Why Reading Aloud is the Perfect Distance Learning Strategy

By Laurel Schmidt

Teachers seem to have an extraordinary ability to make order out of chaos, particularly when it comes to rounding up dozens of free-range children who are loath to give up their freedom.  They plunge in where others fear to tread and the next thing you know, they’re presiding over a group of kids who are seated, listening and more or less ready to work. But this is a much bigger challenge when your students are somewhere out in cyberspace. So, what can you do to ensure that they’ll show up on time, be riveted from the first minute and eager to return for the next session?

Read aloud. That’s right. Open a book and start reading in your most spellbinding voice. Don’t hold back. Ham it up! Trot out some of those voices you only use in the privacy of your own head.

Now, you may think this is a waste time, especially when time is so scarce. And besides, your students are a little old for that routine. Think again. Eighty-three percent of older students surveyed reported that they loved being read to. I read aloud to my middle school students nearly every day and you could hear a pin drop in the room, followed by baying for more when I stopped.

Maybe you love this idea, but wonder if you can really afford to devote a full ten minutes to something that seems like pure pleasure. Well, before you decide, I’d encourage you to consider these facts about reading aloud.  First, being read to is the single most important predictor that a child will become a reader. And second, information is most easily learned and retained when it is presented in a narrative form—a story.

Yes, this cherished bedtime ritual is a powerful learning tool—the multi-tasking workhorse of the curriculum. While your students are hanging on your every word, you’ll be seamlessly teaching history or science, vocabulary, sentence structure, critical thinking and social skills. Not to mention improving the odds that they’ll be lifelong readers.

So, what to read? Most teachers have a whole storehouse of popular titles, but if your students are old enough for chapter books, there’s one category that seems particularly appropriate for the current situation. Time travel stories. Seriously, what wouldn’t you give for a time machine right about now? And even in normal times, kids adore this genre.

Time travel books usually start in the present with a couple of curious kids who accidentally unlock the secret to time travel and escape to another century. There’s fear, confusion and a scramble for survival, as they joust with knights, get a whiff of gunpowder beside a Civil war battlefield, and learn to adjust to life without TV or the internet. In the process, your students get an eye-witness account of people, places and events in the past. So, they absorb enormous amounts of content knowledge about the politics, economics and social life of the time, observe the effects of geography, the origin of inventions, levels of technology and the effect of the material culture on daily life.

The list of time travel books is extensive and you may already have your favorites, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce has a main character who’s under quarantine because of a measles outbreak, but finds escape and adventure in a garden that exists in another time and place.
  • Flashback Four—The Lincoln Project by Dan Gutman describes four different kids who are picked by a mysterious billionaire to travel through time and photograph some of history’s most important events.
  • Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander chronicles a boy and his cat as they travel through time to experience many monumental moments in history.
  • Max and Me and the Time Machine by Gery Greer and The Kid Who Got Zapped Through Time by Deborah Scott both return to the middle ages.
  • Trolley to Yesterday by John Bellairs travels to the Renaissance.
  • Window in Time by Karen Weinberg takes readers back to the Civil War.
  • Roughing It on The Oregon Trail by Diane Stanley features two kids and their time-traveling grandmother as they join a group of pioneers on the Oregon Trail in 1843.
  • The Orphan of Ellis Island by Elvira Woodruff follows a ten-year-old foster child who travels back in time to 1908 Italy and accompanies two young emigrants to America.

Since most libraries are closed, you might need to download books to your Kindle or contact an independent bookseller such as those found on Alibris. They usually have inexpensive copies of the older titles and they’re happy to rush them to you.

No time for a whole chapter? How about starting each video session with some laughter by reading one of Shel Silverstein’s hilarious poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends? And if none of that is feasible, videotape yourself reading a chapter book and encourage your students to log on whenever they need to escape without breaking quarantine. As Jhumpa Lahiri​​, the author of The Namesake wrote, “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” 


Laurel Schmidt is also the author of Social Studies that Sticks: How to Bring Content and Concepts to Life, Classroom Confidential: The 12 Secrets of Great TeachersGardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators, and Seven Times Smarter: How To Develop the Seven Intelligences in Your Child.

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