‘The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…’
First line of Where the Wild Things
Are by Maurice Sendak.
Read this aloud to a group of small children and you’ll immediately grab their attention. And it’s not just the adventures of a mischievous boy who realises being a king is lonely and wants to be ‘where someone loved him best of all’ that enthralls them. It’s not even Sendak’s wonderful illustrations. It’s the language.
And it’s best appreciated if it’s read aloud.
Listening is fundamental – children hear before they speak. In pre-literate societies, the story-teller had the best seat near the fire.
It should be expected, then, that reading aloud to children would feature highly in the National Curriculum (NC) for primary English
. But it doesn’t. The emphasis is on pupils reading aloud not the teacher. There are just two references to pupils listening to stories – and they’re in the non-statutory guidance. The secondary English NC
doesn’t mention reading aloud by the teacher at all.
But reading aloud isn’t just for children. Yesterday’s edition of Radio 4’s Something Understood
looked at the enchantment of hearing words being spoken. And hearing something reveals a power which can be lost when words are read silently. Poetry, for example, is primarily performance*. So are Shakespeare’s plays. The Iliad
, The Odyssey
– all oral texts before written ones.
The absence of reading aloud from NC English doesn’t mean Government-approved circles necessarily regard it as unimportant. The Core Knowledge UK
curriculum, promoted by ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove and ex-schools minister Liz Truss, rightly says:
‘Without a question, the single most important and helpful thing that parents can do [to encourage literacy] is to set aside fifteen or twenty minutes regularly, daily if possible, to read aloud to your child.’
The Core Knowledge UK books contain adaptations of stories the authors think children ought to know. But they’ve been rewritten, mostly badly. This implies the authors have lost something along the way: the music of language. Some adaptations are padded with superfluous description. Commas clog sentences unnecessarily. Any moral is made clunkingly obvious. Sendak’s first sentence would likely be rewritten as:
‘One night, when the sky was dark, and the moon was bright, and the stars were twinkling, a little boy, who was called Max, dressed himself up in a suit, which made him look like a big, bad, wolf, and didn’t do what his Mom told him to do.’
I exaggerate (a little) but stories are more than just events strung together. Stories are more than stuff kids should know. It’s the language that makes them memorable. Language and narrative effectively woven together equal magi
Over seven years ago, when concerns arose about the reduction in time given to reading aloud to children, Sue McGonigle, a primary advisory teacher told TES
: "Reading aloud to the class is the most important thing a teacher can do.
That’s true not just in primary school but in secondary school and beyond.
Let the storyteller take the rightful place near the fire.
*I’m not a fan of Gerard Manley Hopkins – the repetition, excessive alliteration, the odd placing of accents over words (why put an accent on Oné – does Hopkins expect the reader to pronounce 'one' as ‘Onnay’?). But listening to Richard Burton reading ‘The Leaden Echo’ and ‘The Golden Echo’ is mesmerising. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s favourite poem and he used to read it to her. Colin Farrell read it at her funeral. Find the poem and a link to Burton’s reading here