Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Storytelling isn't an easy option, but with a little showmanship it can be utterly unforgettable

My fondest memories of primary school are of sitting cross-legged on the carpet around our teacher's chair as she read a story at the end of the day. We were a large, lively class and we listened, entranced, as our parents waited in the corridor with our coats, ready to escort us home.

It didn't matter if we had already heard the story; we loved the repetition and joined in with the words and phrases we remembered. Sometimes, if we were good, we were allowed to choose a book - and the old favourites were produced time and time again.

When I trained as a teacher, reading a story to a class seemed an easy option compared with the mounds of preparation required for core subjects. How wrong I was. As soon as my attention moved from the class to the book, minor misbehaviour broke out among the more difficult children; the flow of the narrative was interrupted each time I called them, impatiently, to order. I discovered that the secret of reading well to a class, as in all good teaching, is careful preparation.

Get a head start

Always read the story beforehand. Break the text down into manageable chunks. Practise tongue twisters. Memorise simple dialogue. Choose illustrations to show the class.

Never let the twists and turns of the plot take you by surprise. That way, you can anticipate when to vary the tone, revealing confidences, whispering asides or building suspense. If it is a long story, mark the exact point where that day's episode will end, ideally on a cliffhanger. "What, children, will happen next? We shall have to wait and see!"

Bigger than the book

Collect simple props and costumes in advance - this will set the tone for the story. A wizard's hat, a witch's broomstick, a conjuror's wand or a "magic" carpet will create a mysterious atmosphere as the children gather round.

For example, a teapot with a cracked spout that "accidentally" spills cold "tea" on the audience will command immediate attention for the reader of Norman Hunter's hilarious The Dribblesome Teapots.

Sound it out

Always, always do the voices. Nothing brings a story to life more than a reader confidently and effectively creating appropriate voices for the author's carefully drawn characters.

Jan Page's Dog on a Broomstick, for example, describes a cornucopia of quirky voices that betray each witch's character - not to mention the gruff voice of the dog himself.

Mix it up

If students have short attention spans, combine reading with an activity such as art or music. A class could draw characters or scenes from the book as the story is read aloud. If a story truly engages them, the most interested children will keep their peers quiet.

Create a calm space

Make sure there are no disruptions. Never read the story at a time when groups are likely to be taken out of class for other activities. Make sure your teaching assistant, too, is quietly engaged. A sign on the door that says "Story-reading in progress" will keep non-essential disturbances (and most are) at bay, preventing an unwelcome break in the magic that is unfolding.

Gregory Holyoake is an actor, author and supply teacher in Kent

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