The Power of Reading Work Out Loud: A Culminating Project for Poetry Study

A few weeks ago, I blogged about different ways writers can share and publish their work in the classroom. In today’s post, I zoom in on one of those options: creating an audio recording of a piece of writing.

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Students use fluency phones to practice reading their work out loud!

“Here, try it,” I said, nudging the fluency phone towards Cameron, a 9th grade writer.

“I looks like something I used in second grade,” he said, taking the macaroni-shaped PVC pipe in his hand. He put it up to his ear and whispered hello into the opening. “Wow, that is really loud!” He smiled.

Carthen grabbed the phone from him. “Let me try!” she said and whispered something inaudible into the phone, giggling at the sound of her own voice amplified.

At first my students were skeptical of the fluency phones. They look like toys, or something out of an elementary school teacher’s bag of tricks. But soon, almost every student had taken one from the oversized bag.

The fluency phones are perfect for young students learning to read books with expression, and they are perfect for high school students learning (mustering up the confidence!) to read their own work out loud – an important step in the writing process but one that students often shy away from or skip altogether because they hate hearing the sound of their own voice.

Students used the fluency phones in preparation for the culminating step of our poetry study: making audio recordings of their work. This project took three days and revealed a lot to me about students’ fears connected to writing. It’s hard enough to share your ideas, they said. It’s even harder to force yourself to listen to them as you read out loud.

The Mini Project

On the first day, we talked about how to read a poem out loud with feeling. We listened to a few different recordings of professional poets, and one by a former student. For instance, we listened to a live recording of Billy Collins reading “Forgetfulness.” If you follow this link, you’ll find his recording, along with several hundred other recordings of poets reading their work. The Poetry Foundation really is an amazing resource!

With the text pulled up in front of them, students listened to the recordings, honing in on

  • how the poets “read” line breaks
  • the pace of each poem
  • how the poet communicated emotion with his/her voice

Then we made a list of all of our noticings. Students observed many things about the different recordings, including how readers drop their voices to indicate the end of an idea or create a somber mood; poems that are presented “faster” are still read slowly enough to hear every word, every pause; the readers sound like they are talking to you rather than giving a presentation; most readers slow down at the end of the poem; and poets pause on significant words, dragging them out more than others.

Then I gave students some guiding questions to help them think about how they might read their own poems:

  • What is the mood of my poem? How can I communicate this mood with my voice?
  • Is my poem fast- or slow-paced (are there more end-stopped lines or enjambed lines)? Where should I speed up my reading and where should I slow it down?
  • What are the most important words in my poem? How do I want to emphasize these words with my voice?

Students spent the rest of the period practicing reading one of their poems to a friend or to themselves with the help of a fluency phone.

The next day, the technology coordinator at our school previewed several apps that students could use to record their work, and students had an opportunity to try out different software and ask the coordinator questions.

The audio recordings were due two days later. I asked students to complete them at home, knowing it would be very difficult or impossible for each of them to find a perfectly quiet space on campus for recording.

When I asked my students to reflect on the experiment, although many of them said they hated listening to their own voice, they recognized the value in the project. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“I enjoyed the experience of recording because now the reader knows how I want my poem to sound in his mind.” — Cory M.

“[When I recorded my poem] I noticed how line breaks played into the speed of my poem.” — Cameron B.

“I enjoyed [this project] because it made me feel like an actual poet reading [my poem] out loud.” –Ella N.

“[When I read my work out loud], I noticed how some words didn’t sound well with other words. I also heard how my line breaks sounded and if I needed to edit them.” –James G.

“I was really able to notice the effect of line breaks. I hadn’t really noticed how much line breaks change the flow of a poem, in a good way.” Blair H.

“I feel like my poem was more deep and meaningful when read thoughtfully aloud.” — Liza R.

“I noticed that the last line of each stanza needed a really long pause for effect.” Daniel M.

“When I wrote my poem I meant for it to be sad and emotional to express how I felt when my Grampa died, but after I read it aloud I really got to hear how emotional it actually was.” — Abby E.

“The way you read it is the way you want people to read it, so it’s interesting to see what that is.”  Julia K.

What’s next:

Next week I am going to set up listening stations so my students can listen to one another’s poems. I plan to organize each station by theme, and invite students to listen to 1-2 poems at each station. I’ll be sure to report back about this activity in one of my next posts!

How do you encourage students to read their work out loud? Do you offer alternative ways of sharing or publishing work in your classroom? Leave us a comment below to tell us what you’re thinking about or find us on Facebook or Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

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