The Art of Reading Aloud

parent_childIn countless studies to discover the critical elements that lead to successful reading, countless successful readers have replied that they were surrounded by books in the home and the bedtime read-aloud was a nightly ritual. This infographic from the Australian Kids & Family Reading report identifies how important this activity is to your child.

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It has been suggested that a child needs to hear 1000 stories before learning to read and this can be easily accomplished in one year if parents adhered to Mem Fox’s formula of at least three stories a day- one favourite, one familiar and one first-read- starting from the day the baby is born.

Children, even those moving towards their teenage years, love to listen to stories, especially those told well with plenty of expression and emphasis.  It is during these times that they not only learn the language of books, but the sounds of the language they speak.  They learn to moderate and modulate their own voices, use words that they would not normally hear, and discover how one set of words can have a number of interpretations depending on the emphasis. They learn the impact of pauses and expression as well as complete and complex sentence structures.

Hearing stories read well is an essential part of any child’s education. 

If reading to children were common instead of a rarity, we’d be facing fewer academic and social problems in this nation.

Trelease, J. 2001 The Read-Aloud Handbook 5th ed., New York: Penguin

If you can read aloud well, the book does not even need to have pictures.

Here are some ideas to help you do this…

A special space

Most modern school libraries are large, intimidating places for little people who usually view the world looking up.  So, to bring the space to their dimensions, create a special storytelling space furnished with a special storyteller’s chair, and a soft mat on the floor. The best place for the space is near where your picture books are shelved so that the children are surrounded by enticing covers that promise so much, and which they can borrow at the end of the session. 

If you can have a wall behind you so the children are not distracted by other activity in the library, so much the better. It also helps make the space more defined, more intimate and more child-sized.  A high ceiling can be ‘lowered’ with a swathe of fabric or colorful hanging mobiles. A rug on the floor, even if you have carpet, defines the area visually and the children tend to stay within its confines.  It can also become the magic carpet that whisks the children off to Storyland.

Decorate the walls with posters or fabric panels that appeal to the age group. Or you might even like to create a mural incorporating favourite characters.  If you have them, create connections to the books by displaying some of the soft toys that go with the favourites beside the covers of the appropriate books. 

For sessions with your pre-schoolers, offer some adult-sized chairs so that the parents are comfortable and close.

If you are a parent, find a place where you and your child can be comfortable and your child learns that magical things will happen when you both curl up there.  Make it a part of the bedtime routine, a way of pulling the curtains on the day.

My special storyteller's chair.

My special storyteller’s chair.

Choosing a story

The most important issue in choosing a story to read aloud is to choose one that appeals to you, and that you can ‘hear’ yourself reading.  If the story does not appeal to you, you will not be able to hide your disinterest from the children and you will not read it well.  This is especially true if you are reading a novel to older children that does not have pictures to distract them from the monotony and boredom in your voice.

Age, gender, current interests and the size of your audience are the prime considerations for selecting an appropriate story. 

Young children like rhythm, rhyme and repetition, and themes of families, friends, pets, animals, toys and teddies. They happily accept the anthropomorphism of creatures like Elmer the elephant, Spot the dog, Franklin the turtle and Arthur the aardvark in situations and settings that are familiar to them.  They enjoy the world of fairies, elves, dwarves and other little folk and are quite satisfied with a touch of magic to make everything right and draw the story to a close.

Slightly older children still enjoy animal stories but they are also ready to listen to adventures and mysteries provided there are not too many twists and turns, and particularly if they can “see” themselves in the characters.  Fantasies about creatures like unicorns, dragons, witches and mermaids appeal, especially where the hero, who is someone just like them, conquers evil.

The time you have with the children, and its frequency, also impacts on the story you choose.  Younger students need to have the tale told within the one session – it is hard for them to carry a storyline over several sessions or days, particularly if there is a lot happening in between.  However, if there has been an excellent orientation, the plot is intriguing and the illustrations memorable, it is possible to pick up the pieces and continue.  Invite the children to tell you what they remember and revisit the illustrations to help them bring themselves into the world of the story again.  Never underestimate the child’s delight in hearing a good story again and again, even if you had had enough, so be prepared to read it again each day that your work focuses on it.

This age group is dependent on illustrations to accompany the text so they can clarify their understanding by matching what they hear to what they see.  Illustrations are not decorations.  Ensure that the pictures are bright and bold and big enough to be seen by those at the back. In the very best picture books the text and illustrations are integrated, each dependent on the other, and much of the meaning is missed if the pictures are too small.

