For many years I have tried to read to my class and never quite got it right, which seems like an odd thing to say. Surely, you just sit or stand and read to them! But actually, getting it right has taken quite a lot of practise. What sort of book should I read to them? When should I read? Should I ask questions during it or just let the story do the talking?
Finally, this year I feel as though I’ve cracked it, so I thought I would share some observations and reflections.
One of my best memories from primary school was when Mrs Perry – what a teacher! – read to us at the end of the day. She would sit on her chair and we would crowd around her on the carpet (even in Year 5 and 6) and listen, absolutely enraptured. I still remember listening to ‘Rebecca’s World’ by Terry Nation and laughing hysterically at one scene in particular. I’m not quite sure what happened – if it sounds familiar please Tweet me – but it involved a character and a pair of socks and him thinking he’d lost a leg. I was in stiches! In fact we all were. It was such a funny, happy moment and one I will treasure forever.
Reflecting upon that memory a few years ago made me remember and realise the importance of reading to your class.
What sort of book should I read to them?
I’ve tried everything! Poetry, short stories, extracts from stories, magazine articles, playscripts and full length novels. My class seem to enjoy full length novels the most – it gives them time to become immersed in the story and characters and they seem to love the journey of it all. Very often, we have a class vote for a new book from a choice of three or four; this is something the children really enjoy and get excited about. That feeling of choice and being listened to is a powerful tool. Interestingly, for one class read the children voted to read ‘The Invisible Thief’ by Enid Blyton. Last term we read ‘Fintan Fedora: The World’s Worst Explorer’ by Clive Goddard, which linked in well with our topic on the rainforests and this term we are reading ‘Odd and the Frost Giants’ by Neil Gaiman, which doesn’t link in completely with our topic on Ancient Greece, but we have begun to make some interesting links to the gods mentioned and the overall structure of this story and how it compares to Greek myths. I’ve also noticed that the books I suggest for the vote have become more adventurous. Five years ago, it used to be Roald Dahl or Roald Dahl. The more reading of children’s books I do, the more confident I am to explore other genres and children’s authors.
When should I read to them?
Again, this has been trial and error and changes depending on our timetable. I make sure I read to the children for twenty minutes every day. Looking back at when I first started teaching, I’m horrified that I used to think reading to my class was a waste of valuable time. I could be cramming in another subject or finishing off work in that twenty minutes! However, that twenty minutes of reading together time is now sacrosanct! I’ve even introduced D.E.A.R (Drop Everything And Read) sessions into the school timetable.
When I first introduce the class to a new book, I may read for fifteen minutes at the beginning of the day, fifteen minutes before lunch and then fifteen minutes at the end of the day – just to get them hooked in and engaged. Sometimes I show the book trailer online or show illustrations from the book before we start reading together – again, a great way to pique their interest. At the moment, with my current class, the twenty minutes reading time at the end of the day is a great time to signal that we need to pack away, calm down and allows the children some time to relax.
Should I ask questions during the story or just read?
I do not treat this as a guided reading session. I’m not concerned about firing questions at the children, trying to get some comments for assessment or to tick off objectives from the reading curriculum. Any questions I do ask are to further their understanding or enjoyment of the story. Very often, the children will ask questions about what a certain word means or tell the class what they think will happen next – especially if it’s something amusing! The class were particularly keen to share their theories about who the culprit was when we read ‘The Invisible Thief’. Free-flowing discussions emerged from the story, which were entirely child-led. My advice is to let the story do the talking – don’t keep interrupting the flow of the narrative to ask questions, just let them soak it all up! Here I adhere to the Mrs Phelps’ school of reading. Mrs Phelps was the wonderfully inspiring librarian in Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ who said:
“And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”
So what have the benefits of reading together been? There have been so many; it’s very difficult to narrow them down!
Improved listening and concentration
At the beginning of the year, the children in my Year 4 class could manage to listen to about a page. Anything after that and I could gradually see them switching off – fiddling (luckily no Fidget Spinners at that time!), whispering or looking out the window. I did learn quite early on that not every child staring out the window had lost focus – some were imagining, dreaming and creating worlds from the words they were hearing. To support them at the start of the year, I often displayed story maps, key words and pictures of characters and we would need to recap what had happened previously at the beginning of each session. Gradually, their concentration has improved. They are now more than happy to listen to a whole chapter of a book and sometimes even more. And I do mean that – they really listen. That type of eyes wide, mouth open, edge of their seats listening, often followed by gasps of horror or excitement.
