The end of January sees National Storytelling Week take place for the 19th year, which is a brilliant achievement for the Society of Storytelling, but there still seems to be a bit of stigma about the concept of reading aloud or storytelling within school.
Twitter is a great place for CPD and keeping up to date with new developments, and this month I saw a tweet from Pie Corbett (@PieCorbett) about the importance of reading aloud for primary classes. He was suggesting it should be seen as a key part of education, and I completely agree, but I would take it further than just primary (as I’m sure Pie would as well) – it should be happening regularly as a part of secondary education as well.
Reading aloud is, when done properly and thoughtfully, an opportunity to impart knowledge and model behaviour while creating a social bond between pupils and inducing pleasure in the story itself.
So, why is reading aloud important?
Reading aloud introduces new vocabulary and new sentence structures. As a baby we learn language through listening, and this continues to be the case as we grow. The importance of vocabulary has been a topic of much discussion recently1 and the implications of limited vocabulary can be stark. One example, from a Head-teacher I was speaking to recently, is a Geography exam where not knowing what ‘elucidate’ meant cost half the class all the marks from a multi mark question. One word meant the difference between grades. The vocabulary encountered from a storytelling session may not be used immediately in their writing, but children are more likely to be able to decode and sound out a word if they have heard it before. The English language is notoriously unreliable, and generally the more combinations of sounds and contexts a child is exposed to the easier they will find reading2 (assuming no other barriers exist). And it is about words and contexts – variation is key as each time they encounter a word in a different context they add to their word map of connotations and potential meanings. Variation not just of themes, or genres, but of reading material – information books and newspapers are equally good to read aloud, and if well-chosen can elicit the same level of engagement as a good fiction book3.
Reading aloud is an inclusive activity (provided there’s provision for deaf or hard of hearing students), the difficulty can be in choosing the right book, but everyone can feel what it’s like to achieve that enclosed moment when you’re not aware of anything but the story. This feeling of enrapture and captivation is motivation in itself – and learning to read never having experienced this must be especially difficult. We must never forget that reading is difficult – it is the combination of multiple skills that look as if they are one – like driving a car. With practice it’s seamless, but when learning it can appear absolutely impossible, and if you’ve never known the joy of freedom it can seem less worthwhile. When reading aloud you can ensure that all your pupils have experienced the joy of being transported regardless of whether it’s happening at home.
Reading aloud is also about equality - it limits the impact of the ‘Matthew effect’. The Matthew effect is the idea that those who have the most benefit the most. Hirsch argues that reading comprehension is a knowledge problem4 rather than a reading problem, and when choosing a book for themselves children may be unaware of the background knowledge required, making it difficult for those with limited exposure to the world to easily choose books (something a librarian can help with!). Those children who have a wide knowledge base will more easily find a book they can understand, and have a larger vocabulary base, therefore further increasing their knowledge. By choosing a book which is within reach of the whole class (perhaps with some subtle scaffolding) children can expand their knowledge of vocabulary, structure and ideas – something which is equally as important at secondary school as it is at primary. The texts you choose would be different but all the potential benefit gains remain. One of my favourite bits of research states that ‘Reading has cognitive consequences that extend beyond its immediate task of lifting meaning from a particular passage. Furthermore, these consequences are reciprocal and exponential in nature…”5 these benefits don’t finish abruptly at age 11 and three quarters, but can continue all the way through to adulthood – we shouldn’t stop doing something that we know has educational and emotional6 benefits.
Furthermore reading aloud helps those children who struggle with reading – to return to the car analogy – it’s like being a passenger; you get all the freedom and none of the burden of concentration! And just like being a passenger choice is all important – if you get to decide where you’re going it’s brilliant. If not, it can be annoying and at worst destructive.
Reading aloud can always be taken a step further – the traditional form of storytelling, one of reciting a story without a book is immense. I once saw Patrick Ryan keep 80 Year 7s captivated simply by telling a story – while he was sitting down! And the research into the impact that being trained as a storyteller has is essential reading7. The important thing is that the stories are not memorised word for word but retold person to person, and this creates an opportunity to engage some of those who are left on the margins of the printed word landscape, and make stories relatable and personal to them.
So this National Storytelling Week don’t just read a story. Make a strategy of how you can ensure that reading aloud or storytelling has an unshakeable place in your educational strategy. Your students will thank you for it.
About the Author
Alison Tarrant is the CEO of the School Library Association, which supports anyone involved in the running of a school library – from Head to PTA, and of course school library staff. Membership is £89, and they regularly run courses on storytelling.
You can also find more about an upcoming SLA course: Bringing it Alive! Storytelling to boost literacy and reading for pleasure
This regional course is for teachers and support staff in the primary school range, and addresses the use of stories from the youngest EYFS pupils right through to Year Six students.
2 Daniel T Willingham’s book ‘The Reading Mind’ is a brilliant detailed look at what happens when we actually read.
3 For recommendations of good information books for under 8s, 8-12s or 12-16s have a look at the SLA Information Book Award – lesson resources are released with the shortlist announcement in May