Five reasons to keep reading aloud

1st December 2000 at 00:00
WHEN A child tries to tell me what his fathermotherauntie remembers from when I was their teacher, I change the subject quickly for fear of hearing some embarrassing incident from a quarter of a century ago.

I was not quick enough in applying the guillotine to the most recent story of the girl whose uncle remembered my apparently hilarious reading of a poem. It was eventually identified as Roald Dahl's retelling of the story of Red Riding Hood, whose revenge on the granny-eating wolf is described in the memorable lines, "The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers." Just the thing to send 11-year-olds into paroxysms of laughter.

While I hope the uncle met some better examples of literature during his school years, I was quietly flattered that he had remembered favourably my efforts at reading aloud, since it is possible that I had been the only person in the classroom who had enjoyed the sessions. My present situation does not provide much opportunity for reading aloud to children, and it is an activity which has become very rare in P6 and P7 classes. Too often it is seen as a soft option in a school day governed by attainment outcomes, and reading aloud is not a candidate for discussion or assessment.

But not only in school. Now it appears that being read to is a rare experience at home for most children, lost in a world of computers and bedroom televisions and adults too tired from working all hours.

Reading aloud is a most enjoyable activity for adults, but it is even better for the children who are listening. They are introduced to the thrill of literature they might otherwise not have encountered, and their imaginations are engaged in the actions, thoughts and emotions of people of all ages and situations from past and present. Here is genre, here is predictive reading, here is where boys get involved in fiction.

There are five reading-aloud books which have survivedthe years to become my top choices for giving pleasure to children and teachers.

Ted Hughes wrote the five nightly chapters of The Iron Man in a deceptively simple style with breathtaking descriptions. While we identify with the terrified farmers who have to feed the giant's appetite for meals of metal, we come to pity them as they seek to destroy what they do not understand.

Only the boy, Hogarth, has faith and he is repaid when the Iron Man saves the world from the deadly threat of the space-bat-angel-dragon who lands with a bump on Australia. In this book everyone's a winner and humanity is at its best.

The children may be cardboard cut-outs in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and CS Lewis may have intended it as a religious allegory, but the story is so strong that the weaknesses are easily ignored. The thrill of pushing past the fur coats in the wardrobe and spotting the glimmer from the distant lamppost blurred by the gently falling snow is a magic introduction to the land of Narnia where it is "always winter but never Christmas" due to the power of the White Witch.

My real favourite is Ian Serraillier's account of the adventures of a Polish family who escape from the Nazis in 1939. With the father presumed dead and the mother taken prisoner, the children scrape a meagre and dangerous existence in war- torn Europe as they search for their parents in The Silver Sword. The climax comes with members of the family struggling along different routes to the safe haven of Switzerland. Sensible girls, macho boys and cynical teachers are allowed to snuffle and wipe tear-filled eyes through the reading of the penultimate chapter. Just remember to leave time for the deep silence which will surely follow.

Add in the short stories by Bill Naughton in The Goalkeeper's Revenge and by George Layton in The Fib and you have a wonderful collection of reading-aloud stories to be enjoyed by adults and children.

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