What can the simple art of reading aloud do for student comprehension? Join us in conversation with Jordan Motsinger of Cobb County Schools to find out!

Jordan Motsinger in Classroom Conversations

What can the simple art of reading aloud do for student comprehension? Join us in conversation with Jordan Motsinger of Cobb County Schools to find out!


Ashley Mengwasser: Hey, Georgia Educators, we have new discussion guides available to use with Classroom Conversations episodes. These discussion guides include open-ended questions to facilitate great discussion and professional learning. After listening to each podcast, find the new discussion guides posted with the Classroom Conversations episodes and blogs in Georgia Home Classroom. Hello, teachers, this is Classroom Conversations. We're so glad you're here. 'Tis I, Ashley Mengwasser. Welcome to our podcast series, where we offer educators a place to share and learn. Classroom Conversations is the platform for Georgia's teachers brought to you by the Georgia Department of Education in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. To tease today's topic, maybe we start with popular idioms that include our key word. Maybe you can read me like a book or just read between the lines, but whatever you do, don't read it and weep. Do you read me? I'll just spell it out, reading. Today we're exploring how read alouds can work for all grades, so that story time really is for everyone. I know you're listening, but are you listening? As I read aloud today's show intro, pay close attention to every nuance. Do you hear it? The cadence of my voice, when it swells, when it slows. This may feel like the vocal equivalent of the follow-my-finger optical test. Admittedly, it is meant to draw your focus. We're throwing back to this early education practice, because read alouds can change your life. Take it from Minnie Mouse in the house. Today's guest would tell you she sounds like Minnie Mouse while reading aloud to her high school students. But I say it's not vocal tone so much, but sheer enthusiasm. Jordan Motsinger is in her eighth year of teaching English language arts. She joins us today from Harrison High School in Cobb County. Hey there, Jordan.

Jordan Motsinger: Hi. Good afternoon. It's great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm really glad you're here. I would like to point out to our audience, who is just listening, that we are wearing matching animal prints today.

Jordan Motsinger: Of course.

Ashley Mengwasser: How did we manage that?

Jordan Motsinger: Just I read you before I even got here.

Ashley Mengwasser: There we go. Way to play along, Jordan. Way to play along. It's just that fierceness within.

Jordan Motsinger: Yes, absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: On the subject matter, you will see that fierceness flow forth from Jordan momentarily. Would you call your teaching career a loud calling originally? How did you end up here?

Jordan Motsinger: At first, yes, but then I took a few detours because, as we do in life, sometimes we rebel against our calling. But my mom was a high school teacher. She recently retired after 30 years. She taught English, Spanish, and theater. It is always something that I knew I wanted to do. As a young child, I would stand in front of my mom's empty classroom and write on the chalkboard at the time and teach my pretend students. Of course, I've always loved literature, but throughout the years I had other ideas, too. I thought I was going to be a Broadway star at one point, and then I thought I was going to go into law, and ultimately I landed exactly where I'm supposed to be. And I am very grateful for the indirect, at times convoluted, path that got me here. But it was all meant to happen this way.

Ashley Mengwasser: Beautiful. For the record, I'm a huge proponent of you somehow fitting those other careers, while you're at it, I want to see you-

Jordan Motsinger: I would love to.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... succeed at both.

Jordan Motsinger: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: If we could just have a few fun facts about you, Jordan. I know you have two boys.

Jordan Motsinger: Yes, I do have two sons. I have a six-year-old and a two-year-old. Our six-year-old is in kindergarten this year. He is loving all of it. I have loved the opportunity to help him love reading from that stage. It's so incredibly different from the students that I work with, of course. Then our two-year-old is fun. He's into everything. He actually was adopted, I'm an adoption advocate. I love to work with and partner with and counsel when able both adoptive parents and families, and advocate for all parts of the adoption triad, including birth parents. I love to foster relationships there as well. Yeah, that's a little bit about me and my family.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you're not just obsessed with young humans.

