August 8, 2013
A read-aloud lesson
Section 1 (Click the “play” buttons to hear the text read aloud.)
An American father once said to me: “So how do you do this read aloud thing?” I was almost too taken aback to answer. Wasn’t it obvious? Then I realised it wouldn’t be obvious if he hadn’t been read aloud to as a child. I wanted to say: “Well, you know—find a book, get a child, and sit down and read the book to the child,” but it seemed so simple that I was too embarrassed to say it.
When I see a read aloud session in my mind’s eye, there’s either an adult sitting in a big old chair or on a sofa, with a child on the adult’s lap or snuggled up close, sharing a book, or an adult sitting or lying on a bed with the child tucked up, wide eyed, as stories are being read. And the experience is always fantastic.
The more expressively we read, the more fantastic the experience will be. The more our kids love books, the more they’ll pretend to read them, and the more they pretend to read, the more quickly they’ll learn to read. So reading aloud is not quite enough—we need to read aloud well.
When we read the story we are usually familiar with it. We should like it. And naturally we’ll maintain our enthusiasm for it even if we’ve read it five thousand times. As we read the story we need to remain aware of our body position, our eyes and their expression, our eye-contact with the child or children, our vocal variety, and our general facial animation.
There’s no exact right way of reading aloud, other than to try to be as expressive as possible. Each of us will have our own special way of reading a story. For instance when I read the beginning of Koala Lou, my voice swings up and down in the same tune, the same s-l-o-w song, every time: There was once a baby koala, so soft and round that a–l–l who saw her loved her. Her name was Ko–ala Lou.
The ups and downs of our voices and our pauses and points of emphasis are like music, literally, to the ears of young children, and they love music. Simple tunes also make anything easier to remember, so it’s useful to read a book in exactly the same way every time, and to read the same book over and over again. The more quickly children pick up the “tune” of the words, the more they’ll remember the words and the more quickly they’ll have fun trying to ‘read’ the story themselves, with the same expression as we do.
Reading aloud is an art form in which the eyes and voice play important parts. Here are a few hints about how to make the most of both, as well as some general advice on how to read all stories aloud in a more entertaining manner.
If we read a story without allowing its emotional value show through our eyes we’re wasting a prime asset. Stanislavski, the great Russian theatre director, said the eyes are the windows of the soul. Unfortunately it’s all too common for curtains to fall over those windows when we begin to read. The story ought to be in the eyes as much as it’s in the mouth. Animation in the eyes isn’t difficult. We can widen them, narrow them, use them to “think” with, to be “shocked” with, to be “scared” with, to “listen” with, to be “happy” with, to show fright with, and so on.
Next, the voice. The great worry about focussing on the voice is that we might become falsely over-expressive. We don’t want to go so far as to be absurd or embarrassing, but we must aim at least to be highly interesting. The one thing to avoid in reading aloud is a cutesy, sugary, patronizing voice. We have to make a conscious decision never to talk down to children.
Authors hope we’ll carry out their intentions faithfully by letting their words instruct us, not the other way round. For instance, it would be crazy to shout: “Voices whispered in bushes.” The word whisper tells us very clearly how to say it.
We can do at least seven things with our voices to keep our listeners engaged. Six of these seven vocal gymnastics are contrasts: loud and soft; fast and slow; and high and low. And we can p-a-u-s-e. The words on the page will tell us which of these to choose. We don’t need speech training. We simply need to pay close attention. Obvious examples of these vocal inflections are illustrated in the following excerpts from my own books.
Here’s a soft-voice example from Night Noises, in which the family of a much-loved ninety-year-old has planned a surprise birthday party:
Somewhere in the distance car doors opened and closed softly. CLICK. CLACK. Feet tiptoed up the garden path. CRINCH. CRUNCH. Voices whispered in bushes. MURMUR, MUTTER, SHHHH.
Now an obvious loud-voice example, also from Night Noises:
Fists beat upon doors and voices shouted at windows. YELL, CLATTER, BANG, BANG, BANG.
A slow voice is best used for the darkest moments in a book. Here’s a slow-voice example from Wombat Divine, in which stage-struck Wombat has auditioned for a part in the Nativity play, to no avail.
And then there were no parts left. Wombat hung his head, and hoped he wouldn’t cry.
A fast voice, needless to say, is for the speedier parts of a text, or for any other section filled with excitement and drama. This excerpt is from Koala Lou, when she takes part in the all-important Bush Olympics, on which her highest hopes are pinned:
Koala Lou leapt on to the tree. Up and up and up she climbed—higher and higher and higher. Faster and faster and faster until—there she was, right at the very top! The spectators roared and clapped and stamped their feet.
The high voice, as with the fast voice, can also be used in moments of great excitement or drama. In Hattie And The Fox, when the identity of a scary animal in the bushes is finally revealed to the big black hen, she says:
‘Goodness gracious me! I can see a nose, two eyes, two ears, a body, four legs and a tail in the bushes! It’s a fox! It’s a fox!’ And she flew very quickly into a nearby tree.
Low voices are terrific for frightening parts of a story, or for voices that should be low, like the voices of pirates or giants. In Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, with its six elderly characters, we need to change our voice to differentiate between each one. Wilfrid visits one of his elderly friends, Mr Drysdale, who “had a voice like a giant” and asks him what a memory is. Mr Drysdale replies in a deep voice, obviously:
‘Something as precious as gold, young man. Something as precious as gold.’
