Teacher to teacher

Shared reading in the HS classroom

I was shocked. After several days of listening to my 11th-grade students loudly voice their disinterest and confusion as we worked — or, more precisely, slogged — our way through Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” they were suddenly begging me to keep reading to them. As I closed the book, multiple students groaned and I felt a long-awaited sense of relief; finally, they were hooked and comprehending, at least for the 15 minutes that had just flown by. What had I done differently than the day before?

Because “The Crucible” is a play, from the beginning I had asked eager student volunteers to read different roles. Yet as a result of the “old-fashioned” language that was unfamiliar to their ears and mouths, many of them found the words difficult to pronounce and the sentences hard to string together. This combination of factors led to frustration on behalf of the student readers — and the classmates who were expected to listen to them.

During the class period I just described, however, I had reverted to what I have found to be the tried-and-true, best-practice way of getting adolescent readers, especially those who are struggling and reluctant, engaged in new reading material: shared reading. This strategy is often employed in English classrooms, but for many reasons students would greatly benefit from the use of shared reading in their math, science and history classrooms as well.

What exactly is shared reading? At the middle and high school levels, shared reading generally refers to the classroom scenario in which the teacher presents a reading or literacy strategy focus and then reads aloud as students follow along while keeping the focus in mind. This opportunity for students to see and hear fluent reading being modeled is usually followed by close reading and then, by an activity in connection with the reading focus.

In “The Crucible” example, I posed a question and then read several pages to my students, using different voices for each character and making implicit meanings in the text clear through my intonation and expressions. I essentially acted it out in order to ensure they did not have to work too hard to understand the text and could therefore begin to rebuild their confidence that “The Crucible” was a book that was actually accessible to them, both in terms of the language and the storyline.

I’ll confess that I’ve done quite a bit of acting. But even if you believe expressive reading is not up your alley, try the following: Practice several times beforehand or consider playing the audio book version of whatever book you are reading.

In most content-area classes other than English, students are expected to read silently or for homework, and teachers rarely address reading and writing strategies in class; yet these classes often require high-level literacy skills in order to succeed. Science and history classes, for example, require students to understand subject-specific vocabulary and be able to comprehend academic writing that is often far more challenging than the novel they are reading in English class. Shared reading can help scaffold this comprehension process, and incorporating it can be especially helpful when you are trying to pique your students’ interest or provide additional exposure to academic vocabulary.

For example, math teachers can do shared readings of word problems in order to help the students visualize them. In order to make the shared reading more compelling, consider adding in descriptive, kid-friendly language that creates imagery in the readers’ minds. In addition, math problems often use the passive voice, which many students find difficult to understand, especially English language learners for whom a sentence constructed this way can be very challenging to comprehend (“100 apples are divided into five bags”). Hearing you read it may be exactly what your students need to understand what the question is asking of them.

In science, teachers can strategically select relevant articles that are appropriate for oral reading, such as articles that include attention-grabbing anecdotes, and expressively read them aloud prior to a class discussion.

Kill two birds with one stone by integrating recently introduced vocabulary words into the reading, thus increasing your students’ exposure to those words. And in history, there is nothing like a dramatic reading of the Gettysburg Address to help your students comprehend “old-fashioned” language: “The great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead … we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Of course, shared reading is only one literacy-building strategy and should not take the place of silent reading, read alouds and small-group reading. Yet when used strategically, shared reading can and will greatly benefit your students. And who knows? Maybe you will discover your calling for the stage.

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