The magic (and importance) of reading aloud

Janet Downs's picture
‘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, Beowulf – 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 magic.

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.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 25/08/2014 - 16:10

Janet - I am sure you are right. I clearly remember, as a very young primary school child in the 1950s, the highlight of the week was the regular BBC Radio schools broadcast of a story. I don't know what the programme was called, but we all looked forward to it and listened enthralled.

The story I remember most clearly was Beowolf.

As a secondary school teacher in the early 1970s, BBC Radio was still used for stories. I clearly remember the first radio serialisation of the 'The secret diaries of Nigel Mole' by Sue Townsend. No I am not making a mistake. 'Nigel' became 'Adrian' later. However I think the teachers enjoyed this more than the kids.

The TV later version made the enormous mistake of giving the characters Brummie accents. The stories were set in Leicester, where I taught at the time, and the locals were scornful of this mistake. The East Midlands Leicester accent is quite different. I don't think Sue Townsend would have been too pleased either. She is much missed.

There certainly is something very special about a class hanging on every word from a skilled teacher in the flesh telling a story.

Thank you for this post.

Brian's picture
Mon, 25/08/2014 - 18:15

'I clearly remember, as a very young primary school child in the 1950s, the highlight of the week was the regular BBC Radio schools broadcast of a story. I don’t know what the programme was called, but we all looked forward to it and listened enthralled.'

Stories and Rhymes (1951-86). I loved it was well, at about the same time I guess.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/08/2014 - 06:47

My experience was the opposite - the only time I remember a teacher reading aloud was from 'David Copperfield'. We had our own copy and had to follow along with her. The emphasis was on us reading the written words while hearing them spoken. But we weren't listening. And I certainly wasn't enthralled.

Following along when someone else is reading is dispiriting. I was an able reader so my reading ran ahead of the teacher. There was a mismatch between what I was hearing and what I was seeing. But I wasn't capable enough at age 8 to tackle Dickens' language and vocabulary. Result - I was put off Dickens. Fortunately, I had to study 'Hard Times' for A level and loved it. But I've never finished 'David Copperfield'. I got as far as David's marriage to Drippy Dora and had had enough. If that soppy pair had ever had children it would have been child abuse.

It wasn't until I went to FE College (age 16) that a teacher read a story aloud. Mr Ramsbottom read from 'The Little World of Don Camillo'. I was hooked.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 26/08/2014 - 08:47

Couldn't agree more. I help with individual reading in two South Wales schools: in one school I work through the medium of Welsh and in the other through the medium of English. It's hugely enjoyable and to my surprise and delight, the kids are eager to come and read. As a former classroom assistant I am out of the swing of reading planning sheets and setting up classrooms accordingly, but my impression is that not much has changed from when I did, three years ago. The curriculum still seems overloaded to me and initiatives are still flying in left, right and centre. Teachers are pressed and reading to the class has fallen out of fashion.
I notice a lot of the kids read robotically, which is partly a consequence of the chore nature of reading for many of them, but also that the musicality of reading aloud is not something many of them are familiar with. I used to read to my kids when they were young and taught them that the 'tune' as t'were was quite a good indicator as to where to put the commas and full stops: you can learn to listen for the pauses (,) and falling inflections (.). When my kids started to copy the trend and inflect upwards at the end of their sentences I would comment on it. To me, upward inflection of the voice means a question (?).

Something which one of the schools picked up on recently was an inability in early years classes to sequence stories. If you gave them pictures of a story they knew (or so you hoped after covering it in class) their ability to put more than 4 cartoon images depicting the story was rather poor. It was decided that one remedy would for teachers to read to the kids at the end of the day throughout the week. I'll be interested to see if this has a perceived effect.

But reading aloud is so much more than simply aural guidelines as to where to put the punctuation and how to sequence pictures. It is, indeed, a pleasure and inspiration to pick up that book and read over (and beyond) the passages that the reader brought to life.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 26/08/2014 - 10:16

Couldn't agree more ...I well remember the teachers reading aloud for 10 minutes at the end of every day. " The Little Wooden Horse" when we were 6, "Charlie and the chocolate factory" at 7, "The Hobbit" at 8 and " The Eagle of the Ninth" at 10. Still our firm family favourites.

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