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Surprised By Reading: Confessions of a Math Teacher

Voice of ExperienceTime pressures and accountability have caused many educators to look seriously at the way they use class time. One of the results: many teachers are not reading aloud to students as much as they did in the past. Educator Brenda Dyck reflects on the power of reading aloud to middle school students. Included: Resources for helping teachers re-establish "read alouds" in their classrooms.

I've just about finished reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to my grade 6 students. I admit this rather sheepishly because I am not a language arts teacher -- I teach math.

The truth is, I really miss the bonding experience that goes with reading aloud to students. That's why I've been reading to them in homeroom or whenever we can grab a few minutes. They beg me to read. They frequently ask me what we will read next.

I must admit I have been a little surprised by my students' enthusiasm. At first, I thought their interest was related to being allowed to "play hooky" from math. Then one day, when I happened to look up from my reading, I realized that 25 pairs of eyes were glued to me. All ears were listening with rapt anticipation. Another give-away about their interest was the questions and comments fired my way as I passed students in the hall:

Are you reading to us today?

We haven't been read to since grade 5. I love being read to.

I've been thinking about the book. If Claudia and Jamie spent $3.00 a day at the museum, wouldn't they have run out of money?

When was that book written? I figure it had to be a long time ago, since a newspaper only cost 10 cents.

I wanted to learn more about this phenomenon (to me, anyway) I was observing, so one day, I asked my students point-blank why they enjoyed being read to so much. I was told:

"When you get older, no one ever reads to you in school.

"I love your voice. It helps me picture what's going on in the story, and I don't have to struggle with figuring the words out."

"It's so relaxing. It helps me settle down so that I can work later."

I asked my colleagues if they were reading aloud to their students. I learned that few teachers felt they could take the time, even though they wished they could.

More Voices of Experience!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?

One teacher told me that the University of Oxford makes a practice of organizing "reading salons" -- where professors read aloud scholarly works to their students. It appears that, in the midst of their emphasis on teaching and research, even this prestigious university recognizes the value of reading aloud to students! It seems they recognize some of the many benefits reading aloud can bring. Reading aloud
  • engages listeners while developing background knowledge, increasing comprehension skills, and fostering critical thinking.
  • models the use of reading strategies that aid in comprehension.
  • exposes students to books beyond their reading level.
  • expands a listener's vocabulary.
  • stimulates the imagination.

I've discovered that the books we read to our students can have a life that goes far beyond the classroom. Reading The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has unleashed a dream in one of my students. Because of her strong interest in this book, she and her mother are currently planning a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the setting for the book. She tells me the book started it all.

I knew I had hit on something the day one of my struggling, disinterested students shoved a scrap of paper and a pencil my way and said

"Will you write the name of the book and the author down, please? I want to read it on my own."

A few days later, while reading to the class, I looked up, and there she was, reading along with me. She had bought her own copy of the book! That must be what author Thomas Carlyle meant when he wrote, "The best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self-activity."


Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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