Using Read-Alouds to Improve Older Elementary Students’ Literacy Skills

A daily read-aloud can help build community and show reluctant readers how to approach a text.

February 22, 2021
Tetra Images, LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’re like most teachers, you know that at the beginning of the year you’re going to hear, “I hate reading, and there’s nothing you can do to change my mind!” Each year, these discouraging words are a professional challenge. However, you can change the hearts of disenfranchised readers—one book at a time.

Reading proficiency is a national crisis that our profession continuously tries to address, yet educational leaders are often divided on the best approach to solving this problem. Some elementary teachers believe there should be more focus on phonics instruction, while others advocate teaching comprehension strategies. Some advocate for a balanced-literacy approach.

One approach that is often overlooked due to the inordinate amount of testing that students are subjected to is the power of the read-aloud. Some educators feel they simply don’t have the class time to devote to this activity, while others are fearful of the backlash they would receive if their administrators caught them “wasting” time on this activity. However, reading aloud to students each day is not only a productive investment; it also has powerful benefits for learners of all ages.

Throughout my 25 years in education, the read-aloud was my way of getting the most stubborn students to fall in love with reading. I called it Stinky Feet Time because I allowed my fourth and fifth graders the chance to take off their shoes, sprawl out on the floor, and listen to stories come alive, and this part of our reading class was a sacred time. Devoting just five to seven minutes a day to Stinky Feet Time, I marveled at how easy it was to motivate the most reluctant of readers to embrace literacy again. All teachers should consider adding a read-aloud to their daily agendas, as there are so many benefits to reading to students of all ages.

Why Stinky Feet Time Works

Reading aloud daily demonstrates a commitment to literacy in an authentic and nonthreatening way. When students see teachers sharing literacy in this way, it allows them to simply enjoy a good book. Too often, children view reading as an arduous task because teachers have coupled reading with comprehension questions at the end of each chapter.

Modeling reading strategies is a great way for educators to demonstrate what good readers do when they don’t know a word, understand a plot twist, or agree with a character in the story (even if they really do).

Read-alouds promote student choice and leadership. Before starting a new novel, students can nominate books that interest them. This allows teachers to ensure that students are exposed to books that have characters that look like them, or it can challenge students to consider the perspectives of others who are different.

Over the past year, the global pandemic has made students and teachers feel more isolated and alone. Taking a few minutes a day to connect as a community during Stinky Feet Time not only will be beneficial for students academically but also will allow teachers to select literature in which the characters face and overcome adversity and obstacles. And our students need this message now more than ever.

More benefits for students:

  • Only one in three students is proficient in reading; thus, reading aloud daily gives students the opportunity to hear an adult model reading skills. This increases the likelihood that these skills will be transferred to students.
  • Scholastic’s 2019 “Kids & Family Reading Report” found that 83 percent of students ages 6–17 surveyed said that being read to was something they either loved or liked a lot. If the majority of students report the read-aloud as an enjoyable experience, then teachers should capitalize on this!

How to Implement Stinky Feet Time

Choose a novel that will connect with your students. The most efficient way to do this is by surveying your class and inquiring about the types of stories they enjoy. Students appreciate teachers who genuinely seek out their opinions because educators don’t have many opportunities to bring literary autonomy into the classroom.

Be regimented in ensuring that Stinky Feet Time happens every day. In order for your students to reap all the benefits that read-alouds have to offer, they must occur daily. All too often, it’s easier to omit this portion of the academic agenda, especially if your administration doesn’t embrace this philosophy of learning. However, I discovered that once I made a commitment to read to my students daily, it quickly became the thing we all looked forward to in each class.

Embrace your inner performance artist when you read! Children of all ages love to be entertained, and watching a teacher bring a story to life is magical. When teachers react to the plot and the characters, they’re modeling what good readers do when they truly interact with a book. Consider giving your students time to discuss the themes, plot developments, and character motivations that arise as you progress through the book.

Cliffhangers can create a momentum of motivation, so be sure to end your Stinky Feet Time at a part of the book that will leave all of your students begging for more. At the end of a novel, celebrate your accomplishment by having a book club event. Bring in blankets, pillows, and treats. Some of my favorite memories in education happened as I listened to students reflect on how the book impacted them.

Be ready to unveil the next Stinky Feet Time book as soon as you finish the one you’re reading. Consider covering it in wrapping paper, so it feels like students are unwrapping a gift as you reveal the next book. Presentation matters, so be sure to make this part of your routine big!

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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