Jordan Motsinger: No.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're obsessed with a certain creature of the deep.

Jordan Motsinger: I am. I love sharks.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm sorry, every time you tell me, what is it about sharks, Jordan?

Jordan Motsinger: I think sharks are mysterious and they have a reputation.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, they do.

Jordan Motsinger: They certainly have a reputation, but I think in a lot of ways they're misunderstood creatures.

Ashley Mengwasser: So, you're a shark advocate as well?

Jordan Motsinger: Yes. I'm a shark advocate as well. I think, to tie it back to my career, I like to think of myself as an educator as a little bit misunderstood. If you're listening, instead of watching, I'm of small stature. I do, as you can hear, sound a little like a cartoon character. But I still have such a great time in the classroom. Oftentimes, people will say, "How do you teach high schoolers? They're bigger than you are. They're louder than you are." But hopefully, kind of like a shark, I can be commanding of attention.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, you can. You have our full attention, Jordan. So, Shark Week is your favorite week of the year.

Jordan Motsinger: Yeah, it's my Super Bowl.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. I'm happy that you have that for your own joy. What are your favorite texts to read aloud and why?

Jordan Motsinger: Well, I love to read any text aloud. It's hard to narrow it down. But what I particularly love with my high school students are children's books, actually, I love to teach or to read The Koala Who Could by Rachel Bright. I love Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall, The Smart Cookie by Jory John and Pete Oswald. I love to teach narrative elements through children's books, but I also love the wellness education that I'm able to instill with my students through these texts. Of course, Jabari Jumps is a story about a young boy who is afraid to jump off the diving board at the city pool.

Ashley Mengwasser: This is so relatable. Yes.

Jordan Motsinger: He wants to, but he's afraid. His dad is there with him and doesn't force him to, but encourages him. And when Jabari is ready, he does jump, and he has the time of his life. So, I love connecting that with the classroom. I want my students to feel encouragement from me to do things that they're a little bit scared of doing, to push themselves in a way that they didn't think was possible. I'm not going to force them out of their comfort zone, but I am going to encourage them and I'm going to be there to catch them if they find themselves figuratively falling. So, I love to teach children's books to my high schoolers. And then there are just absolute classics that I love to read aloud with my students. I just finished up The Crucible in American Literature.

Ashley Mengwasser: Classic.

Jordan Motsinger: I love To Kill a Mockingbird. We're reading Antigone in World Literature right now. So, it's all over the place. I love reading any text aloud to my students.

Ashley Mengwasser: You sure do. And you brought one that you enjoy for your own benefit-

Jordan Motsinger: Yes, absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... today. Tell me about this book, set it up for us.

Jordan Motsinger: So, a memoir that has really touched me is Educated by Tara Westover. I love this text, because I believe that we often take for... Or I will say I often take for granted the access to education that I have and my students have. We will oftentimes read about individuals who have to fight for their education, but we picture Malala, we don't picture individuals living here in America-

Ashley Mengwasser: In the United States. Yeah.

Jordan Motsinger: ... in the United States. So, I love this story. It was incredibly eye-opening. I love the way that Tara Westover shares her story. And I have a couple of really meaningful pieces that I'd love to share, if that's okay.

Ashley Mengwasser: To read aloud.

Jordan Motsinger: To read aloud, yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I thought you'd never offer.

Jordan Motsinger: These are very short little snippets, but some of my favorite words that she shares with us, Tara Westover, are, "An education is not so much about making a living as making a person." I love that so much, especially as a teacher, there are lots of jokes about teacher income, but truly teaching has made me who I am, and that really meant a lot to me.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you are making people in the classroom.

Jordan Motsinger: I sure hope so. I sure hope so. The second one is, "My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, and absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs." And I felt like that was very appropriate for what we're talking about today. My students hear me read a lot, but I want them to know that their voice is just as emphatic. It's just as meaningful and powerful and worth listening to as mine-

Ashley Mengwasser: As yours.

