Why I Read To Eighth Graders

About Katie Sluiter

Katie Sluiter is currently an 8th English teacher in West Michigan. She has taught middle school, high school, and community college and has her Masters Degree in Teaching English. Her writing has been featured on BonBon Break, BlogHer, Today Moms, and The Washington Post. She has also been published in numerous anthologies, most recently Mothering Through The Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience. She is a member of and has presented at both NCTE and MCTE. She is a National Writing Project participant and has been published in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan multiple times.

They have to read on their own. You should be assigning reading and having them read it, not reading it all to them. That’s spoon-feeding.

I have heard this for the past thirteen years I’ve been teaching. When I taught high school English, I would read The Odyssey aloud to my ninth graders,  The Great Gatsby to my eleventh grade American Literature students, and Beowulf to my seniors. Now that I teach junior high, I read all of the “required” texts out loud to my eighth graders, including Hero (Rottman) and The Giver (Lowry).

Despite other teachers telling me I was being “too easy” on my students, I continued to read out loud even though I didn’t have hard research to support my practice; I just felt in my gut that I was doing the right thing. For one, most of my students simply wouldn’t do the reading if I assigned it. It’s really hard to have a class discussion or have students write a response if they have read the material. Secondly, year after year, I would talk to former students who did not have me for English talking about how they hated certain books. My own former students would counter with, “Really? I LOVED that book! I remember Mrs. Sluiter would have this big plot map on the board while she read to us, and she did the voices, and we had these great discussions.” Those kinds of comments alone were enough for me. Maybe my students were reading on their own, but they were thinking on their own about the ideas in the books.

Later, I would do massive research about why kids hate reading and how to build and nurture life-long readers.

One article in particular, written by Richard Allington and Racheal E Gabriel for Educational Leadership titled “Every Child, Every Day”, has had a profound influence on how I approach reading in my own classroom, which is now filled with 8th grade students.Not only do they support the idea of choice for readers, but they adamantly urge that every student “listens to a fluent adult read aloud.”

From the article:

“Listening to an adult model fluent reading increases students’ own fluency and comprehension skills”(Trelease, 2001), as well as expanding their vocabulary, background knowledge, sense of story, awareness of genre and text structure, and comprehension of the texts read (Wu & Samuels, 2004).”

While opportunities to read silently to themselves or out loud with a group or partner are provided, rarely do teachers beyond the lower elementary grades take the time to read to their students. High school teachers almost never take the time to read to students. I find this troubling for a number of reasons.

First, I found that the “required texts” that I had to teach were often far above the reading levels of many of the students in my classes. For instance, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has a lexile of a 1070, while this is supposedly an 8th grade reading level, I would dare to bet many adults find Fitzgerald’s long, descriptive sentences and uncommon word choice difficult to manure.  In chapter 3, for instance, readers will find Nick at one of Gatsby’s parties which he describes as “instead of rambling, this party had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside–East Egg condescending to West Egg and carefully on guard against its spectroscopic gayety” (44). If you were to ask a typical eighth grader to explain what this sentence says, they would probably stare at you blankly because they didn’t get past the word “homogeneity”.

My eleventh graders were no different. However if I read the book out loud, not only could we pause to clarify, we could talk about the ideas once they were clarified. This built vocabulary (Fitzgerald uses variations on the word “incredulous” so many times,  my students were pointing it out in other texts by the end of the year), added to their knowledge of socioeconomic status and its effects on an individual’s success, and helped them make cross-curricular connections.

Currently my  eighth grade English class is reading Hero by S.L. Rottman together. I read aloud every day and we discuss characters, plot, theme, etc. While all of my students would be able to read this book to themselves, I still use the fact that this book is an “all class text” as an opportunity for my students to hear an adult reading fluently. It helps them hear what a book can sound like in their own head. It shows them that books are more than words on a page, but a story waiting to be told.

Many of my students love the book and are very sad if we have a day that we cannot get to it, and yet it’s not a book many of them would have just picked up off the shelf themselves to read. Hearing a book like that come to life sets off a light bulb in the heads of many students: if this book is good, maybe there are others like it. Maybe books can sound like this when I read too.

My students are immersed in reading from the moment they walk in my classroom. They choose their own books and read silently. They read some texts out loud with each other. And they also listen to me read every day.

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About the Author:

Katie Sluiter is currently an 8th English teacher in West Michigan. She has taught middle school, high school, and community college and has her Masters Degree in Teaching English. Her writing has been featured on BonBon Break, BlogHer, Today Moms, and The Washington Post. She has also been published in numerous anthologies, most recently Mothering Through The Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience. She is a member of and has presented at both NCTE and MCTE. She is a National Writing Project participant and has been published in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan multiple times.

2 Comments

  1. Ellie November 30, 2016 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    Hello, I am an 8th grade reading teacher in Milwaukee. I enjoyed your post and would like to read aloud to my students as well. I find that they absolutely love it when I do, but it is hard to schedule time in the day to fit this in. I’m also wondering how long their attention spans last for read-aloud. About how many minutes do you read to your students each day, on average? Thanks for another great post!

    • Katie Sluiter December 1, 2016 at 8:47 am - Reply

      Hi Ellie!
      I usually set aside about 20 minutes a day to read aloud. Sometimes if we read longer, but much more than 25 minutes and even the most engaged students get a bit restless. If I read less than 15 minutes, they are way bummed out and we can’t really get into anything for discussion. 20 minutes is really the perfect amount.

      A typical day in my class looks like this:
      5 minutes for a bell ringer (writing to a prompt)
      20 minutes of either silent reading or working on vocabulary or grammar (we alternate this every other day: Mon/Wed is silent reading and Tue/Thurs is vocab)
      20 minutes of reading together
      15 minutes for discussion/group/partner talks/closure

      I hope that helps!

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