Here’s the thing. I taught for seven years full-time and a further thirteen years part-time. I taught in junior schools and secondary schools. I taught in small village primaries and huge city secondary schools. I had good classes and awkward ones. I had days when I was on fire and days when I simply didn’t deliver what my class deserved. Sometimes I rocked and sometimes I was totally out of my depth. Totally. Those lessons were awful for all of us.
The one constant in my teaching career was my love of reading out loud to my class. This is where I excelled. This is what kept me going. It felt like cheating, it was so simple. Find a book, read it out loud – success guaranteed. I could be wrong, of course. I could be mistaking ‘success’ – that lack of shuffling, that silence, that absorption in the story – for something else; submissive boredom or a perception that listening to a story was better than ‘real work’ but I don’t think so. I think it was the magic of storytelling casting its spell.
The titles of the books have changed since I left the classroom (I hope) but the method hasn’t. The tips in How to Tell Stories to Children and some stories to tell by Sara Cone Bryant (born 1873), published in 1910, are as pertinent now as then. ‘Story-telling is at once one of the simplest and quickest ways of establishing a happy relation between teacher and children and one of the most effective methods of forming the fixed attention in the latter.’ ‘Happy relation.’ ‘Fixed attention.’ What more can a teacher ask for? Establish a happy relation and the rest is easy – even teaching inverse adverbials. Same goes for ‘fixed attention.’ Any teacher who can gain ‘fixed attention’ in 2016, using only a book, deserves praise and an enormous box of Celebrations.
So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips.
1. Choose the right book
Well, dur, But it’s amazing how many teachers don’t put enough thought into their choice of class reader. It isn’t good enough to simply pull a book from the trolley at random on your way back to the classroom and hope for the best. It isn’t good enough to pick something because it’s popular, either. I visited a Y4 classroom where the teacher had invested in a set of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Why? Those kids have seen the film, bought the t -shirt, had the book given as a Christmas present five times already. Half of them know how it ends – they know what’s coming. What’s the fun in that? It’s a long book, too. Even reading every day for twenty minutes it will take a whole term to get through.
- Ask for ideas from a school librarian. They’re still around (just). They know what goes down well for your year group. Here’s where a lot of them hang out: Schools Library Association
- Spend a whole Saturday or Sunday in a large bookshop with a good children’s section. Check out titles by new and unfamiliar authors rather than going for the same old- same old. Sure, Michael Morpurgo is wonderful but so is Gill Lewis and Guy Bass and Kaye Umansky and Andy Mulligan and Sita Brahmachari and … well, basically there are hundreds of great writers to choose from. Discovering new writing is part of the fun!
- Check out social media. There’s a great hashtag on Twitter #myclassreads.
- Look around your class. What sort of kids have you got? Are there many with short attention spans? Maybe shorter titles might suit them better? Are they newly settled children from several different countries? Are they mad about science, ghosts, the planet, monsters? There are gripping stories out there that will not only cross boundaries but will also allow your class to feel included. Children love recognising themselves in characters. Read what children’s writer Leila Rasheed has to say on diversity in books. This great blog here calls for teachers to vary their stories by ‘offering different flavours of water.’
- Don’t be put off by ‘age bands.’ Y6 can still enjoy picture books – it’s just got to be the right picture book.
- Don’t be limited by genre. Non-fiction, poetry and plays can be just as engaging as straightforward stories.
- Can’t get to a bookshop? Surf the net for suggestions. Not Amazon – you’ll only end up with Roald Dahl and the usual suspects. Be adventurous. Check out Bookbag or publishers’ websites such as Walker Books and for guaranteed diversity try Letterbox Library. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ magazine Carousel is great for reviews, too.
- Ask other teachers. They will share ideas and tips on successes and failures. Remember, though, a book that goes down well with one group might not be as well received by another.
- Ask the kids. What are they reading? What would they like to hear?
2. Create the right reading environment
Trying to read to kids in a busy school hall or with constant interruptions is a nightmare. You will never get that rapt attention with doors banging and other teachers sticking their heads in your classroom and saying ‘Have you got a minute?’ Treat your book-on-the-go time with respect, as something precious. Find a cosy, quiet place to read. Put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door.
Let the kids get comfy. If that means lying on their tummies on the carpet, so be it.
Let kids doodle while they listen. Some children need to have that as an aid. Doodling is a silent activity that won’t disturb others. The child is still listening to the story.
Don’t turn story time into a comprehension lesson. Stopping every two minutes to ask questions is a killer. ‘Why do you think Ronaldo did that?’ ‘Does anyone know what a boomerang is?’ Arghh! It stops the flow. Trust the kids. They’ll glean from the story what they need to at their own pace.
3. Titles that worked for me (KS2)
Don’t forget I’ve been out of the classroom since 2000. However, I’ve been involved in the world of children’s books since 1965 when I was 10 and fell in love with reading. Also, not meaning to brag but I was the UK’s first Patron of Reading until 2015, so I know stuff. Here goes:
Perfect for all KS2 teachers – poems, extracts, short stories and tall tales all with a reading time for those end of day moments
Diary of a Killer Cat by Anne Fine (1994)
My no-fail classroom read for KS2. I once had to stop to check if a Y4 was OK, she was laughing so much I thought she might injure herself. See also Jean Willis’s Silly Cecil and Clever Cubs for similar reaction.
Goodnight Mr Tom
The Considine Curse by Gareth P Jones
Confession: I haven’t actually read this out as a classroom reader but I so would if I were still in the classroom. Y5/6. Spooky, funny, weird.
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2012)
Just like it says on the cover – ‘…warm, funny and totally original.’ The story of brothers Chingis and Nergui from Mongolia and their ‘guide’ Julie, who is put in charge of looking after them, told in Cottrell-Boyce’s inimitable style. Y6/Y7
Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake (2011)