What Makes a Great Read Aloud? - The Teacher Studio: Learning, Thinking, Creating

What Makes a Great Read Aloud?

fish in a tree

As we move into the start of a new school year, of of my FAVORITE things to think about is what books I will be sharing as read alouds with my students.  Although I have a few "must reads" that I do every year, I am always on the hunt for new ones as well.

When thinking about what makes a really outstanding read aloud, I asked people on my Facebook page to chime in their THEIR ideas about what makes a really good one.  Let's see if you agree!
fourth grade novel

An amazing read aloud, hooks them in the beginning and keeps them hooked by relating to their lives and giving them great imagery! (Jenn, 4th grade, from CA)

I love a read aloud that involves adventure and excitement. Two of my favorites are Sign of the Beaver and The Indian in the Cupboard. Both of these books also help facilitate discussions with our Native students. (Amber, 4th grade, New Mexico)

Cassie (@casdahl) writes, "A good read aloud requires three things.  1.  A relatable storyline/characters.  Students need to be able to make a connection with the book.  2.  Time.  A good read aloud takes time.  It is not something that can be rushed or squeezzed in.  Discussions need to be had, feelings need to be shared, and predictions have to be made.  3.  Purpose.  You (and your students) need to know WHY you are reading the book.  Having a purpose can set your brain up to be more aware during reading and you can take so much more away from a book!

When it's a beautiful read!  I tell my students that books are like music, and different for everyone, and som books just feel good to yoru brain like some music speaks to some of us.  So I love to read them books that I really love to hear read.  On of my favorites is "Savvy" by Ingrid Law.  (@kategraym on IG)

On IG, @adventurasinamath says, "I love read alouds that have strong main characters that show them life through another person's point of view.  I like a variety of characters such as: strong girls/femails (Esperanza Rising, True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle), boys dealing with emotions (Wonder, Stone Fox, There's a Boy in the Girls Bathroom), and characters in tough situations (again Stone Fox, again True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Numer the Stars).  

I think when the kids can relate to the storey and really embrace and feel the emotion that goes with it, then it's awesome.  With this comes character development and change over time and solid talking points.  It does what books should do, take you to another place.  (@marielogue15)

I certainly can't argue with any of those!

For me, I have different "types" of read alouds.  I often use pictures books for "teachable moments" and mentor texts.  I may even read these books more than one time...once for the story, and then again to "study".  Often I will read them the FIRST time without showing my students the illustrations so they can practice "seeing" the story...then they confirm their ideas in a second read.

"Just in time" read alouds are fun too...might be an article or a cartoon or any other text I find that applies to what we are doing or studying...this is a great way to model "tuning in" to texts.  I love it when students take ownership of this idea and bring in their own texts to share!
fourth grade novel
Probably most PERSONAL, for me, is the selection of read aloud novels that I use as the foundation of my literacy instruction for the year.  Because I do SO much referring to these books with my reading and writing work--and because I can't read aloud for 2 hours a day--I need to choose these carefully.
Although we do have one text in our grade that we ALL read (The Tiger Rising), we have the latitude to choose whatever texts we want that support our curriculum.  I have a few questions I ask when considering a text:

1.  Is it LIKELY to be a new book for most of the students?  Not that we can't reread texts (I always ask students if they have ever watched an episode of a favorite TV show more than once!), but with SO many amazing books to share, I like to find things that I know they didn't hear in third grade.  

2.  Does it read aloud well?  This is a tricky one--and one that you can only figure out by reading aloud! A few years ago, I had read the book "The 100 Cupboards" over Christmas break and LOVED it...I thought all my students who were so into Harry Potter would love it--but the book was SO descriptive and the "action" was more emotional than physical...my students had a very hard time staying with it.  We powered through--but I knew that it was a MUCH better "read to self" book--and all students I have referred to it since then have loved it.  It just didn't work well as a read aloud, at least for me. 

3.  Is there something about the book that will connect students to our curriculum?  Now don't get me wrong...there are books to read just for fun.  "The Willoughby's" by Lois Lowry is a great example.  I COULD find some literary merit in it (and we do talk about the AMAZING vocabulary in it)...but mostly we just enjoy it.  That being said, I like to find books that I can connect to our literary units (when we write historical fiction, I want to immerse them in historical fiction), when we build classroom culture I want books with characters that we can talk about about learn from...and I also love to find books that help make connections between topics we study.  We do a huge immigration unit--so  I love to find texts to help paint a clear picture of that era for students.

