Sunday, August 16, 2020

Read me a story in Year Six! (Part 3: Tips for Reading Aloud)

This, the third part of a series about Reading Aloud in Year 6, focuses on the actual act of reading out loud to a class. Many of these points are important to consider in any year group, but the following points are based on my long-term experience of reading to older children and is possibly more sensitive in parts to the attributes and needs of that age of child. 


1. "Before we begin..."

Establish where the story has got to so far (like in your favourite box-set!). Get the children involved in this: I like to put on a slight show of confusion turning back through the pages, muttering: "Now what happened at the end of the last chapter...", "What was it that X was up to..?", "Something major happened in the book yesterday. What was it again...?" Children love being better at remembering stuff than the dusty old teacher! 

It's good to recap (briefly) with some basic questions too at this point in the session: 'What's so-and-so's dog called?", "Why have they gone up to the lighthouse?" but this isn't a comprehension test, so I make sure to keep it relaxed.

2. Voices

Reading a book out loud is a kind of spell so the words written on the page desperately need a 'voice' for them to work: a good storyteller shapes the words to bring them to life; a great storyteller gives their living breath to the squiggles on the page. 

This may sound daunting, but take courage! Anyone can become a great storyteller: it's a matter of two things - loving the story you are telling (so much so that you are desperate to share it with your audience!) and letting the story 'in' so you are able to tell it authentically. 

It's really important to 'do the voices'. But that doesn't mean we have to make up different sounds for every character (e.g. a scratchy, fingernails-down-the board voice for the demon bench-end in Priestley's Tales of Terror). This could so easily verge on caricature or worse, stereotype. As the storyteller, we just have to tune into what the story is saying to us about these characters and feel what they are living, saying, breathing...

Year 6 children still love the voices too - and don't get me wrong, so do I! They can add so much to the intensity and immediacy of the telling when done well.  But do be assured: reading aloud doesn't need to become a big, dramatic performance. Where a good deal of reading aloud for younger children benefits from bright, colourful characterisation through the sounds made by the storyteller, the books that are going to satisfy the children's interests at Year 6 have a more developed nuance when it comes to character - pastel and charcoal in shade and texture, rather than bolder, primary colours. (By the way, that's certainly not to say that in my opinion books for younger children are in any way 'easier', or 'less developed' than those for older - no way!)

What is always needed is a sense of character. Having read the book first yourself, you should though understand the need for the emotion and personality in each character speaks their words. That demon bench-end, for instance, might far more effective as a simple whisper, barely containing its anger. So you can simply use your own voice to shape each character's words: just make it quiet or confident, let it bounce along or hide shyly in a corner, allow it hiss snide comment, or bray boorishly...this is what matters - children need to hear the inner character. 

Read with feeling - that's the key thing.  

3. When to talk

I try to read for very long chunks at a time without pausing to ask questions. I used to stop far more often during the reading, but it became intrusive and broke the magic of the story. A constant running commentary isn't needed. Also, again, it's not a comprehension test.   

Sometimes, though, children want to say something during the reading about what they've spotted or to ask a question. Again, I won't stop immediately but try to acknowledge the question with a reassuring glance over at the child and a silent thumbs up. This will mean I've logged their interest and will come back to them at a good point in the next few minutes. I still want the children to feel the pull of the story, for it to mesmerise. 

But equally, I want to pass on the 'expert teacher role' to them. I want to support the children's independence to question and comment on a text. By Year 6, children may have become more self-conscious about this, thinking there may be a 'right or wrong' way to react to a book, or particularly sensitive to the reactions of their peers. To encourage the children to feel confident in taking on what may have been seen previously as the grown-up reader's role - thinking, questioning, wondering with others - is what it's about here.

4. Book-Talk

Reading doesn't stop when you close the book at the end of a read-aloud session. Real reading (particularly as the child becomes older) is increasingly more about thinking and talking about what you have read that it is about deciphering the squiggles and patterns on the page. So we spend at least five minutes of the session discussing individual, group and class thoughts about the bit of the story we've read that day.

Sometimes children naturally want to start talking about something that has grabbed their attention. As the storyteller/teacher, I'll act more as guide in the discussion, inviting comments, disagreements, other 'spots' that children have made, rather than as participant. It is, though, still important to offer them your interpretation of things from time to time: to the children, we are models of 'the mature reader', so our interest, passion, involvement is key; we should take part - just not take over! 

If there is little forthcoming from the children, I use a selection of generic questions to prompt thinking (I'll be writing more about this in the autumn as an Example of Practice for the OU Reading for Pleasure site). For example:

  • Which parts interested you the most today?    
  • What feelings did you experience when we were reading this book?
  • Did anything we read today remind you of something else you’ve enjoyed? Another book? A film?

Because these are very open, these are particularly good to use with children who may lack confidence in talking about books. 

5. Valuing Every Reader

At the end of a lot of sessions, we have a few minutes sharing anything the children have written or drawn to value the range of personal responses. It's a joy to hear and to support Year 6 children in their developing views about the literature they encounter. By this age, there is a special need to recognise that these children are on the cusp of a deeply independent approach to their reading. They have spent much of their primary school learning about the ways they respond to stories and text and at this point, on the point of leaving for secondary school, they have a unique opportunity to explore their thinking at a mature level in a safe space.

Children's drawings are fascinating to examine and considering these in the context of reading can be revealing. For all children, drawing initiates a particularly personal exploration of a text. It allows time to focus on just one or a few aspects of the book being read. Also, some children might not be comfortable talking about books - the 'Book-Talk' tips above may not prove so fruitful with them - but through drawing they may be better equipped to express their thinking.

Questions about the drawings to involve the whole class in looking closely and thinking about the drawing/reading might include: 

  • What have you drawn here? 
  • Why did you draw this today? 
  • What did you hear in the reading today that inspired you to draw?
  • Is there anything else from today's read that you might like to draw later? 
Listen out for how the drawing has been stimulated by their perception of the reading. Engage these children in regular book-chat through their drawing skills. Celebrate how this form of reading a book is just as valid as oral book-chat!  

Because everyone has the right to be part of Storytime. 
I'm now looking forward to writing more about this subject in the future! In the meantime, further great thinking about Reading Aloud at Primary School is offered by Martin Galway here:, 
and here: 
And if you want to know more about the practice and the impact then Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin) will tell you lots and lots more!


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