Monday, September 28, 2015

Reading Aloud and Storytelling to College Students

One of my favorite storytellers: "Grandpa" from The Princess Bride
Most nights, I read to my daughters from a book with limited pictures. Right now, we are reading J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. The first time I read a children's novel to them (Charlotte's Web), they were about 4 and 5 and they struggled to keep up with it, but now they are used to it, and respond with laughter and questions at appropriate spots, cues that show me they are engaged.
I also started telling my girls more stories without books. A couple of months ago, I told my youngest the story of Orion, the constellation, after she had a nightmare to get her mind off of things. The next night, she asked for another "star story," and my older daughter sat in. They loved them. They sat, with no pictures as guidance, only their beautiful imaginations to view, soaking up every word. To my surprise, the next day, they remembered specific names: Athena, Scorpius, Hera, Zeus-- they even corrected me when I got Callisto's name wrong.
My oldest took these stories and started re-writing them. She started telling me her stories. And this is my daughter who doesn't like reading. Getting her to sit and read her homework books is usually difficult, and she doesn't read for pleasure, but she is a storyteller. She's created alternate endings to myths and on the side wrote a picture story about two feuding twin sisters who ultimately work together to save the kingdom after I explained to her what the Yin and Yang image symbolizes. One of the sisters was named "Nether-a" (Yin); how creative she is!
Usually, this spurt of creativity comes after we read, but especially after I tell oral stories to her. Hearing a story inspires her to be a storyteller.
This semester, I've been incorporating many texts with my FYC students, and most of the texts are read in class. Somehow, I'm not sure why, I decided I wouldn't ask anyone to read, and I would do all the reading aloud. I wasn't sure how this would pan out, but I gave it a try.
I immediately noticed the same things I noticed with my daughters: my students were laughing at appropriate spots in the text, and when we would discuss after the reading, they had legitimate comments to contribute. So, the pattern continues. I read something aloud almost every class session, usually an essay, with a story, written creatively with dialogue. I stop periodically when I hit something I want students to focus on something, like an effective writing choice.
I think the benefits are obvious: students hear fluent and passionate reading which may motivate students to read more on their own. I also found that my students are relaxed and engaged without the pressure of the possibility of reading aloud; perhaps (and hopefully) they even enjoy it- listening to a well-written essay in a dimly lit room (using projector, laptops). It brings back memories of sitting in my elementary library with a tape recorder and headphones and a book in front of me. A soothing voice would prompt: "When you hear the beep, turn the page".
After some reflection, I discovered that I also tell stories frequently in my classes. Stories from my own life, teaching experience, but mostly about my daughters' literacy. These stories are told to prove a point (like how when my youngest was four, she was probably able to give a lecture on logical fallacies as she was an expert on using them). I noted that when I would say to my students, "have I told you the story about [fill in the blank]?" they usually look up with earnest. I know that I perk up when preachers, teachers, and even friends have a story to share. My hope is that they are responding like my daughter: hearing a story will inspire them to tell their stories.
The most research I found to support this is from ReadWriteThink and Learner.org, and mostly the benefits are what I already guessed.
An article by Anne Guignon from EducationWorld, "Reading Aloud: Are Students Ever too Old?" caught my attention with this point about an ESL teacher who read aloud to her adult Japanese students: "She used it to stimulate emotions and questions before presenting a writing assignment". I agree with this, but I wonder if students would respond with equal emotion and curiosity if they read the text on their own?
Of course, storytelling is as old as dirt, but the brain benefits of a story are still around today, as reported in the article, "The Psychological Power of Storytelling" by Pamela Rutledge from Psychology Today: "stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others."
So, when my students hear me read others' literacy narratives (which is what I'm reading to them now), they are able to put themselves into that story, and consider their own stories more fully.
The more I thought about this, the more I thought about the drawbacks: immediately, I thought of the laptops in my room. Each student has their own, so the chances of them scrolling around while I'm reading are high. Also, an article by King5 News in Washington, "High School, College Teachers Reading Aloud to Students" brought up an interesting point from Robert Pondiscio:

"The problem is using [reading aloud] all the time. If we're reading aloud to kids because they don't understand or don't have the ability to understand when they read to themselves then reading aloud is really treating the symptom and not the disease."

Something to consider.
Perhaps I'll simply survey my students and see what they think.

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