That storytime glow

9th January 2004 at 00:00
The capacity of the human voice to bring printed words to life should play a crucial role in developing children's literacy skills, writes Michael Thorn

Ranked high on my list of cosy childhood memories is listening to John Buchan's Prester John (House of Stratus, pound;6.99), or Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword (Red Fox, pound;4.99) being read aloud in the boiler-heated schoolroom of my townhouse prep school while smog as dense as steam-train smoke smothered the afternoon light.

In a similar vein, the best moments of my class teaching life would have to include the sacrosanct 30 minutes reserved at the end of each day to read aloud from such books as Peter Dickinson's trilogy The Changes (Collins Voyager, pound;5.99 each), Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Robert O'Brien's Z for Zachariah (both Puffin, pound;4.99) - or any books by Joan Aiken, Nina Bawden, Philippa Pearce or Paul Berna.

Of course, the storytime glow that I and others get from such memories has to be balanced by a recognition that "reading aloud" carries with it the potential for a sense of irritation - both in the reader and the listeners.

I conducted a straw poll among various age groups in my school and was struck by how precise the children were in their views, and by how consistently they praised or berated aspects of being read to.

Older children (Year 4 and above) much prefer sitting in their chairs to listen to a story rather than huddled on the carpet in a simulated storytime corner.

All children like it when adults can convey characters by changing their voice, although this doesn't need to include replicating regional or American accents. Indeed, one of the complaints made about many audiotapes was that professional readers are often too stagey and over-the-top in their delivery.

There was a unanimous swell of opinion against adults who... read... the...

words... too... slowly... and... deliberately..., and similar annoyance at a tendency to stop and explain or to ask questions, even when stories are being read aloud outside the literacy hour.

Interestingly, few children seemed to be bothered by the things that bother adults when they are reading aloud to a class, such as children playing with Velcro, fiddling with pencil cases or making faces at one another.

It is the interruption of a story that rankles the audience rather than the inattentiveness of a minority. So a teacher is advised to read on, and do the necessary follow-up with individuals at the end of the session.

The emphasis on preparation and planning in all aspects of teaching can be taken too far when reading aloud. It is often said that you need to know all your material beforehand, but many of the novels I read to a class as a young teacher I was reading for the first time. Indeed, I discovered Peter Dickinson's novels in the course of reading them to my class. I didn't read ahead in preparation and I like to think there was an eager freshness in my delivery and a shared sense of revelation as the story unfolded.

Is it different for picture books? Possibly. But confining your repertoire to a few tried and tested favourites is too restrictive. Sooner or later you will be forced to snatch the nearest book and give it a go. Therein lies the potential for serendipitous discoveries.

That experience will carry on throughout your career. I was called at short notice the other day to a Year 1 class and grabbed at random an armful of books from the key stage 1 library. The Witch's Children (Orchard, pound;10.99) by Ursula Jones and Russell Ayto was a book I knew but had never read aloud. It was received so well that both it and a sequel are included in my recommendations.

My top reading aloud tip is "Don't rely exclusively on recommended lists".

My next five are:

* Let the class decide how to sit - floor or chairs.

* Read at a natural pace: children are used to TV presenters'

fast'n'furious delivery, andI theyI don'tI likeI slow.

* Have a "We are being read" display so that children can handle and look at the book you are reading or have just read to them.

* Establish a rule that when reading aloud you are not to be interrupted.

Assign a child or teaching assistant to deal with any visitor to your room.

Ignore minor distractions and speak appropriately to inattentive children only when you have finished the reading.

* Seek feedback but don't expect every class to have the same tastes or sense of humour.

Best books to read aloud

Key stage 1

The sooner young children are introduced to a repertory of nursery rhymes and traditional stories, the better, and foundation-stage teachers should not assume that this has happened at home or at nursery and pre-school groups.

There are lots of sources, but Sam Child's The Rainbow Book of Nursery Tales (Hutchinson, pound;14.99) has been compiled and illustrated in a way that will appeal to four-year-olds.

Only with a firm foundation in traditional tales will older children in key stage 1 be able to appreciate variations on familiar themes. Shirley Hughes, who has provided so much fail-safe read-aloud material over the years, has given the Cinderella story a 1920s setting in Ella's Big Chance (Bodley Head, pound;10.99). Year 2 children will appreciate its twists and translations which include casting the "ugly" sisters as glamorous models.