Jordan Motsinger: ... or any other adult in their life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Or any other teacher, authority figure.

Jordan Motsinger: Mm-hmm.

Ashley Mengwasser: Do you do any sort of a warmup before reading aloud to your students?

Jordan Motsinger: No matter the text that we read, I always give them some background information. So, I share with them the author of the text that we're going to read. I give them any historical or social context that they're going to need to understand that. Sometimes that's as simple as me standing up and saying, "Hey, here's a picture of our author. Here's a short bio." Sometimes, it's more hands-on for them as a WebQuest or a mini research project that they'll do. But I think it's important for them to know the voice behind the voices that they hear in the texts. Not my voice reading to them, but the narrator speaking. I want them to know the voice behind that person. I want them to have an idea what has influenced the author to write this story. I want them to see that there are so many diverse voices that we're bringing into our classroom, so everyone feels that they can connect to an author just the way that I want them to connect to a character as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is magical. For the purpose of today's podcast, I think we need a working definition of read aloud.

Jordan Motsinger: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: It is a noun, and when we say read aloud, we're talking about text that is read aloud by a teacher to decode meanings, spark conversation. Do I have that definition right?

Jordan Motsinger: Yes, absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Jordan Motsinger: We're reading a text together. Typically, the students have a copy with them, but not always. And it's something that, at my level, I'm often reading to them, but sometimes a student is serving as the leader of the read aloud, too.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that. Why do you use read alouds? What's the significance of this exercise?

Jordan Motsinger: Well, when I was very, very young, my mom read to me every night as many parents do for their children. From a young age, around second grade, we started reading classics. We started reading novels together before I would go to bed. So, there's a part of me that that's just really memorable and it means a lot to me to think back on the times that my mom and I spent reading together. I want my students to have that connection to literature that I have. I also had a high school teacher, miss Tammy Thomas, who I had for two different classes, and she read to us all the time, and I just loved it. I thought, "I want to be that one day." I want to be captivating to my students, not because of who I am, but because of what this story is. So, in part, there's that sentimentality. Then, also, too, I feel that read alouds build our classroom community. We're sharing an experience together. We are not sitting at our individual desks and reading different parts of a text or maybe even reading different texts. We are working together through a text. We're pausing and asking questions and answering questions when we have them. We're building that classroom community. We're engaging those reluctant readers, because we all have a common goal of getting through the text together.

Ashley Mengwasser: Getting through it together. That's a beautiful message. If I'm honest, during my read aloud experiences in my K through 12 education, there is a current that passes through the air right before the read aloud begins. It gets quiet. Everybody's kind of in this unison place and the energy changes. It's almost an electricity as the focus goes to the speaker. I think that that's a beautiful part of it is it elevates the meaning of what is about to be said as opposed to, like you said, sitting individually at your desk and having a private experience. This can be a shared experience and it almost feels theatrical, yet intimate. You don't have a big audience sitting in front of you. You're your own audience and your classmates are your audience. I can imagine how this skill particularly supports listening comprehension, oral language development, because you're exercising a bunch of different learning muscles with this practice.

Jordan Motsinger: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: So, what are you seeing in terms of listening and speaking?

Jordan Motsinger: Well, I'm seeing for my students, their confidence grow in vocabulary. Oftentimes when a student is reading silently, or sometimes when a student is reading aloud and comes across a word that he or she doesn't know, the student just skips it or the student will pause, wait for the teacher to say the word, not repeat the word, and then just go on.

Ashley Mengwasser: And keep going.

