Teachers often ask how I select books for reading aloud. When I first started to teach, I simply wanted to expose my students (and myself) to new titles and authors. I had very little expectation for what those books would be. Often times, I selected a book neither my students nor I had read before. Over the years, my expectations have changed dramatically. Twelve years later I have a very thoughtful and deliberate way that I select books to read aloud. You can view my list for grades 3-6 at http://www.readsidebyside.com/publications.html.
Reading aloud is an opportunity to ignite students’ interest in new authors and genres. I know that my students will gravitate toward the most popular, up and coming literature on their own (books like Diary of Wimpy Kid, The Hunger Games). My job is to expose them to books I know they will love that they may not select on their own. In doing so, I broaden their reading interests. I begin by considering what genres students will encounter as they select books at their grade level from the school or local library. Then, I make sure I explicitly teach and model how to read those genres in our read-aloud time.
Read-Aloud Genres by Grade Level:
3rd Grade: Fantasy, realistic fiction, biography, historical fiction, and legend
4th Grade: Epic fantasy, realistic fiction, biography, historical non-fiction, and historical fiction
5th Grade: Realistic fiction (complex story structure), biography, historical non-fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction
6th Grade: Complex mystery, realistic fiction (complex story structure), historical non-fiction, and historical fiction
You will find detailed genre charts and posters on my website readsidebyside.com. Visit the teacher toolkit.
At the beginning of the year, I am looking for a book that will grab the interest of all my students, and build their confidence as readers. Therefore, I select a genre that they have already been exposed to in an earlier grade—usually realistic fiction or fantasy. Books with a suspenseful or relatable plot are good for the beginning of the year. I also consider the gender of the character, and typically aim for a male main character for the first book of the year. I find that my girls aren’t picky about the gender of the main character, whereas my boys are. Starting with a male main character will help grab boys’ interest early in the year.
The first read-aloud of the year will be the launching pad for independent reading. Therefore, I aim to select books that are part of a series or chronicle. For example, at fourth grade I recommend starting with the book Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. This book is realistic fiction, has a boy as the main character, and is the first in a chronicle of three. Students who enjoy this read-aloud can continue reading the remaining books in the Shiloh story.
September Read-Aloud Recommendations by Grade Level:
3rd Grade: Poppy, by Avi
4th Grade: Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
5th Grade: Earthquake Terror, by Peg Kehret
6th Grade: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin
Intertextuality Across the Year
A strong read-aloud book will remain in each student’s mind long after reading. It will be a text that students refer back to as they read other texts. Vocabulary presented in the text will be referenced in other text of the same genre or theme. Craft such as symbolism, metaphor, and foreshadowing will be recognized in other books throughout the year. This inter-connection among texts is critical to students’ success as they encounter higher text levels throughout the year. In addition, selecting the right text at elementary can support their understanding of classic literature read in middle and high school.
When planning your yearlong scope and sequence, consider themes and topics that will connect across genres. For example, at fourth grade I recommend starting the year with Shiloh, which has a strong theme of right vs. wrong. Continue to explore that theme in your second read-aloud, Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop.
I also find that it helps to select a social studies focus for the year. Not only will this help students make connections across books of similar topics, it will extend students’ understanding of social studies content. For example, at fourth grade I have selected 'westward exploration and expansion' as the social studies focus. Three of the books in the series for fourth grade will connect to these topics.
Social Studies Topics by Grade Level:
3rd Grade: The Civil Rights Movement
4th Grade: Westward Exploration and Expansion
5th Grade: The Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution
6th Grade: The Great Depression
Intertextuality Across the Years
Just as selecting the right texts across a single year can build student’s understanding of intertextual connections, so can selecting the right texts across a student’s scholarly career. This is why when I select books for the elementary levels, I consider the connections to texts students will likely be reading in middle and high school.
When students read about Martin Luther King and the desegregation of the south as third graders, these topics will be foundational to the reading of classic literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee and the writings of Mildred D. Taylor, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison.
Learning about the conflict between Native Americans and early explorers in fourth grade will help students access books like The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, and Great Speeches by Native Americans by Bob Blaisdell.
The popular novel Holes by Louis Sachar draws strong connections to popular middle school literature, including Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, beautifully introduces the topic of slavery during the time of the American Revolution. Students will feel deep empathy of Isabel and this will increase students’ interest in the popular high school text To Be a Slave by Julius Lester.
Kids at Work by Russell Freedman highlights the injustices of child slavery in the United States. This book will call students’ attention to human rights, leading them to topics such as Women’s Suffrage in high school.
Science fiction will be introduced for the first time through the novel The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau and will prepare students for classic science fiction such as 1984 by George Orwell.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is an engaging but complex mystery. Students will learn how to keep track of characters and evidence, preparing them for the classic mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and novels that include elements and themes of the mystery genre, such as The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas.
One of my favorite books for sixth grade is a photo essay by Jerry Stanley, Children of the Dust Bowl. This book lays the background knowledge necessary for accessing The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a popular novel for high school.
As you can see, reading aloud is no longer simply ‘reading for fun after recess’. Instead, it is a seized opportunity to develop students’ background knowledge, vocabulary, and listening comprehension for the purpose of preparing them for the complex literature of middle school, high school, and beyond.
Now, as I select books to read with my students, I spend time carefully and thoroughly reading each book before launching the read-aloud in the classroom. I know that, though a big investment of time, this practice will reap huge rewards for my students, as they increase their confidence and broaden their reading interests.