How to Read to Children (Tip: Always Do the Voices)
A Brief Guide From Phillip Done
“Boys and girls, please join me on the carpet,” I announced to my third graders after picking up my copy of The Cricket in Times Square, the classic children’s book about a cricket’s adventures in New York City. The kids pogoed out of their chairs and raced to the reading rug. Those in front sat on their bottoms, the children in back on their knees. After they were all settled, I began where I’d left off the day before.
As I read, the kids smiled and laughed and fiddled with their shoelaces. When I got to the end of the chapter and closed the book, the children shouted, “No!” I glanced at my watch. “Sorry,” I said. “We’re out of time.” I was just about to send the kids back to their seats when Garrett, who always sat right in front of me and wouldn’t allow anyone else to take his spot, raised his hand. “Mr. Done,” he asked innocently, “is the cricket book a true story?”
As educators, we’ve all heard the words “classroom magic.” While this may sound like nothing but a fanciful phrase found on inspirational calendars and Hallmark mugs, such magic does exist. And in elementary classrooms, the place where it occurs most often is on the reading rug. It is here that teachers, through their voices and eyes and gestures, can entrance, enthrall, and hypnotize their young audiences. It’s here that children can sit spellbound, riveted, and enchanted. There is something truly extraordinary that takes place between a child, a teacher, and a book.
As I mentioned, reading aloud to kids is one of the most valuable things a teacher can do for them. Every time you read to your students, you improve their learning advantage. Reading aloud stimulates the imagination and lets children explore people, places, times, and events beyond their own experience. It builds motivation and curiosity. When you read to kids, you are conditioning them to associate print with pleasure, whetting their appetite for reading, and fostering a lifelong love of books. Reading aloud also increases kids’ attending and listening skills.
And it helps grow children’s vocabularies. You are pouring words into their ears. The average number of words in a picture book for children is around a thousand. There are approximately 185 days in a school year. If you read one book a day to your students, at the end of the school year, your kids will have heard 185,000 words. By the end of fifth grade, students will have heard close to a million.
There’s much research to support the value of reading aloud to children. A great deal has been written on the subject. But teachers don’t need research articles to know the benefits. They know that when you pick up a book and announce, “Please join me on the carpet for a story,” children immediately behave just like puppies that see you holding a treat.
The read-aloud time was definitely one of my favorite parts of the school day, one of my joys of teaching. I imagine it is for most teachers. It’s a time when we bond with our students. Teachers and students experience a similar connection during story time as parents do when they read to their children before bedtime. When I would read to my students, I liked hearing their reactions: giggles, chuckles, gasps, and hoots. I’d be heartened by their faces too—bright eyes lost in a story, chins slightly elevated, upturned mouths waiting for a laugh. Beautiful.
When reading aloud, you are not just teaching students how to read. You’re teaching them how to write. When listening to a book, children hear perfectly chosen words and finely crafted sentences. They take in the richness of metaphor and simile. They hear descriptions and dialogue. They pick up phrasing, tempo, melody, timing, and rhythm—an author’s music. When hearing the language spoken correctly, children begin to imitate the patterns in their own speaking and writing. Grammar, as they say, is more caught than taught.
When I was a young teacher, I taught a summer school class for third and fourth graders who needed support in writing. The principal’s name was Barbara. This was her first principal position, and she wanted everything to be just right. Barbara stopped by regularly to check on things. The first day she popped in, I was reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda aloud to my students. The next week, Barbara dropped by, and once again I was reading Matilda.
A few days after that, when she stepped into my classroom, it just so happened that I was reading the same book. Later that day, as I was standing at the copier, Barbara said, “Phil, I have to ask you something. Every time I come into your room, you’re reading to your students.” She paused. “You are teaching them to write, aren’t you?” I decided to needle her a little bit. “Nope,” I answered. Barbara’s eyes grew large. Then I flashed a grin and said, “But Roald Dahl is.” Studies show that the older kids get, the less their teachers read to them.
This seems backward to me. I contend that the older children get, the more important the read-aloud should be. Every year in the United States, more than a million students drop out of high school. That’s seven thousand kids a day! I wonder: Could there be a connection between the dropout rate and the read-aloud? Would we have more students staying in school if they couldn’t wait to hear what happens in the next chapter?