Improved reading and expression
Reading aloud to the children has allowed me to model how sentences should sound, have fun reading in different (and often quite terrible) accents and show the class how a text should sound. This is beginning to help them when they are reading to me – they are much more fluent, aware of the audience and working hard to improve their expression. Sometimes I will stop reading and ask the children, “Why do you think I read that sentence with that expression and tone? What was I trying to get across?”
On a side note, it’s also nice for the children to see me having fun and nice for me to see the children laughing at all the different accents and characters I try to create. Yes, the BFG ended up sounding like an amalgamation of every nationality across the globe, and my LSA had to stifle her guffaws with her hand, but the children loved it, so that’s fine by me!
Vocabulary development and improved writing
The children have been able to listen to a range of stories and texts that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to. This means they have heard the meaning of many unknown words being used in their correct context and that their vocabulary has expanded. Enid Blyton is especially good for this! We now have the top part of the class whiteboard dedicated to new words we have heard when reading together and the children love the challenge of using them in their own writing. If I am discussing an unknown word, I tend to focus on what Beck calls ‘Tier Two’ words. Tier Two words often have multiple meanings, are used across a variety of subjects and are characteristic of mature language users.
Today, when reading ‘Odd and the Frost Giants’ by Neil Gaiman, the children discussed lots of words they had never heard before: boulders, portentously, pacified, reverberated, betrothed, corpse and so on. They were able to use the clues in the text to come up with a prediction about what these words might mean. Tomorrow’s English lesson will change a bit from what was originally planned, as I will ask the children to use dictionaries to look up the meaning of these words. It seems like a wasted opportunity to have these discussions about vocabulary and then not follow it up!
Lots of children often use these new words in their own writing. Last week, Medusa’s scales were described as a ‘watery jade green’ by one child and another asked me to remind her of one of our new words on the whiteboard. She then constructed a sentence about her mythical creature having ‘sharp teeth like stalactites’.
One boy recently started a wonderful discussion, when he said he felt the book we were reading wasn’t very good and would be better as a film. I asked him why he thought this.
“Well,” he replied, “I can see it all happening in my head. Fintan creeping through the rainforest and all the guys following him, and the scene where they’re on the rapids and the bit where everything explodes. So it can’t be very good as a book because I can see it in my head. It would be much better as a film!”
What followed was a lovely, eye-opening discussion about what a good book should do, what the author had done to help this child ‘see’ the story and how books can be adapted into films. Following discussion, the child actually revised his opinion and thought that it was a good book because he could imagine it as a film.
These sorts of discussions have really helped me to understand the children in my class as readers – their choices, their opinions, their likes and dislikes when reading. This in turn has helped me better direct them to books they might enjoy.
Enjoyment and engagement
The children seem to absolutely love this shared reading time! I tweeted a few months ago about an experience I had, when we were reaching the end of ‘The Invisible Thief’. I purposefully left the class on a corker of a cliffhanger, when Fatty enters the room with the thief. It went something like this:
“And Fatty entered the room with….OK everyone! It’s twenty past three! We’re late! We need to get our bags quickly!”
A collective, exasperated groan.
“”NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! You can’t do that”
“Mr. Eagleton, please, please carry on!”
“Can’t you tell our parents we’ve all been really naughty and have to stay at school? Then you can finish it!”
My favourite one was a child sidling up to me to whisper, “Erm…could you tell me who it was? I won’t tell anyone…” Hilariously, this child even tried to sneak in at lunch the next day to read the book alone. Luckily, I’d hidden it behind my cupboard curtain (which itself hides a multitude of mess and chaos!).
After I promised the class I would read the book to them first thing the next day, I had to go outside the classroom, while the children were getting their lunch boxes to hush the excited chatter. I found them in huddles, having bets over who the thief was and arguing over who it could and couldn’t be!
An amazing experience. It will stay with me forever.
To see every child in a class, joining in with something, utterly enthralled, completely engaged and enjoying reading and the power and intimacy of the spoken word is a wonderful experience. Reading aloud to your children really does unite the entire class and I am so glad I have decided to put time aside every day to do so.
And for any new teachers or anyone nervous about reading to their class – don’t be!
Hopefully, when the children are older and reflecting upon their own time at school, they will remember time when an adult read to them. They might not remember the characters or specific plot details (“Something about a character and a pair of socks….”), but they will remember the feeling of excitement, curiosity and happiness that a great book can ignite.
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