Jordan Motsinger: It's like that word never existed and-

Ashley Mengwasser: Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Jordan Motsinger: We're like, "Hold on, slow down here. The author put that word there for a purpose." So, I definitely see the students building their vocabulary. I see them building their comprehension skills. They are looking not just for what the text says, but how the text is said, how the author intended something to be written. Of course, as a teacher, I don't know exactly how an author intended something to be read aloud or to be spoken, but as you mentioned earlier in the episode, the inflection of my voice, the pace with which I'm speaking, the words that I choose to emphasize over others really do enhance the meaning for students. Many times, I'll give my students the option, "Do you want me to read to you? Do you want to read as a class?" Where we have some student leaders who are going to read aloud, "Or do you want to read independently?" And nine times out of 10, they say, "Please, read to us. Please, read to us. We want you to read to us." That's so meaningful to me. That's how I felt about Ms. Thomas when I was in high school. And I don't feel that that's a reflection of me specifically as much as their understanding of the text so much more when someone who knows it and has studied it presents it to them.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right. There's something added in terms of comprehension for the listener. How do you go about choosing your read alouds, Ms. Motsinger? Is anything off limits in this practice?

Jordan Motsinger: Well, aside from anything that... I'm not going to read anything aloud that I wouldn't assign to my students. So, there are those parameters, of course, but really, no, I let my students tell me how they want to engage with a text most of the time. We read poetry out loud, we read novels, we read memoirs, we read, as I said, the children's books. It just depends on our curriculum.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's lovely. So, I love that you're reading children's books to them. Do they ever think that this, "Okay, this is kind of weird, Ms. Motsinger." Does that bother them?

Jordan Motsinger: I don't think it bothers them. I think that they do look around the room the first couple times that it happens like, "What is going on here?" But by the end, they're into it. I love to teach theme with children's stories. It can be difficult to extract a theme from a novel, but when you look at a children's story, it's much more accessible. That theme might be present in a novel. It's just that we got to see it with a children's story first.

Ashley Mengwasser: Sooner. Yeah.

Jordan Motsinger: So, by the end of our discussion of that theme, they're arguing over, "No, it's this." "No, it's that." So, they do get really into it, but do they think I'm strange at times? Sure. But that's not just because of the children's stories.

Ashley Mengwasser: As it should be, honestly. What kind of routines do you have in place with them to support the oral language development piece of this?

Jordan Motsinger: Well, it's very important to me not to force a student at my grade level to read aloud. I have some reluctant readers who have many different reasons that they're reluctant. Some being, I have a student currently who has a hard time articulating at times, and so I don't want to force him to speak. I want him to feel confident in the reading. So, I will often ask for volunteers. I don't just do popcorn reading where you have to call on someone. That often turns into, "Oh, I'm going to call on my friend." So, the routines that I establish are, I will always start a read aloud and then I'll ask for volunteers. The students will sometimes suggest, "Oh, I want this student to read." So, that's something that we do. It always starts with I do. Then it's a few of them can do. And then by the end of it, they feel more confident, everyone wants a part in it. I also really love to do First Chapter Fridays, where my students don't have their own copy of a book. I just pull a book that I think they would enjoy. We read the first chapter, we go on. Then, I love to, when they're independently reading a text that's just for them, an independent reading novel, I love to go around and say, "Hey, would you pick out something you'd like for me to read to the class?" Or, "Is there a part of your book that you would like to share? Would you like to read?" So, always being willing to do the read aloud myself, but then encouraging them to join with me.

Ashley Mengwasser: And to have some agency in the activity as well. What role do you think that questioning plays in the effectiveness of read alouds?

Jordan Motsinger: I really think it's critical.

Ashley Mengwasser: How do you question?

Jordan Motsinger: Sometimes, I will plan ahead. I'll go through, I'll say, "Oh, this is really rich characterization. Let me ask them what they're understanding about this character." Then maybe once they give me some descriptors, that'll get us into a conversation of, "Is this a round or is this a flat character? Is this character static or dynamic?" I think there's literary elements that we discuss through the questioning. Sometimes, it's just honestly plot elements. "Okay. So, what did John Proctor just say? What did he just reveal?"

Ashley Mengwasser: What did he just say?

