“Ok children, settle down, relax and listen while I tell you a story…” These have to be some of the most precious words many of us have said to our classes – fond memories of shared moments, unbridled pleasure and a love of the spoken and written word. All too often it’s a phrase missing from classrooms. The burden of a cluttered curriculum, the pressure of year on year progress and the fear of a visit from the inspectors – with their agenda of evidencing learning at all times, means that reading aloud to children is for some teachers an impossible dream. It shouldn’t be. What better learning is there than learning to listen; to enjoy the cadence of a voice as it takes you on journeys to other worlds; to experience vocabulary beyond your reading ability, words that wouldn’t arise in your daily interactions; to take time out for pleasure; to learn to remember and resume with a narrative; a chance to predict, to make deductions and to problem solve. Reading aloud to children opens up a new space in the classroom, somewhere where the ordinary pressures and hierarchies of school dissolve. The book rules – not the endpoint of a level 4 in reading, writing and mathematics.
Now, the members of the Primary English Team don’t live in a book-filled library. We share our offices with maths and ICT colleagues and a number of very serious data-crunching school advisers. On mention of this blog post this raggle-taggle band of education professionals erupted into a cacophony of memories, shared experiences and voices raised in pleasure, excitement and… agreement (and that is not something that happens readily in these parts). It seems that reading aloud to children is not only a shared pleasure but a strategy that should be investigated by the United Nations to ensure world peace.
So, what is it about reading aloud to children that unites these previously disparate clans? A few major themes emerged – again from across the disciplines of our team. A text with pattern, rhythm and rhyme featured highly on our experts lists. ICT specialist Dy Hewett referred to the lyrical, flowing text of Room and the Broom, Whilst adviser Alex, talked about the raucous and irreverent humour of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Our experts talked about the predictability of rhyming texts and how it enables children to join in with reading the text. This type of choral response was also referred to by one of our senior colleagues, Ed Carter, who pointed to the patterned and predictable language of traditional tales. When reading aloud to children in his school he only needed to say, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair…” for the children to complete the refrain with, “So I may climb without a stair”. Similarly, a well-weighted delivery of “And they all lived…” should always elicit a response of “Happily ever after.” These shared experiences and choral recitations glue classes together. They show that storytelling creates cohesive communities which go on to exist beyond the stories.
“Bringing a book alive like a drama,” was how maths expert Becky Chandler referred to the joy of reading text aloud. For her a good read aloud text is one that enables her to put on accents like the Irish accent she uses for Rover Saves Christmas by Roddy Doyle. I used to love reading Farmer Duck for a similar reason. What’s happened with this text though is that one particular line has woven itself into the vernacular of our family, so that at the end of a long day we frequently say to each other, “How goes the work?” in I’m afraid a rather ham-acted Somerset accent. None of us ever replies with “Quack” but we all know where our line has come from and the many times that we shared that particular book.
Humour was another characteristic that our experts felt was influential in making a good read aloud text. Almost everyone asked recalled reading Quick let’s get out of here by Michael Rosen. As a collection of poetry this also shows that short stories and poetry make useful additions to a read aloud curriculum. At the other end of the emotional spectrum books that make you sad can also be great books to read aloud. Primary English colleague Julia recalled reading the Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde whilst accompanied by Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The tears that flowed from her Y6 children caused a rush of Kleenex on that particular day.
Other features that our experts referred to were: easy sentences, ones where you don’t trip over punctuation or have to read ahead to check your intonation. Short chapters work well too, particularly ones that leave a great cliff-hanger so that children are desperate for you to read on. A manageable amount of characters was also referred to – our experts didn’t like reading books aloud when there were lots of character voices to remember. Books that lead children to seek out more by the same author was another point raised by our teacher experts. Books in series, such as the Famous Five, a Series of Unfortunate Events and Horrid Henry were all discussed at length in our read aloud learning conversation.
I was once asked at interview what I would do if I could be Secretary of State for Education for ten minutes. It’s simple really. I’d make reading aloud to every class at the end of the school day a core element of the National Curriculum.
Rachel Clarke, Primary English Consultant
To see more recommendations for read aloud books see our Pinterest board here.
Our Books in Series Pinterest board also includes great books to read aloud