A pause can be used to great effect before a dramatic mood change in the story, or indeed, if there is an obvious pause in a character’s speech. In this excerpt from Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!, pesky little Harriet has been accident-prone all day. Through it all her mother has managed to keep her cool. Crunch time comes as Harriet and her dog accidentally rip a open a pillow.
A thousand feathers flew in every direction. [Long pause] There was a terrible silence. [Long pause] Then Harriet’s mother began to yell. [Pause] She yelled and yelled and yelled.
At the Rose Bruford Drama School in London in the sixties I was taught how to read and tell stories by Rose Bruford herself, the most gifted storyteller I’ve ever heard. She, in turn, had been taught storytelling by the poets W. B. Yeats and John Masefield, who were anxious to revive storytelling as an art form in its own right. Because she had worked with these master craftsmen, Miss Bruford had learned how to pay magical attention to the detail of every single individual word, whether she was telling a story or reading aloud. She created a world of enchantment by concentrating on loving the words and revealing the hidden meaning in each one—dead sentences came alive, seemingly unimportant words leapt off the page. We can do the same, if we allow the words in the stories we’re reading aloud to communicate their nuances.
To illustrate the importance of apparently minor words, try replacing “jumped” with “crawled” or “clambered” in the following excerpt from Sleepy Bears:
So the little bears jumped into the soft feather bed and pulled up the covers as fast as they could.
Clearly, “jumped” is tremendously important here because of the energy and speed it conveys, and we should do our best to “jump” with our voices, rather than crawl or clamber, both of which are more reluctant than “jump”.
Similarly, in Koala Lou, “filled” is of utmost importance and poignancy in this passage:
She saw her mother in the crowd and imagined her saying again, ‘Koala Lou, I DO love you!’ Her heart filled with hope.
The word “filled” is usually such an insignificant, common little word, we might well forget to use it to its fullest when we’re reading aloud. But here the line is meant to convey so much meaning that the word “filled” needs to be coloured in with a rising voice.
We need to notice these and other apparently humdrum individual words and relish them. What we love, our listeners will love. If children love the words, they’ll use them delightfully in their own speaking and in their own writing. If they love the sounds of the words, they’ll understand them better when they come to read them later. That’s another terrific benefit of reading aloud: familiar words—words heard often previously—are always easier to read than unfamiliar words.
One of the easiest ways of attempting excellence when we’re reading aloud is to really see, in our mind’s eye, the things we’re reading about. We need to see the brand new visible tail in Possum Magic. See the bloodstained stillness in Feathers And Fools. See the paint spilled on the carpet in Harriet. See the progress of the characters through each book we read. For example, in this sentence, taken from Koala Lou: “She lifted weights and panted,” the word “lifted” seems humdrum, even mundane. Yet if we see the scene and allow our voice to lift as we say it, if we our allow our head to rise as we say it, if we feel the sensation of lifting, and reflect that feeling in our eyes, then the word “lift” is truly communicated to our listeners.
The way we speak our first line should be sensational. The aim is to grab our audience immediately and never let them go. Even the opening sentence from Possum Magic: “Once upon a time, but not very long ago, deep in the Australian bush lived two possums…” can be made fascinating by a long pause after “Once upon a time,” then a quick, secretive look round to see if it’s safe to read the rest of the sentence, and then an emphasis on the words “deep” and “two”. All at once it comes alive. Not only should the first line be a gathering together and a dynamic grabber of our audience, it should also be a sentence of welcome to the ritual of the read-aloud session. So, as we say the dynamic first line we know we’re also saying, through the words of the story: “Hello, hello! Welcome! It’s divine to be here with you.”
When I was lecturing to teacher-education students on how to teach reading and writing, there was so much material to cover I was only able to allocate one pitiful hour in the whole course to teach them the art of reading aloud. Yet I was surprised year after year by how well my students read aloud at end of the semester. How had they done it, I wondered, with so little training? They’d learned it from listening to me reading aloud, which I did regularly and often. The mere example of my reading aloud had done the trick. They had picked it up through their ears.
Expressive reading is remembered. And so it is with our own children. They’ll read with exactly the same expressive inflections as we do, which is why we should make the effort to read aloud with vitality and lots of vocal variation.
Now to endings. If anything could be more important than the first line of a story, it’s the last line. If our story-reading is as mesmerizing as it should be, the last line will be akin to the final Amen at the end of a church service, providing this kind of reassurance to the child: “Goodbye for now, go well, God bless you, take it easy, you’re safe with me, I love you very much, see you soon.”
Badly read endings are the tragic ruin of many an excellent story. We need to be absolutely certain of the words we’re going to read so we don’t stumble over them. Here’s the last line in Feathers And Fools:
So off they went together, in peace and unafraid, to face the day and share the world.
Whenever I read that line in a read-aloud workshop, with the participants joining in, I always finish last because I’m the only who says the line slowly enough. Training ourselves always to d-r-a-g o-u-t t-h-a-t l-a-s-t l-i-n-e takes a while, but the more slowly we say it, the more satisfied our listeners will be.
We can achieve great things emotionally if the last line is a definite dismissal, a farewell. As we say it, we’re releasing our listeners from their contact with us. Without this drawn-out final line our listeners will feel an uncomfortable sort of incompleteness. A rapid finish feels oddly wrong. A slow finish is an absolutely delicious experience. Both teller and listeners find themselves in a state of bliss, akin to “living happily every after.”