Jordan Motsinger: So, sometimes it is comprehension questions and then we transition into those deeper questions. What are the implications of this? What motifs do you see at play in this text? How do those motifs develop a theme? Oftentimes, it is serving as a pre-writing activity to something that we're going to write about. I find that my students create really impactful writing when we've discussed it together as a class. Not to give them answers, but to just get them thinking and hearing each other's voices. Then it's their turn to actually create the writing.

Ashley Mengwasser: Run with it.

Jordan Motsinger: Mm-hmm.

Ashley Mengwasser: Exactly. How do your teenage participants receive this practice? If we were going to compare to elementary and middle school, we're mostly being read to by a teacher, and then we're getting... In high school, we're expected to practice our oral language development. How do they receive kind of the expectation of shared read alouds?

Jordan Motsinger: Well, I think that often we assume that the way that read aloud happens in elementary and middle school is not appropriate for high school. I understand that our curriculum is different, and the expectations and the standards are different. But when you're reading aloud as an elementary school student, you're sitting possibly on a rug around your teacher, there's one book, it has pictures, it has visuals. And that works for high school, too. Oftentimes, teachers will say, "Well, when I read aloud, the students are not following along," or, "The student has her head on the desk and is not listening to me." But the student is, maybe, like when I listen to an audiobook and I'm driving my car, maybe the student is just resting his or her eyes, but still listening. Maybe the student is not actively following with his or her eyes, but is getting something out of it. I think that that's important to remember is that it doesn't have to be different from elementary and middle school. Now, depending on what you want your students to get out of it, you might give them an activity that they can do. "I want you to draw an image that is very clear to you from this chapter of the novel that we're going to read." So, instead of necessarily answering comprehension questions on paper, which might have them stuck on one part, and they are not listening as I progress, they're instead still listening, but they have something to do tangibly with their hands, that will enhance their understanding of that. So, I think, to answer your question, I don't think it is terribly different from elementary and middle school and-

Ashley Mengwasser: Nor should it be, it sounds like.

Jordan Motsinger: Yeah, nor should it be.

Ashley Mengwasser: Nor should it be. That's really interesting. You just made the point of it's not necessarily eyes closed, ears closed. It could be eyes closed, ears open. And there is something to be said for kind of muting one sense to enhance the others. But I do know it must be mouth closed, ears open. I learned that as a child. I learned that one. I won't forget. Any tips for teachers who are learning to practice reading aloud so that they can learn to love it as much in their classrooms as you do?

Jordan Motsinger: Absolutely. I will practice reading a text aloud when my students are not in my classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, you have a warmup.

Jordan Motsinger: Yeah. It is a warmup for me, especially if it's a text that I have never read aloud before, then I will practice reading it aloud to myself and say, "Oh, that didn't sound quite right." It's not a script. I'm not giving a performance. But I do want to ensure that I am enhancing the student's understanding. So, I'll practice myself. I also love audiobooks. Listening to audiobooks, whether it is the text that I plan to read aloud or any text that I want to hear, I want to hear how a professional narrates a story and what makes it captivating, so I can use that in my own classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're an audiobooks aficionado.

Jordan Motsinger: I do love them.

Ashley Mengwasser: Excellent. Thank you so much for being here today, Jordan, anything else, any final words about read alouds in classrooms?

Jordan Motsinger: Enjoy it. Enjoy the time. The kids do get into it. They are captivated. Don't be afraid. If it feels like this is childish for your students, just give it a try, because I bet they're really going to love it and get a lot out of it.

Ashley Mengwasser: You will draw them in, just like you have Ms. Motsinger. Thank you, Minnie Mouse. You're simply-

Jordan Motsinger: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... irresistible, as Minnie is. Teachers, whether your read aloud voice is more forest fairy, secret agent, or voice of God, just know you're a great teacher, hearing you as you is what students will remember as they internalize this profound learning strategy. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, and we'll be back with more Classroom Conversations. So long for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.