Illustrations help the children orient themselves to the setting of the story and help them make sense of what is happening, especially if the setting is unfamiliar to them.  The child who has never been to a farm or heard the word “barn” needs to have a visual reference point. So before you read in public, practise reading the text while holding the book so that the children can see the pictures all the time, rather than showing them briefly at the end of each page.

Publishers are now very aware of the needs of those students who want more than a picture book but are not quite ready for serializations read over time, so there are many series available now that come in novel format but each chapter is a complete episode within itself.  A classic example of this is The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton in which the same characters feature throughout but have a different adventure in each chapter.  Books like these are excellent for whetting the children’s appetites because it is quite possible to read only one chapter and then make it available for those interested. Others are less than 100 pages with short chapters, larger fonts and monochromatic illustrations.

The Magic Faraway Tree series is the perfect introduction to sharing longer stories over time for the under-8s.

The Magic Faraway Tree series is the perfect introduction to sharing longer stories over time for the under-8s.

Never be afraid to not finish a book if it isn’t living up to anticipation, especially if the listeners become fidgety.  Return it to the shelf and have a discussion about why they have lost interest.  Again, you are modeling what real readers do and helping them to become critical readers themselves.

Ready to read

Begin each session with a few bars of the same piece of soothing music so that the children know that it is time to settle and listen.  It creates the effect of the curtains opening on the stage and ushers in the promise of something special.

Other suggestions are

  • lighting a candle or a soft-globe lamp at the beginning of the story so that the children know they cannot speak, unless invited, until the candle flame is blown out
  • creating a short verse or finger play about it being storytime that the children can join in as they settle
  • inviting the children to collect a teddy or a cushion as they come to the special space
  • having the children count slowly backwards from ten, focusing on their breathing so that it becomes calm and slow
  • using a puppet or a teddy as your off-sider and chat to it about who is ready and settled and then have the toy chat to the children who are ready
  • winding up a music-box and start the story as the last note plays
  • putting on your story-telling cloak and hat

There are many rhymes and finger plays to encourage students to settle and listen and if you use the same strategies as your teachers, such as “whole-body listening” the children become very familiar with the commands and expectations because of their continuity.

Have several stories, including familiar and a first-reads on hand so the children can choose which they want to hear.  Make a decision about whether you will start the session with the new story or the favourite depending on how settled the children are.

If you start with the familiar one, invite the children to tell you what they remember about it. Immediately you have the interactivity that engages their interest; the children learn to listen and bounce off each other’s contributions; new listeners are tuned into the story and encouraging the children to retell the story in their own words lays down the foundation of the skills needed to avoid plagiarism later.

If you start with the new story, introduce it to the children before you start.  Set the scene; build up the anticipation. Talk about unfamiliar concepts and write the characters’ names on the board. Have a box of simple props that you can use in the introduction.  Dollar-and-dime stores are treasure troves for these and you soon develop a radar for things that will make a story live.

These strategies focus the children’s ideas on what they are going to hear and they can bring what they already know into focus so the storyline makes sense, as they are expecting it to, and there are no incongruous surprises.

Reading Aloud

How are your reading aloud skills?  Are you able to draw even the most restless child in just with your voice, your eyes and your enthusiasm?  Can you create a world that involves just you, the story and the children no matter what busy-ness might be going on in the rest of the library?

Reading aloud to an audience is not a normal occurrence for most people, and it is not usually a subject taught at library school.  But just like the young child learning to read, we have to develop our skills by watching demonstrations, practising and responding to the feedback from our audiences.

The key to being successful is to be as expressive as possible, to let our inhibitions go so that the children have a moving and memorable experience.  There are many strategies that you can use to help you.