4. Is it a text that will "stretch" the class--both in terms of the literary elements AND the themes involved?  I spend so much time working with students on "just right" books for their independent reading--but read alouds are a time to stretch students.  Finding books with symbolism, rich language, complicated plots, and interesting character development can be modeled and discussed with ALL students--even struggling readers.  This gives them practice thinking deeply about texts when they may not be able to access texts that are as rich when reading independently.  A few years ago I had a student whose independent reading level was "Henry and Mudge".  Now don't get me wrong--Henry and Mudge are great--but there certainly is very little deep thinking or interpretation to be made.  Watching this student  SHINE--and I mean like ROCK STAR SHINE--in our read aloud discussions helped me to see the depth of this thinking, built his confidence, and helped his classmates see him as a reader...something that he desperately needed.

There are a few read alouds I use almost every year--and as new amazing books get written, my list evolves a little bit.  I will always read "Wonder" at the end of the year.  Always.  I time it so I finish it on the last day of school--so we finish our school year with Auggie.  I absolutely love the books "Flutter" and "The Eight Keys"--for totally different reasons.  "Flutter" is a story of family...of growing up...of adventure...and is AMAZING for teaching symbolism.  "The Eight Keys" is a bullying story--but also speaks to growing up and discovering who you are--and how you treat people when you are figuring it out.  It is a GREAT book to compare to "Fish in a Tree", and students very naturally see the connections in many of the characters.

There are a few other books that make appearances...I ALWAYS read at least two historical fiction books--I always introduce the genre with Sarah, Plain and Tall (a perfect tie to our curriculum AND it's a quick read) and then choose from a number of different other texts depending on my group.  I always read aloud at least a few "first books" in a series or books by prolific authors...I've read from the Shredderman series many times...Andrew Clements books many times (Last year's group got "No Talking" for good reason!), and I've read books like "Among the Hidden" and the first Hank Zipzer book as well. I've read classics like "Bridge to Terabithia" and "Tuck Everlasting" and books that many people haven't heard of--it's fun to "try on" new books with groups!

For the last two years, I have started the year off with "Fish in a Tree".  I love this book for SO many of the reasons mentioned above by teachers around the world.  It hits home with so many students...and later when we read "The Eight Keys", my students make SO many connections between the characters and events in these two texts. I've put all my thoughts together in a resource that has helped a ton of teachers really "dig deep" into this book.  Check it out if you are interested.   If you HAVEN'T read "Fish in a Tree", I cannot stress enough what a powerful text it is, especially for grades 4 and 5.
novel study

Thanks to everyone for chiming in with their ideas--I'm sorry I couldn't publish them all--but I had dozens of ideas shared!  Hope you are all staying cool...  


  1. How long do you take each day to read the Read Aloud and then how much time to you give for discussion? I understand time will vary but I'm curious. I think I need to devote more than 20 minutes of reading time and 10-15 discussion. It took me soooo long to get through my Read Alouds last year, I feel like I should have read more. I haven't read Fish in a Tree yet, I'm thinking of trying that one out. On my kindle to read this week!

    1. It varies for me...depends on if we are reading just for enjoyment or if I try to squeeze in a little minilesson. I would say my read aloud varies from 12-25 minutes...a lot depends on chapter length and what units we are in, etc. 20 is pretty standard for me. I hope you LOVE, Fish in a Tree...my students loved it and made TONS of connections to The Eight Keys...they really served as mentor texts that we revisited all year.

  2. Oh how I love Fish in a Tree. Last year was my first time reading it to my kiddos and they were so patient as I cried through the ending! .. "Mrs. Freemantle, why are you crying?!"... "because this is why I love teaching!" .... sigh, then they giggled and cried right along with me. :-)

    1. Awww...it really is an amazing book--on so many levels. We talked about it all year long.

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  5. Do you participate in the Global Read Aloud? Last year's book was Fish in a Tree and we connected with students in Australia to discuss the book. If you are not familiar with the Global Read Aloud check it out, it's a great idea!

    1. I have in the past--probably won't be able to squeeze in Pax this year, however!

  6. Just finished Fish in a Tree a couple weeks ago...soooo good! It will be on my 'read aloud' list for the upcoming school year.

  7. Have you ever read True (...sort of) by Katharine Hannigan? Deeply moving story. Students made so many connections. Two years in a row now my kids have said on their end of year surveys that is the book I HAVE to read aloud to the next group.

    1. I read it last year myself but did not do it as a read aloud. GREAT book!

  8. What book did you read immediately following Fish in a Tree? Was it Eight Keys, or did you read another novel first?

  9. I read The Tiger Rising after Fish in a Tree...


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