One of the disappointments about reading picture books aloud is that a text that seemed lively and engaging on the page, alongside the illustrations, becomes lifeless or awkward when read aloud. Big read-aloud successes are those that have some kind of refrain or punchline that children can pick up. Nick Sharratt's Shark In The Park (David Fickling Books pound;10.99) is a case in point. This even has some simple actions for foundation stage children to join in with.

The Witch's Children and the Queen by Ursula Jones and Russell Ayto (Orchard, pound;10.99), which has just won the under-fives Smarties Gold Award, is easily as much fun as the first book, in which the children call back their mother by screaming the word "Mum!". In the new title, they have developed a new tactic, which involves the flashing of knickers in front of the Queen.

For key stage 1 rhyming read-alouds, go to anything by these two writer-illustrator teams: Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (the Dr Xargle books and others, published by Andersen Press), or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (The Gruffalo and others, published by Macmillan, pound;10.99).

You should also get hold of the delightful Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough (Walker Books, pound;10.99), about a dog who claims to be able to fly.

Key stage 2

Jez Alborough's illustrated collection of school-based rhymes, Guess What Happened At School Today (Collins, pound;10.99), can be used across both key stages and provides a welcome alternative to Allan Ahlberg's classic collection Please, Mrs Butler (Puffin, pound;6.99) Tony Mitton's sequence of poems and stories, The Tale of Tales (David Fickling, pound;12.99) would greatly benefit from being read aloud, then displayed for Years 2 to 4 to handle and dip into. It is a beautifully produced book with black-and-white illustrations by Peter Bailey.

In the course of a school year, the number of books you will be able to read aloud to a class will inevitably be limited. All the more reason to select carefully, with an eye on encouraging children to try out new authors.

Hilary McKay is something of a Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings, and so on) of children's books and deserves to be as well known and widely read as Jacqueline Wilson. Saffy's Angel (Hodder, pound;5.99) and its sequel Indigo's Star (Hodder, pound;10) make perfect read-aloud material for Years 5 and 6.

Film adaptations present good opportunities for grabbing audience attention. A whacky book like Holes by Louis Sachar (Bloomsbury, pound;5.99) might have been thought too minority-interest to read to a whole class, but in the autumn term a Year 6 teacher read it in the run-up to the movie release and before he knew it half the class had their own copies.

There are times when just giving a taste of a book is appropriate, particularly to draw attention to new library acquisitions or to encourage children to become hooked on a series, an important stage of reading, particularly in Years 3 and 4. I'd recommend reading aloud opening chapters from series titles such as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Egmont, pound;6.99 each), Philip Ardagh's Eddie Dickens books (Faber, pound;4.99 each), and Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi's Spiderwick Chronicles (Simon amp; Schuster,pound;5.99 each ).

Try to include some narrative non-fiction. Short Books publish a number of biographies that are suitable for reading to key stage 2, including Who Was Madame Tussaud? by Toby Thorne (pound;4.50). Another non-fiction series worth considering is Double Take, in which authors present a historical sequence of events from two different points of view, such as in Votes For Women by Belinda Hollyer (Scholastic, pound;4.99) which presents events as if through the eyes of Henry Asquith and Sylvia Pankhurst.

Key stage 3

Eva (Macmillan pound;4.99), a novel about a character whose brain is being kept alive in the body of a chimpanzee, is a thought-provoking introduction to the work of Peter Dickinson.

Extracts from John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford World Classics, pound;4.99) could be read aloud alongside the relevant sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film of the book. Short stories by Walter de la Mare and Somerset Maugham could also be read to give students an understanding that first-person narrative styles retain the flavour of their period.

A contemporary story which tackles the issue of asylum seekers is Pictures From The Fire by Gaye Hicyilmaz (Orion, pound;4.99).

Books that are simply told and rely on adroit use of dialogue are not always easy to read aloud well. For that reason, David Almond's latest, most wonderful novel The Fire-Eaters (Hodder, pound;10.99) - another Smarties Gold award winner - is not recommended for this purpose. But his earlier novels, Skellig and Kit's Wilderness (Signature, pound;5.99 each), are ideal.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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