Reading to Your Class

 It’s the end of a busy, bustling sort of day.  Black wads of cloud are lowering in the sky. It's been raining on and off and we haven’t been out to play.  We are fed up. Clearing away time is an excuse to jostle and shove.  We create our own drama, knocking over a pencil pot and watching the shavings scatter and the pencils roll and then look up with innocent surprise, as if the pot magically took flight and crashed to the floor.  Yes, it’s one of those days.

Eventually, chores completed, we return to our seats and settle.  Mrs Holmes picks up her copy of The Weirdstone of Brisngamen and begins to read. Calm. Attention. Faces slacken, bodies slump and soon we are lost to the story.  A story that transcends time and space; like the forest in Max’s bedroom in Where the Wild Things Are, the story world grows around us. We are absorbed by it.

And many, many years later when I think back to primary school days, it will be those magical story moments that most quickly come to mind. I know that I am not alone.  Conversations with children, teachers and students have revealed many such similar experiences.  Discussions about favourite childhood books often lead into animated discussion about ‘favourite’ teachers. The ones that took us to those spaces beyond the wardrobe live on in our memories.

Reading aloud is certainly a pleasurable, shared experience, which brings the class together as a community of readers, but it is also vital to children’s development as readers and writers.  When the occasional year 6 teacher tells me that they would LIKE to read aloud to their class but there simply isn’t the time to fit it in, I know that the value of reading aloud has only been partially understood. It’s viewed as entertainment, the bit that we get round to when the work has been done. 

The great thing about reading to children is that so many important lessons are taught implicitly and will be made explicit through high quality discussion and dialogue. The National Curriculum Draft Framework recognises this, stating that, ‘Pupils should continue to have opportunities to listen to stories, poems, non-fiction and other writing, including whole books and not just extracts, so that they build on what was taught previously.’ And in key stage 2 when children are reading independently the imperative to keep reading aloud is stressed, ‘Even though pupils can now read independently, reading aloud to them should include whole books so that they meet books and authors that they might not choose to read themselves. ‘

There are numerous benefits of reading aloud to children:

  • — Creates  a bond – shared experience
  • — Encountering  new words enriches vocabulary
  • — Children can understand stories beyond their reading ability
  • — Improves concentration and attention span
  • — Allows interaction, asking questions, rich use of language in discussion
  • — Helps them make connections with  the personal experience of others and the development of empathy
  • — Comprehension: Listening to complex stories increases knowledge and understanding
  • — Listening to a story being read aloud shows beginner readers how fluent readers read.
  • — The words children hear in books give them a rich language when they begin their own writing.
  • — Seeing the text as it is read provides opportunities to teach vocabulary, spelling, grammar, punctuation

    Choosing a ‘Read Aloud’

    Some things to consider when selecting books to read aloud to your class:

    • — Do YOU like it? Which of course implies a further question, have you read it? A book that you are positive about about is more likely to engage the children.  Your enthusiasm will be infectious.
    • —Is this a book that children will pick up and read for themselves or are you introducing them to exciting new worlds and books that they may not have considered reading?  It is quite likely that you will want some ‘quick wins’ at the beginning of the autumn term but over the course of the year you will want to explore uncharted territory and discover some surprises that  extend children’s reading repertoires (and possibly your own). Throughout primary school children are still discovering their reading identities and you will be laying out the vast store of choices.
    • —Think beyond your own class – what does the range of reading look like across the school? It may be that by returning to familiar favourites, you are unwittingly providing a programme that is limited in the number of authors and genres that children encounter. Nobody can doubt that Roald Dahl is a worthy contender for a class 'read aloud' but there needs to be a balance between the familiar and the new. If you have responsibility for English/literacy across the school, you may want to take stock of the range of books that are read to children. It might be worth devoting a staff meeting to sharing books and looking at where adjustments could be made. You might also consider the extent to which your choices include books that were published in the last 12 months.
    • —What are the read aloud qualities of this book? There are many great books that simply do not read aloud well.  This is the case for picture books and for novels. Test a book by reading a few passages. Is there a distinctive voice, a balance between narration and dialogue, does the text flow, does the story float on it's words like waves of sound?
    • —What potential does this book offer for discussion? Is it thematically rich (that doesn’t mean that it has to be ‘worthy’)? You may want to choose a book that makes connections with cross-curricular learning but don’t make a poor choice just because the subject coincides with your history or science topic. 

    To help busy teachers make choices, we have put together 4 great read aloud packs for EYFS , KS1, LKS2 and UKS2  Each pack covers a range of genres and all of the books have been selected for their read aloud qualities by our team of consultants and teachers. Each book will provide a rich reading experience with scope for class discussion, literacy and cross curricular work.

    How to Read Aloud

    So far this article has extolled the virtues of reading aloud, but it needs to be done well.  A poor reading can kill a book stone dead and there’s nothing worse than making a great book sound boring. I once witnessed a massacre of The Gruffalo, which seems hard to credit, but it is true.

    The good news is that you don’t have to be a great performer to read aloud well. We all have our own reading styles. Some teachers are happy with all singing and dancing performances and a cast of character voices, others may be lower key, but if the book is read with feeling and understanding, it will come across well to the children. Knowing the book is pre-requisite and there are no shortcuts to this.

    High quality interactive reading is essential if all the benefits listed above are to be realised. Many ‘lessons’ are taught through exposure to books and stories but the learning is more powerful when there is high quality discussion.  Knowing when and how to pause for reflection, to check understanding or to explicitly teach vocabulary is an important judgement. Interfering with the flow of the story is detrimental to comprehension but ploughing on regardless is equally unhelpful.

    Just Imagine holds regular half day courses on Reading Aloud to your class. Courses take place at our story centre. The three hour session covers:

    • —  Dialogue
    • —  Characterisation
    • —  Children's participation
    • —  Managing interactive reading to develop comprehension

    The next course takes place on 14th October

    We also run these sessions as half day INSETS or extended twilight sessions for schools in our region. For further afield venues, we can combine this with our Poetry and Performance, or an alternative session to make a full day INSET For information email schools@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk

    Nikki Gamble

    7th September 2013

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