  • Investigate which children’s television programs have stories read aloud as part of their programming and record some of these so you can analyse the techniques used by the readers.
  • Select one story that appeals and listen closely to the ups and downs of the voice, the pauses, the places where eye contact is made with the audience and then try to duplicate this using the same story.  If you find it doesn’t work for you, either add your own variations or choose another story.
  • Choose a story that you like and that you can ‘hear’ yourself reading and practise reading in front of a mirror, including the technique of holding the book so that the audience can see the pictures all the time. Try to read the story the same each time so that its tune becomes a familiar pattern to you.  Video yourself and analyse your performance.
  • Look carefully at the authors’ words, consider why a particular word has been chosen, and use these understandings to dictate the sort of voice, expression and energy you will use in your reading. Our voices can go up and down, be loud or soft and fast or slow.  Whisper if the characters do, speed up if someone is in a hurry, shout out loud when Elmer says BOO, or pause dramatically in appropriate parts.  Using your voice to complement the text and illustrations is the magic of reading aloud.
  • Consider how you will deliver the first sentence – it has to hook each child immediately and draw them into the story, just as the first sentence of an adult title has to hook us as readers.  Experiment with various ways and when you have decided, use that way every time for that story – you will find that the children mimic you when they pick up the book..  Think about it as the curtains opening on a stage performance.
  • Similarly, practise the way you deliver the last line so that the story is drawn to a satisfactory conclusion for both reader and listener. Mem Fox says “We can achieve great things emotionally if the last line is a definite dismissal, a farewell. As we say it, we’re releasing our audience from their contact with us.”
  • Once you have the words working, consider the body language you can add. How can you use your eyes to convey shock, surprise, fright, conspiracy, delight, sadness and the dozens of other emotions that we have?  How can you use your hands to show size or depth; your body to show invisibility; your legs to demonstrate running? What sounds can you make?  Best-practice reading-aloud can become a skilled theatre performance in the hands of an expert.
  • Decide how you will introduce the story to the children and help them focus their thoughts so that what they hear make sense.  You might relate it to another story about the same character, on the same topic, or by the same author; have some props or puppets on hand; or invite the children to look at the cover and tell you what they think it will be about.  Have a few questions in the back of your mind so that you can start the discussions.  This orientation is most important because it builds up the child’s anticipation that they are about to move into a special world.
  • When you are ready to read to the children, try to be as natural as possible whilst still being animated and interesting.  You are not auditioning for a movie and you need to remember the story is more important than you are.  You are just the messenger for the author.
  • Invite the children into the story.  If there is the opportunity for the children to join in a repeated line or rhyme, invite them to do so.  Pause at appropriate places and think aloud about what might happen next.  Point out clues in the pictures that are helping you make your decisions.
  • Be prepared not to get it perfect.  If your tongue trips you up, go back and re-read the sentence   If there are names or words that you had to practise, tell them that you did.  Use these opportunities to model the strategies that readers use. Many children perceive themselves as poor readers because they make mistakes, not realizing that everyone miscues often.
  • Read slower than your normal conversational speech speed so that the children can process what they are hearing and keep up with the plot. Be on the same page as they are!
  • Take heart that the more often you do this, the better you will be and soon you will be able to pick up any book at any time and read it aloud without preparation.
  • Watch your confidence in speaking to large groups, including your peers, grow.  Public speaking becomes a cinch because no adult audience is as critical as a child.
  • Enjoy yourself and the children will too.

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If you have the opportunity, invite some of your senior students or library assistants to train as storytellers too so they can offer read-aloud sessions for the younger students during recess and lunch times if the library is open.  You might also invite other staff, parents, community members and celebrities to prepare and share a story with particular groups.  Share these read-aloud tips with them so they come prepared and confident and assured of an engaged audience. Take a photo while they are reading, create a card that all the listeners sign and present it as a thank you memento.

Read these Top Ten Tips for Stunning Storytelling for more ideas.

Look and listen

Audio books – those with the book and a recording of it – are becoming more and more popular, more and more professionally produced and more and more affordable so they are a valuable addition to your library stock.  Used in conjunction with the sort of orientation activities already discussed they can be a very useful adjunct to your read-aloud program.  They provide students with a different reader, character voices, and musical backgrounds that enhance the mood – all materials for the imagination.

They also allow the struggling reader access to stories they could not manage by themselves, especially if you allow them to borrow the set to take home and listen at their own pace.

If you are using sets that have a picture book, ask the wriggliest person to sit on the storyteller’s chair to hold the book up for the audience.  Not only does it give their self esteem a boost, it keeps them confined and concentrating on the story so they know when to turn the page.

 Reading Aloud and Older Kids

Some people think that reading aloud stops when your child is old enough to read for themselves and so it’s abandoned.  But there are many reasons why we should continue to read aloud well beyond that. 

This blog post  explains why this teacher is reading 180 picture books to her Yr 7s and 8s over the school year and the impact it is already having after just three weeks, and The Reading Promise  is the story of the bond formed between a father and daughter through reading aloud. 

Whether you are reading aloud to your child or to a class, do it as well as you can – you are conveying much more than the words on the page.

Why should we keep reading aloud to kids even when they can already “read on their own?” This talk demonstrates the magic of read aloud and reminds us all why reading aloud is so essential- at school and at home. This talk is for parents and teachers who want to teach comprehension and connect with kids in powerful ways.

Research involving almost 1,000 West Australian schoolchildren has revealed that parents, and teachers, may be giving up reading aloud to them too early. Read the full article.

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