Martin Galway is an English Teaching and Learning Adviser for Herts for Learning.
I shan’t beat about the bush. This right here is a wonderful blog on reading aloud to children. So wonderful, it has inspired us to republish this article published last year in NATE’s Primary Matters magazine. I initially wrote it because I had found it particularly difficult to protect the time that I wanted to devote to reading aloud to my pupils and then later realised I was not alone. Here, if you need it , are the arguments to be made for some form of story-time and a few tricks for getting it back on the agenda.
Do The Voices – Reading Aloud In (and out of) the Primary Classroom
‘How do I know you’ll keep your word?’ asked Coraline.
‘I swear it,’ said the other mother. ‘I swear it on my own mother’s grave.’
‘Does she have a grave?’ asked Coraline.
‘Oh yes,’ said the other mother. ‘I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.’
Cue a (loud) gasp from one of the girls in my class when I got to this part of our then current read aloud, followed by a moment of silence, then a collective collapse into giggles: a shared reading experience of the best kind.
We were on the field enjoying some outdoor summer reading; not because it was something recommended to me when I was training to teach and not because it was a strand of our school’s drive to raise the profile of reading for pleasure. It was because I could still remember the times when Mrs Jessop – a masterful storyteller and my 3rd year Junior teacher – picked up THE CURRENT CLASS BOOK and eyed the door that led to the school field – that’s where we were headed. Outdoor reading. The best kind. Those sessions with Mrs Jessop positioned reading exactly where it belonged – as pleasurable, thrilling, scary, funny, compulsive and further as an act that’s liberating, unifying and something that extends far beyond the boundaries of the classroom, both physically and figuratively. Just as we as a class saw divisions and cliques dissolve into shared and carefully-manipulated emotions, here was my very own class shocked in the one moment and laughing in the next. Connections were being formed not just with the text and our individual lives, as is the aim in terms of comprehension, but with each other. One of the most satisfying rewards of a tough profession is the journey that you get to share with the children in your class and reading aloud can take hold as a life-long memory. Whether it’s a book at bedtime, a gripping story shared in class or a poem that reframed your thinking or turned your head towards literature, everyone deserves to have these milestones set out for them along the way.
At the very least, I owe Neil Gaiman a word of thanks for somehow engineering this special memory of a very special class. I’d also like to thank him for his continued advocacy of reading. Here he is on reading aloud to children in a lecture to The Reading Agency back in 2013:
‘We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time…when the distractions of the world are put aside.’
[Neil Gaiman: Why our Future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, reprinted on The Guardian website at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming?CMP=share_btn_tw]
Do the voices. That’s one of the best bits, or it can be. It’s when you lick a finger and hold it to the air to see which way the wind is blowing – the audience response guides you and the encouragement that meets a funny voice or the stillness that measures a menacing whisper can carry you along, or divert you – have you re-form your performance as it takes heed of the reciprocal authorship of a reading aloud performance.
Want some great texts to flex your expressive chops? For nursery and year 1, you’ve got Kes Grey’s Oi Frog! (and now its sequel Oi Dog!). Year 2 will love the joys of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus , which in fairness can be successfully deployed in any year group . For punchy, fool proof, short texts to secure the story time bug in KS2, look no further than Mini Grey. Mini’s thought processes and points of inspiration are unique and they come at you in machine gun bursts of crazed invention. You can see for yourself at our September writing conference . Thus we have the Dish and the Spoon of Hey Diddle Diddle fame once again on the run, only this time told using the voice, codes and conventions of classic Hollywood crime narrative. If you’re going to share this book, best start honing that Bogart impression now. Of course these texts are fun, but they have qualities that go beyond entertainment, providing insight into character, voice and genre.
It is not just expression and vocabulary that weaves the magic in a read aloud session. It is also rhythm and patterns and refrains. At 2014’s NATE conference, the poet Anthony Wilson set out how one poem, and one teacher, changed the course of his life. A transcription of his talk is available at https://anthonywilsonpoetry.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/the-power-of-poetry-nate-conference-20141.pdf . In this inspiring talk, he recalled how he had shared Red Boots On with his Year 1 class, inspired by the snow falling outside. The poem is reprinted here too, but the transcript is interrupted with commentary setting out the children’s responses:
‘You notice that a child in row three has started to twitch, her shoulders invisibly flexing, her forearms and wrists following suit. She starts to nod her head, shyly at first, out of time, then vigorously bouncing, as though yanked by an invisible string. The boy next to her joins in, adding a handclap. You think: they seem to be enjoying it. You read the chorus again.
Red boots on, she’s got
red boots on,
kicking up the winter
till the winter’s gone.
Another three children, then another four. And a silent child, who never joins in with anything. She is even smiling.’
The poem is a virus of the best kind, the rhythm and words infecting the children and taking over the group. This, again, is part of the magic of reading aloud.
But what of the learning?
Reading aloud to children has too often been seen as an adjunct to “real teaching”. Something that is difficult to fit in around packed timetables. Something that might and has, in my experience, led an observer to ask : “but where is the learning?” (I will remain diplomatic and move on). Nikki Gamble, in her highly recommended book, Exploring Children’s Literature: Reading with Pleasure and Purpose, sets out the range of educational benefits that you might want to arm yourself with if the value of your reading sessions is ever questioned. These include: developing vocabulary; understanding stories beyond [the children’s] reading ability; improving concentration and attention span; allowing interaction and the asking of questions; improving knowledge and understanding through the sharing of complex stories; providing models of fluent and expressive reading. It’s also going to help encourage more children to read. Whatever your position in the reading wars, extreme or neutral, embedding literacy instruction in a language and literature-rich environment is seen as common ground, with sharing stories as a key component of good English provision.
Let’s just linger a while longer on one of those benefits listed above: developing vocabulary.
It’s important that we keep in mind the opportunity that reading aloud provides us to further extend vocabulary and how a carefully planned, increasingly challenging read aloud programme can mitigate against some of the difficulties we face in deciding what vocabulary to teach and when. Thus in year 6 we might well enjoy a top notch Shaun Tan or Wiesner, but so too we might utilise the wonderful Poetry for Young People Series and share the works of Yeats, Frost, Angelou and more besides. We will plunge into the good and the great of our literary heritage (you might want to check out the book by Bob Cox for practical guidance here) and in doing so, we will deliberately explore language. We know that vocabulary knowledge has a huge bearing on comprehension. It’s plain from what we see in the classroom; in fact it is so plain and apparently self-evident that E. D. Hirsch suggests that “…it might seem pointless to discuss vocabulary in a brief review on reading comprehension…” [Hirsch, Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge, 2003]. Yet he does just that, stressing the central importance of intelligent design around accelerating rates of vocabulary acquisition. Reading aloud plays an invaluable role in broadening the knowledge base of the children that we teach.
So have we convinced our enquiring visitor? Here! Here is the learning.
Let’s change tack. Let’s get statutory in the second part of this blog….