How Much Reading to Kids in Middle School?

  • 23 April, 2017

Teacher question:

I need your help in teasing out reading instruction in middle school. When we are modeling and reading aloud with a mentor text, do we use shorter texts rather than longer novels? If we read aloud a novel, I worry that approach takes so much time away from students actually reading. Thank you in advance for your insight.


Shanahan responds:

         Let’s consider why a teacher might read to students.

         First, reading to infants is a powerful way of bonding. Studies show that when parents/caretakers read often to their children during their first year of life, they end up closer emotionally. The children, for example, are more likely to talk to the adults about their feelings (Sato & Uchiyama, 2012). One suspects that parents who hold their babies close and talk to them for extended periods of time using adult language might have the same impact… and, yet, reading a book to a baby is a wonderful and easy way for parents to accomplish that.

         That probably won’t buy you much in middle school teaching, but the images it arouses are kind of cute!

         Second, reading to young children has been found to positively impact oral language development (Karrass & Braugart-Riehur, 2005; NELP, 2006; Westerlund & Lagerberg, 2008). This impact has been found all the way through early childhood, and I know of some studies that show that even older kids can pick up the occasional vocabulary word from being read to.

         That makes sense, since books expose kids to words they wouldn’t hear otherwise. I assume that can even happen with middle-schoolers—as long as the teacher is reading a text that introduces unknown (to the students) words. (There is also a small amount of weak research showing an impact of shared reading on listening comprehension—particularly with younger students).

         Despite the ubiquitous advice to read to kids, there is really no research showing the practice has much direct impact on reading. It does improve oral language, and that may (or may not) translate to improvement in reading—but that has yet to be proven.

         Importantly, there are studies showing that reading to primary grade kids is not as powerful as having those students reading to adults (Senechal, 2004). One wonders why parents aren’t told to listen to their children’s reading! Your suspicions/concerns seem well in line with this research. 

         Third, reading can be an efficient way of sharing information that might not be otherwise accessible. This makes sense when there is only one text and it is important to get the information to everyone, or when the text wouldn’t be otherwise understandable. For instance, the principal might issue a memo explaining an upcoming change in school entry rules or lunchroom procedures. Or, maybe there are some directions in a teacher’s guide that need to be shared with kids. No research seems needed on that one.

         This kind of oral reading obviously will be occasional and brief—in middle school or anywhere else.

         Fourth, when teaching particular skills, reading to students can provide useful modeling. For example, when teaching oral reading fluency, many schemes present a text aloud to students once or twice, and then the students give it a spin. Or, another example: you want to teach students to use a particular comprehension strategy, and you have them try it as a listening strategy first to see how it works. You mention a mentor text, so perhaps you are reading a complex text to the kids to reveal some aspect of text construction—how an author organizes the information, or uses literary devices, or creates suspense—that the kids will then look for in the text they are trying to read.

         This kind of modeling makes sense at any age (and there is a small amount of research supporting it with fluency, at least), but this reading tends to be brief, relative to what the students will be asked to do, and it needs to be targeted on a particular skill or text feature.

         Thus, in the fluency example, the teacher might read a sentence, paragraph, or page, and then the students try to read and reread that piece. Or, with the comprehension strategy, an entire class period might be devoted to demonstrating the strategy through listening, but then kids would likely practice that strategy through their own reading over the next couple of weeks (in other words, the teacher reading is proportionally small).

         Fifth, reading to kids may be motivational in some way. This motivational power may interest kids in a particular story, article, book, or topic. I remember that from my own teaching days. I would read a book to kids, and then some of them would like to take a run at it themselves. I know some teachers who use read-alouds with first chapters as a form of advertising the books to the students. Nothing wrong with any of that.

         Sixth, reading to kids can be fun. It just adds a bit of pleasure to the school day for teacher and student.

         What does that mean to your middle school classroom? I would suggest it means minimizing the teacher reading, while maximizing student reading. It is very sensible to share critical information with kids, but that will be very occasional and brief. Modeling is sensible, but that needs to be very targeted and brief, as well, relative to the student reading. And, reading something to your kids, just for fun, can be a good idea, too, once in a while. Follow your instincts, reading a novel to middle school kids is not a sensible use of time.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lisa Sabo Butler Apr 24, 2017 12:59 AM

As a speech pathologist in a middle school, I see so many kids that struggle with the identifying the main idea of a passage, cannot tell me what the subject and verb is in a sentence (especially when the verb is not "action"), and can barely punctuate any sentence that isn't simple. I walk past their language arts classes and see the teacher propped up against a desk reading to the class. I think to myself "what a waste of time". Some of the kids follow along, some don't. Tests given on these books that are read in class can be fairly complex, asking for cited evidence and inferences from the text. (6th grade and up) There are a lot of low grades and "do-overs" on these tests and our kids don't do well on the state testing in ELA. It feels like teaching the fundamentals of language stops at about 4th grade and after that, it's just correction. The strategy of "bell to bell" teaching seems like it might be a worthwhile endeavor. I wish some of the teachers in my school would try it. And assign the books to be read for homework.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 24, 2017 02:31 AM

I feel your pain, Lisa. Extended reading to kids does not teach reading (nor the love of reading).



