Read-Aloud Mentors: From Reluctant Readers to Inspiring Leaders
Originally published August 2021
By Lisa Rose
As a newer interventionist, I was excited to help high school students develop a passion for reading. I faced a formidable task: engage reluctant readers and address their needs with minimal resources for an entire 90 minutes.
Where to begin? At my disposal I had a quaint classroom library filled with donated, diverse reading materials, which I accessorized with motivational posters and colorful lanterns. I started preparing solid, teacher-directed strategies: “Today, we will summarize informational text…” Yet, I didn’t have to be an expert in reading nonverbal cues to understand what the slumped shoulders and less-than-enthusiastic responses of the students were telling me. My direct instruction and corner library ambiance were doing little to spur any excitement for reading.
Cross-Age Service Learning
In spite of my efforts, I knew I had to return to the proverbial drawing board. Then, a solution dawned on me while taking my daughters to a “read-to-the-animals” program at our local shelter. During the training, the coordinator explained that reading is soothing for the animals and helps to socialize them, making them more adoptable. At the same time, it’s also a fun way to help the volunteers enhance their reading fluency.
What an inspiration it was to witness my girls’ joy as they read book after book to the shelter’s furry residents. Their enthusiasm made me wonder if a similar idea could be incorporated into my classroom.
Although it wouldn’t be possible to take my entire class to read at the shelter, I began to look for other service learning opportunities. During my research, I came across the concept of cross-age service learning, which integrates service learning strategies into a cross-age tutoring program. Basically, older students act as mentors for younger learners while engaging in an act of curriculum-based community service.
I began to delve deeper, reading studies about cross-age reading partnerships that saw increased motivation and achievement in both the younger listeners and older read-aloud mentors. But as most cross-age tutoring occurs on a weekly basis, I needed to figure out how to make it feasible in a high school setting.
In the end, I decided to utilize the power of technology. Why not have my students make their own audio recordings of books? Not only could these recordings be listened to over and over, at any time, but they could be made available to a wide number of young readers in the community.
From that simple idea, my very own learning project was born, and it completely transformed my approach to intervention.
The Read to Me Project
To kick off the project, I invited a guest media specialist to come and speak with my class about the importance of early literacy and the positive impact of older students reading to younger ones.
Next, each of my students selected a picture book and became “experts” on their stories. Suddenly, students were interested in learning strategies such as summarizing, theme, and fluency, since they would need to incorporate these elements into the project. I was thrilled to see my students excited by and engaging with the project. Formerly tardy or absent students even started attending class on a daily basis.
I then invited theater students to share a presentation about their acting experiences and how to dramatize character voices. We laughed while playing improvisational games, trying to use our wit and think quickly on our feet. The classroom echoed with chuckles and expressive voices as my students practiced their “acting skills” and rehearsed their readings.
Final audio recordings were made available by QR code throughout the district’s elementary school libraries. Any student could now select a story in their library and listen to my class’ audiobook narrations while following along in the book. My students were famous!
I ended up visiting one of the elementary school libraries myself and interviewing a student who had listened to one of the stories. His response: “ten out of ten!” with an enthusiastic display of both hands in the air.
Students as Leaders
For the final stage of the project, we took a field trip to a first grade classroom at our local elementary school. I wanted to give my students a chance to read their stories in person and experience the immediate feedback to their hard work. A din of voices reverberated throughout the bus as students reminisced about their own elementary school days. As we walked through the brightly decorated hallways, students were awed by how tiny the desks were and how young the elementary students looked in comparison to their memories.
When we arrived at the first grade classroom, the teacher introduced my students to the attentive young audience. Each high school reader sat with their reading partner at one of the learning tables, desks, or on the patchwork “ABC” carpet. Tentatively, and with shy smiles, my students began reading their books.
It didn’t take long for shyness to transform into poised shoulders and confident voices as students relived the dramatization they had rehearsed. The first graders sat wide-eyed with keen interest. As stories drew to a close, my students asked their prepared comprehension questions and engaged in rapport-building conversations with the younger learners: “Do you have a favorite book or author? What is one of your hobbies? What is your favorite part about school?”
We received a thundering round of applause, and I couldn’t help the tears welling up in my eyes as I watched my students experience the positive outcome of all their efforts. They had grown from reluctant readers into leaders and mentors, promoting a joy for reading in their younger peers as they demonstrated just how fun books can be.
Later on, back in our own classroom, we engaged in a robust discussion about the entire project and the culminating field trip. In their written reports, students shared comments such as, “My favorite part was reading to the first graders,” “I liked making the kids happy,” and “I liked recording the stories and creating the sound effects!”
Shortly after, we received thank you notes from our first-grade partners with colorful depictions of my students and messages of gratitude: “You are the best reader. Will you come back?”
I continue to refine the cross-age service learning approach as my students share their voices and provide feedback. I’m always looking for ways to integrate the strategies that were embedded within the Read to Me project into my everyday classes.
With the advent of distance learning, the school invested in further digital literacy projects so my students could conduct their service learning remotely. Regardless of the format, be it in-person, pen-pal, or virtual, students have consistently shared that these projects have been valuable and enjoyable experiences. One of the huge benefits is the way students see themselves. Rather than a class focused on deficit repair, students shine as leaders who have special and meaningful attributes to contribute to our community.
Lisa Rose is an experienced educator in secondary reading intervention and holds a Master of Science in Reading. She is also an award-winning, published photographer in a local city magazine, and her scones garnered a baking competition ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.