Thursday, August 13, 2020

Read me a story in Year Six! (Part 2: Setting up a Read-Aloud Culture)

In Part 1 of this blog, I offered a selection of 10 (secretly 11!) books that have proved extremely popular with my Year 6 classes over the years. What follows here are some ways in which I set up my class and classroom practice to make Storytime a valued and valuable part of my teaching of Reading. There are many points in this blog that could apply to reading aloud in any year-group, though I have highlighted a few key areas from which the oldest children in primary school in particular might benefit.

I aim for this to be useful, stimulating and/or reassuring; but I must point out that the blog is in no way intended as a blueprint for success in Reading Aloud! The suggestions I make are wholly personal though based firmly on my daily practice and the many, many observations I've made and discussions I've had with other teachers, academics and children. To all these people, I extend huge gratitude for making Reading Aloud such an important and inspiring part of my life in reading.


Tips for setting up a Read-Aloud culture in the classroom

 1. Read the book first

This is an absolute necessity, for the following reasons: 

  • YOU have to love the book (don't read the class a book that you don't enjoy, kids pick up on this innately).
  • there may be issues, language or dated characterisation which could be sensitive or offensive to you or to the children in your class. Think about how others may respond. Be aware too about parents - would they be OK about you reading this to their child? 
  • it builds a sense of the story; you'll know where it's going and be able to shape your reading (particularly of the characters - see 'Voices' later) and help you to ask and respond to questions appropriately.

Give Gene Kemp's The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler a read, for pure enjoyment, but also to give you an idea o why you *have* to read it first!! 

2. Choose a book of appropriate length

I select potential read-aloud books that, with daily reading sessions, would take about 2-4 weeks to read in their entirety, sometimes less, rarely more. Year 6 children cope well with sustained involvement with a book and appreciate the challenge; they can remember and engage with plot and character for much longer by this age, which enables really deep involvement in a story. Having a book on the go for more than four weeks, though, runs the risk of losing some children (not all) with either complexity or lack of pace. Think: If YOU felt after a week that you weren't enjoying a book, how might you feel about three more weeks (at least) of it? 

Easy rule of thumb: will the length of the book sustain the interest and pleasure in the story? If so...go for it!

3. Challenge

Think about choosing books that are going to challenge your class. Year 6 children in particular are on the cusp of entering an 'older' world on their arrival at secondary school. They really appreciate being introduced to more complex or challenging aspects of life. I've seen all kinds of children respond with incredible thinking about books like Jason Reynolds' Ghost and Jo Cotterill's Jelly which treat their readers with the respect and the maturity they deserve at this age. They gently hold their hand as they begin to explore some of the challenges of the world around them and you're there to guide them alongside the book. It's quite humbling when you think about it.

(Remember that funny books can be just as challenging too, in a different kind of way, so don't dismiss them. Jenny Pearson's The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates has some of the most sensitive writing about pre-adolescents that I have read, as well as some of the most side-splittingly funny!)

4. Involve the children

After making sure to read the book before you read it to the class, the next most important thing is to involve the children in any ways you can in the Read-Aloud experience. Some ways we do this in our class include:

a) the children choose from a selection that I have prepared, books I know and love and ones that I think match or broaden their interests too 

b) have small groups to talk about the book beyond the 'Storytime' session - chat at lunch or break with/without the teacher/storyteller

c) contact authors with the children's questions and thoughts. The writers of the book can give some fantastic support and for the kids, it's like magic to see *the* author show interest in their ideas 

d) ask the class to offer suggestions for future Read Alouds, then go read them yourself: you will learn a lot from this practice

Helping the class to feel part of the process and learning yourself from their choices and ideas will ensure a long-lasting approach that evolves and shifts from term to term, year on year.

5. Timetabling

It's hard in many year groups, but perhaps particularly tricky in Year 6, to find a spare slot in the timetable. I can only offer guidance for an ideal situation, though every classroom is different: 

  • make it the same time every day if you can (ours is straight after lunch for 30 mins). Daily (or near-daily) is really important for the flow of the story, engagement and establishing the value of Storytime in the children's perception
  • make sure everyone is there (absence-by-illness etc. excepted!); the worst thing to happen is if a pupil or group are regularly taken out of Storytime for an intervention and get to miss out on something important.
  • try to find a time where the story can breathe: end of the day is fine, but what if you are three pages from the end or you get into some really deep thinking/discussion, when suddenly the bell rings
  • I have been known to put a sign on the door when reading saying 'Shhh! We are reading a story! Please enter quietly.' You need to keep the magic sustained while you're reading!

6. Choose where the children sit

Children, if they have been lucky, will have enjoyed Storytime and being read to regularly in previous years. It's very likely that in their earliest days (and maybe right up to Year 6) they will have sat on the carpet to listen to a story. By the time the children have reached 10 years old though, they have physically grown much bigger! Also, when the children were younger, they needed to be in one area to be able to see pictures that were being shown them from the book. Books for older children don't have that same reliance on the need to see pictures (though there are outstanding exceptions, such as David Litchfield's extraordinarily creepy pictures for Christmas Dinner of Souls).

Although I regularly use a carpet area  to bring children together at key points in the day and in lessons, I don't use it any more for Storytime: at first, I gave up the practice reluctantly but now I can appreciate better that sitting for 20-30 minutes on the floor while trying to keep your legs crossed is not ideal! A number of classes have told me they find it uncomfortable and that they wanted to be doing something rather than simply listening. So now, both for comfort and to develop focused thinking about the book they are listening to, the class sit at tables with a choice of things to do...

7. Think about what the children will do while listening

There's various things that individuals can do while I am reading the story. To sustain engagement and involvement, they might:

a) simply listen - some children like to put their heads down on the table or close their eyes or stare into space even! They don't zone out if it's a good story so don't worry about this passivity. I will always try to involve these children in the book talk afterwards though, to keep tabs on what they have heard and understood.  

b) draw - this is very popular, with children choosing to draw something that inspires them in the reading. They have small notebooks of blank paper for this. 

c) make notes - less popular but some children have loved making lists of new words or making maps of the story/characters etc.

d) follow a copy of the book while I read, if there are multiple copies available or they have their own copy themselves


I truly hope you'll have fun now, thinking about how YOU will make Storytime a personal and enjoyable experience for your class! Make sure to ask your class (and keep asking them) about things that could develop/improve: they will teach you lots and it will be a true community of readers! 

In Part 3 I'll be going on to explore a few techniques of how reading a story aloud to best effect might be achieved.


  1. Some great advice Ben - I'm going to forward this to a teacher friend of mine who will no doubt benefit from such wisdom! Many thanks - Ross x