Matt Renwick Apr 24, 2017 02:40 AM

"reading a novel to middle school kids is not a sensible use of time." As someone who is currently working in schools for the last 17 years, I was disheartened to read this post. You cite several studies, but fail to speak to the impact of sharing a story together. Reading is described here in such technical terms here that one might think literacy is merely the science of decoding and comprehending text. Not everything is measurable, at least in the sense you speak of in this post. Also disappointed in Lisa's comment. We know better.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 24, 2017 01:16 PM

You are suggesting that it matters more that you have a cool shared moment with the kids than that they learn to read. That sounds selfish... and, of course, reading a whole novel to a 12-year-old steals more than a moment, but deprives them of a substantial amount of reading and writing time. In my post, I suggested that it was fine to share the occasional story with kids by reading it aloud just for fun--but you seem to want much more than that. I love reading to kids, but the time allotted for ELA is their time, not ours.


Harriett Janetos Apr 24, 2017 06:27 PM

Can you please give us the complete Senechal (2004) citation? Thanks!

Carol Roberts Apr 27, 2017 03:00 AM

I'm thorn with my thoughts on reading mentor text during class time. I see both sides as mentioned above. What are your thoughts on "guided reading" in grades 3-5 Dr. Shanahan?

Carol Apr 27, 2017 03:01 AM

torn not thorn..sorry

John Klein-Collins Apr 28, 2017 12:49 PM

"You are suggesting that it matters more that you have a cool shared moment with the kids than that they learn to read. That sounds selfish..." Dr. Shanahan, I think you've made a very big leap with Matt. Nothing in his comment insinuates, or suggests, a "cool" shared moment. Students benefit from shared reading experiences of all sorts. Reading aloud to students, particularly if a think-aloud is employed, is one way to achieve a shared experience and model the thought processes good readers utilize. It concerns me that when someone suggests there might be a different method,he is belittled. I would hope different perspectives could be brought together for a more productive discussion.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 08:34 PM

Middle school kids may learn something from your reading to them, but that doesn't make them better readers or writers. Try having the kids do the reading instead of you doing it.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 08:40 PM


The Effect of Family Literacy Interventions on Children's Acquisition of Reading from Kindergarten to Grade 3: A Meta-Analytic Review
Monique Sénéchal and Laura Young
Review of Educational Research
Vol. 78, No. 4 (Dec., 2008), pp. 880-907

Here you go... they found no evidence that reading to children in grades K-3 improved reading achievement, but having the kids read to the adults worked wonders.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 08:44 PM

The notion of reading a novel to a group of kids as a mentor text is not specific or focused enough to have much impact on learning. Of course, no evidence supporting the idea of mentor texts at all (though I suspect we both believe they can reveal things to the listeners--though, again, I would argue for shorter reads that focus on the element you are hoping to mentor--not at all what the questioner was being asked).
In terms of guided reading, it comes down to what you mean by the term. Since the 1930s, it has been used to describe the idea of teachers guiding kids to read a text, by providing various scaffolds and supports. However, to many these days, it means having kids read in that fashion with texts that are supposedly at their instructional level. Research is supportive of the idea that one can scaffold reading comprehension by guiding reading in various ways, but it is not supportive of the idea of instructional level text. So, I support the one, but not the other.


Paula Lee Bright May 02, 2017 02:14 AM

I think you wrote this post to stir up feelings and get responses. The benefits of reading aloud are plentiful, and I experience it every day. Obviously time is left for the readers to read for themselves. That is all-important. But reading cold, without prior discussion and help, does no child any good, if they can't understand the material in the first place.

Arlena Feb 13, 2018 03:45 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

Does this same line of thinking apply to students who are reading far below grade level? We'd like them to be able to participate in conversations about and analysis of complex texts, but sometimes these texts are too difficult for students to read on their own. Would a teacher read aloud be appropriate in this situation?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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How Much Reading to Kids in Middle School?


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