Touch the imagination

12th January 2001 at 00:00
If you are afraid of making a fool of yourself, you may ignore story time's life-enhancing quality, says Rose Impey.

It's interesting to look back and identify defining moments in your life which helped direct you to your choice of career. If I do it now, from the perspective of my second career as a writer, my most significant memory would be the first time I read to a class of children and looked out, mid-sentence, on to a sea of faces all completely absorbed and, emotionally-speaking, in the palm of my hand. It was hugely seductive to me then as a student teacher - and it still is.

I knew instinctively that something important was going on, that I was connecting with those children at a deeper level. It was the kind of connection the late Ted Hughes was describing when he wrote: "When we tell a story to a child, to some extent we have his future in our hands in so far as we have hold of his imagination. That's the key. If we can touch his imagination, he can't resist. When we set his imagination in action, we set a machine going in him that carries him, whether he likes it or not."

Looked at in this way, it's quite a responsibility and that moment in mid-story gave me a sense of what a powerful tool reading aloud to children could be. I can see now it was also the first step on my route to writing. It's no wonder I feel so strongly about the business. Many years on, I'm still convinced it's the best way to whet appetites and create readers.

Visiting schools throughout Britain, I regularly see the direct link between children's delight in a story and the way the teacher's own enthusiasm shines through. So when I talk to teachers in training, as I've done several times at the University of Leicester, I encourage them to take reading aloud seriously and to indulge in a little extrovert storytelling.

Some people will tell you that a good story stands on its own merits and doesn't need gimmicks or silly hats to work its magic. But I know as a young teacher that that kind of advice wouldn't have helped me a great deal, certainly not until I'd first built up my confidence. Reading aloud to children is like any other skill - it improves with practice. So here are a few simple hints that may help.

As a new teacher, your first consideration is your choice of material. Unless you feel excited by, if not passionate about, a story, choose another. On my final teaching practice, I had my little bit of magic stolen by an unsympathetic teacher who dictated everything I did in the classroom right down to the choice of story I read. His choice was Virgil's Aeneid, not an easy read for a 10-year-old - I could barely pronounce the title myself and, as a result, I floundered. It made me realise that you need to be able to communicate your own enthusiasm to sell a story.

Obviously, a little preparation helps. You don't have to know the text verbatim, but you'll do better if you are sufficiently familiar with it to lift your eyes at intervals and connect with the audience. Those of you working at foundation stage will be only too aware that many children spend their pre-school hours watching TV and videos, and you can't assume they'll sit still and listen to a story. Puppets carry their own magic and you can adapt the idea by making cardboard reproductions of the key figures and other small props from a story to draw children in.

I discovered the value of this during story times for three-year-olds at my local library, where there were always lots of distractions. Mr Gumpy's Outing, by JohnBurningham (Red Fox), or The Elephant and the Bad Baby, by Elfrida Vipont (Puffin), are two wonderful picture books which lend themselves to this approach. I also developed a game with my own children which involved hiding their toys in a bag and then pulling them out, one at a time, in order to make up a story. I later adapted this to produce two picture books, called Storybag books (Mammoth).

The message is simple. First, catch the eye, then hold the attention. But, eventually, we require children to listen, without props or pictures. Then it's just you and the story, and that can be an equally magical experience.

The human voice has an incredible range and, with a little confidence, you can begin to make the most of it. Not everyone is a natural mimic and accents can be difficult, but concentrate on trying to create an individual voice for each character so that he or she is distinct from another.

Vary the volume. Lower your voice to a whisper to create tension, until you have the back row leaning forward to catch every word. Then raise it suddenly to shock or surprise. When I read The Flat Man from my Creepies series (Collins), the children always tell me they liked it best when I made them jump! Pauses can carry dramatic tension, as all actors know. And leaving your reading on a cliffhanger, rather than at the point when the bell goes, will have the children hungry for the next instalment.

Reading to a class can be a cosy, quiet affair, but let it sometimes be more of an occasion. Story times, like other lessons, should be "happening events". If the children are initially reluctant to listen, you may be able to command their attention better by presenting a more physical presence. When I visit schools, I always stand to read so that I can move around and use my whole body, which gives me more dramatic scope. It also gives me a better view so that I can see who needs drawing in, who's not yet hooked. Then, through eye contact, I can make a direct personal appeal to particular children and remind them that, although I'm reading to a group, I'm reading to them as individuals too.

Under the pressure of an ever-growing curriculum, it seems as if story times are fast disappearing. Children are being encouraged to recognise the crucial elements of stories and are becoming expert at textual analysis, but rarely get the chance to enjoy a story as a whole experience - completely suspending disbelief and feeling the full magic of the story feeding their imaginations. A well-written, well-told story can work small miracles and create a connection between you and your class that will have far-reaching effects. So loosen your inhibitions a little and remember: you'll learn just as much from your less successful attempts.

And don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself. One teacher whose class I worked with told me how she'd enjoyed my reading.

Once upon a time, she'd worked with infants and could have done that kind of thing, she said, but as a teacher of older children she'd now be too embarrassed. I urged her, as I'm urging you, to have a go and be prepared to make a fool of herself. If that's all it takes to convince some children that reading isn't only a necessary skill, but a wonderful life-enhancing activity, then surely we owe them that small thing.

Rose Impey writes fiction for the primary age group and frequently visits schools to talk about her work. Her most recent series, Twice Upon a Time, retellings of traditional folk tales, is published by Orchard Books

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