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.
Colby Sharp - Interview Outline
Our guest this week is Colby Sharp! He is a teacher, one of the founders of the Nerdy Book Club site, a co-host of The Yarn podcast, organizer of NerdCamp Michigan, and now…. author of The Creativity Project! A few weeks ago we sat down to chat about the book, what’s been inspiring him in his classroom, books he’s been reading, and so much more!
Take a listen...
The Creativity Project
The Creativity Project will finally make its way into the world this March. How did this project get started?
Logistically - how did the exchange of prompts work and how did you decide who received which prompt? Did you get to see them before they went out?
Are there some responses that are really memorable to you?
I love that The Creativity Project works not only as an anthology that you could just enjoy as a reader, but also as a spur to your own writing. It’s going to be a great resource for teachers!
Have you used the prompts in your own classroom?
What writing projects are you working on now?
Your Teaching Life
You recently switched grade levels - going from teaching 3rd grade to 5th grade. How has that been going for you?
What have been some of your favorite, most memorable teaching moments with your students this year?
What does reading look like in your class?
Your Reading Life
Something that I think about a lot is how sometimes it only takes ONE person to really influence a child’s reading life - either in a positive way or sometimes in a negative way.
Was there someone in your life who impacted you as a reader?
What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?
Colby’s website - https://www.mrcolbysharp.com
Books & Authors We Chatted About:
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)
Holes (Louis Sachar)
Enticing Hard to Reach Writers (Ruth Ayres)
The Truth as Told By Mason Buttle (Leslie Connor)
Freak the Mighty (Rodman Philbrick)
See You in the Cosmos (Jack Cheng)
Alright, that wraps up our show this week!
If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.
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Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.
Thanks and see you soon! Bye!