Sitting in Mrs. Edmonson’s class, at the age of eight, I was on tenterhooks, was Bilbo Baggins actually going to trick Gollum and escape from under the mountain? She stopped reading, wanting us to guess each riddle before she would continue, maintaining the suspense.
I loved listening to stories and Mrs. E. was a brilliant storyteller. She had the ability to hold the class in the palm of her hand whilst reading and, though I did not realise this at the time, used the treat of story time as a behaviour management tool. To be excluded to the corridor during story time brought the most hardened miscreant to tears. Fourteen years later, I was rapidly turning into the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ as I struggled to manage the behaviour of a really tricky class of mixed Year 3 and 4s. Boys were in the majority, they were noisy and had the attention span of gnats. Rewards stickers, praise, shrieking had little or no effect, then I remembered Mrs. E. After lunch, the class bubbled in and I sat them on the carpet. I said I was going to read them a book that had been my favourite when I was their age. I gave two simple ground rules, listen and put your hand up when you need to speak.
The book I read had limited literary merit, but as a quick paced cliffhanger, it worked a treat! It was “Five on Treasure Island” by Enid Blyton. I was able to use this as a major motivator, “When you finish your work on time, we can fit in a chapter.” Reading aloud became a regular part of each day, and we all enjoyed listening to stories, discussing them and actually getting to know each other. Though we started with Enid Blyton, by the end of the year we had read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Hobbit”, many of the students reading the book at home with parents, who began reporting their children were asking to read. The class became enthused about books and about writing. We started a lunchtime newspaper club, interviewing local ‘celebrities’, writing columns based on their own interests. Reading was cool. Reading aloud is important. It models the skill you want students to emulate and, when you enjoy what you are reading, it shows that reading is pleasurable.
A story read aloud can be pitched at comprehension ability, not reading ability and facilitates high quality discussion about stories and poems that the new curriculum requires. It enables students to imagine worlds and times beyond their experience, whether a Victorian girl’s school in Jane Eyre or what it would be like to grow up in a graveyard (The Graveyard Book: Neil Gaiman). It helps students to understand grammar and how to embed metaphors or rhetorical devices in their own writing because they want to imitate what they have heard. Most importantly, it gives reading a purpose beyond decoding or answering questions – it makes reading a pleasure.
Dr. Nancy Walbank is an educational consultant. She has worked across primary, secondary and tertiary education. She has held leadership roles in the primary sector. Her PhD focused on inclusion in faith schools. She is the author of “Six Top Tips for a Trainee Teachers.” Follow her on Twitter @nan282.
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