Breaking the Cycle: Have Intervention Students Practice Reading Aloud

I loved working with my upper elementary reading intervention students in my READ 180 classroom and watching them close their gaps toward grade-level proficiency. I believed that if I could get them reading more often, they would grow even faster, but these were reluctant readers who had experienced too many years of lagging behind their peers and lacked confidence in their newly acquired abilities. 

I pondered this, and then a brainstorm hit: I would have them read books to kindergarten students in classrooms on campus. I gathered up a collection of big books from the school resource room and introduced them to the wonderful world of read-alouds. It was electrifying seeing students introducing themselves and their books, voicing the characters, pausing to ask for predictions, and identifying and explaining words that might be unfamiliar to their young audiences. They used recesses and lunchtimes to practice. Some students worked solo, while others partnered up to read different pages or voice different characters. The kindergarten teachers were duly impressed, and students always returned beaming from ear to ear and ready to tackle a new title. It was a smashing success!

A few years later, I was working on my master’s degree in reading and language arts and decided to expand this concept. The 1985 National Institute of Education report Becoming a Nation of Readers stated, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” Many of my students came from homes where print materials were scarce or nonexistent. If someone had been able to read to them when they were younger, perhaps they would not have wound up needing reading intervention later on.  

Each year, I saw a new crop of kindergartners arrive without the benefit of having been read to, and by the time they reached the upper grades, they were jockeying for the limited student slots in my intervention classroom. I believed that the strategic proximity of the older siblings to the target audience of younger siblings placed them in an ideal position to become effective agents of change to break this cycle. I would arm my students with books and send them home to read them to their younger siblings—particularly those who had not yet started school. (Those who didn’t have younger siblings were encouraged to read to nieces, nephews, cousins, or neighborhood kids. And if they struggled to access one of those categories, they could even read to animals or—don’t laugh—prop up their pillows and read to them! No one wanted to be left out, and even my “stuffing whisperers” had a blast doing the read-alouds.) Here is how I put this all into place!

Creating a Library and Generating Interest

I lobbied with friends, family members, and DonorsChoose to assemble a decent library of engaging read-aloud books for young students. I put the books into bins and organized a lending system; acquired plastic bookbags, mainly to protect them from inclement weather and provide a way of tracing misplaced bags back to my classroom; and began to introduce my students to the various titles, doing occasional reads using the read-aloud techniques I was teaching them.  

Conducting Pretesting

I met with the preschool-age siblings before initiating the program to do a Concepts of Print test using a modified version of Marie Clay’s Concepts of Print assessment. I was stunned that almost none of the students could identify the front of a book, where to start, or in what direction to turn the pages. I also pre-assessed the older siblings about their attitudes toward reading and books in both recreational and academic settings using the Garfield Test. 

Teaching the Fine Art of Reading Aloud

I wanted students to use techniques for reading aloud to their younger siblings that went beyond the techniques they had been using during the kindergarten read-alouds. I used practices recommended by Jim Trelease in The Read-Aloud Handbook:

  • Sit next to the listener, or place the listener on the reader’s lap.
  • Introduce the book.  Identify the cover, front, and back. Read the title.
  • Take a “book walk” to preview the book and build background.
  • Read the book while tracking the text with a finger. Invite the listener to join in on repetitive text and imitate sound effects.
  • Pause for predictions, to clarify, and to summarize.
  • Don’t get discouraged if the listener cannot sit through the whole book at one sitting.
  • Read slowly enough to be understood.
  • Voice the characters.
  • Make it enjoyable, and let the listener pick which book they want.
Launching the Program

Once the library was set up and pre-assessment and training were complete, students were allowed to check out up to five books at a time to take home and read to younger siblings. There was a steady stream of books going back and forth into the homes of my students. Some couldn’t wait to exchange titles and bring home new books, and others kept returning to pick up their favorites. Students would share stories about their reads and which books were most popular. 

So, Did It Work?

At the end of only two months, I reassessed both the younger and older siblings with remarkable results.   The younger siblings’ concepts of print scores jumped from an average of 1.7 concepts mastered to an average of 5.8. The older siblings showed improved attitudes toward reading and greater self-confidence and experienced a sense of purpose by making a difference in their households.

Many of them found themselves wanting to write more as well. They also developed their own teaching “strategies” to help their younger siblings learn. In second-language homes, students became masters at translating and developing vocabulary for their younger siblings.  Many of the parents noticed a shift in closeness between their children as the weeks passed—fighting was less frequent, and sibling interactions were more harmonious. What I hadn’t expected was how the rest of the family was pulled into the experience: Parents would pick up the books and also read them to their children. Visitors to the homes were often treated to a reading. And in one home, there was a sibling who created puppets to act out the stories.

Most of the younger siblings my students read to arrived at school already loving books, and reading skills were locked in early in the primary grades. It has been exciting to see that my reading intervention students were able to break the cycle for their siblings and reshape the literacy within their homes.

I recall one student in particular who, on his initial Garfield Test, showed indifference to the idea of going to a bookstore. I asked him why and he answered that he really had never been to a bookstore, so he wasn’t sure he felt anything about the prospect of going. On the post-assessment, he showed great anger at the prospect of going to a bookstore. I was perplexed and asked him why. He said, “I still have never been to a bookstore, but now I’m really angry that I haven’t had the chance!” He had truly developed a passion for reading—perhaps for him and his classmates, these renewed attitudes toward reading will be something they will carry with them into their own families someday. It’s my hope that other teachers will carry this program into more schools, into more classrooms, and—most especially—into more homes.

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Learn more about HMH’s READ 180 Universal intervention program, which is celebrating 20 years of innovation and acceleration. You can also watch a video about one of blog contributor Donna Pappas' READ 180 students and her journey.

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