Teachers are often described as artists. To me, this is most evident when they read to their kids. Reading aloud requires the voice of an actor, the timing of a playwright, the expressions of a mime, and the rhythm of a musician. How do we achieve this? What follows are some of my favorite read-aloud tips to help you create your own classroom magic with children:
Making the Announcement
Before beginning a new read-aloud, hide the book in a bag or under your sweater. Do not let your kids see it. This creates excitement. Once the children are settled, pull out the book, show them the cover, give it a hug, and announce that it’s one of your favorites. By the way, it’s fine to choose books that are above your students’ reading levels. Kids’ listening comprehension is higher than their comprehension when reading by themselves. And it’s okay if a child doesn’t understand every word.
Gathering the Children
Some teachers let their kids sit at their desks during the read-aloud. I preferred to have mine sit with me on or around the reading rug. It was more intimate. In the pre-pandemic world, sometimes I’d ask them to sit close to me like sardines. When I did, one sardine might pet my shoe.
Before you begin reading, scan the group and make sure that you can see every child and that they all can see you. Do not start until you have everyone’s attention. For some reason, as soon as kids sit on a reading rug, they begin examining their fingers or shoes as though they’re seeing them for the first time. Prior to reading, announce, “Okay, everyone, look at your fingers and say hi.” Giggling, your students will play along. Then ask the kids to say so long to them. Giggling some more, they will say good-bye. Some children will wave. “Great,” you can say. “Now look at me.” This always does the trick. Now you can begin.
Changing Your Voice
When reading to your students, your job is to grab and hold your listener. One way to do this is to alter your voice. Change the volume, speed, length, pitch, and quality of your words. Speak with an accent. Shake your voice when you read “shiver,” stretch it out when you pronounce “long,” and talk quickly when you say “race.” Read faster in the exciting parts and softer when it gets scary, so that your kids scoot back and grab their friends. And use different voices for different characters. Witches cackle. Ghosts moan. Pirates snarl. Big, friendly giants sound like well, big, friendly giants. Aslan the lion should not have the same voice as the White Witch. Augustus Gloop must always sound different from Veruca Salt. Sometimes you will forget to use the right voice. If you do, your students will immediately point this out.
Using Your Body
Don’t just read the words. Whenever possible, act them out. Frown if a character is sad. Yawn and stretch if someone’s tired. Jump back in your chair when you come to a scary part. Give a big sigh when a character in the book does. And don’t forget to stand up once in a while. The Grinch should stand when looking down at Who-ville. The giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” should stand when booming, “Fee, fi, fo, fum!”
Adding Sound Effects
When reading a book, if there’s a knock on a door, knock on the arm of your chair. If a character hears footsteps, make them with your feet. If the scene has thunder, lightning, or howling wind, sound like it. Don’t just say the words explosion, alarm, or siren. Make the sounds. And invite the children to make the sounds too. Children are sound effect experts. I have never met a child who wasn’t able to imitate a dog, ghost, motorcycle, witch, fire truck, thunderstorm, or chicken on command.
Leaving Out Words
If the final word of a sentence is predictable, stop right before you reach the end and let your students finish it. To give an example, when reading “The Night Before Christmas,” say, “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a .” The children will chant back, “Mouse.” After doing this a couple of times, look at your students with a surprised expression and ask, “How do you kids know these words? Did you write this?” Smiling, they will say they did.
Holding the Book
When holding a picture book, you have two options: (A) Set it on your lap and read upside down (another teacher talent); or (B)Hold it next to your head and turn your neck as far as it will go, so you can read the words sideways. If you go to the doctor’s office with neck pain, tell them you’re a teacher. They’ll understand.
When showing kids pictures in a book, hold it in front of you and sweep the book slowly from side to side. Repeat this every time you come to a new picture. When you think that you’re finished sharing a picture, you’ll have to show it one more time to the children who say they can’t see. If you are reading a chapter book with occasional pictures, make sure you show every one of them. Don’t skip any. If a student notices that you passed over one, the child will announce it, and from then on, your whole class will ask repeatedly if you’re showing them all the pictures to make sure you don’t skip anymore.
After turning a page in a picture book, don’t always show students the new picture right away. Delay it. Look at it yourself without letting the kids see. Enjoy the picture alone. The children will beg you to show it to them. Finally, look up from the book as though you didn’t even realize your students were there and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. Would you like to see the picture too?” Pause for yelling.
Helping Children Visualize
When reading a book, good readers have a movie of it in their minds. Kids who struggle with reading often don’t do this. If you’re reading a chapter book aloud to your students, stop occasionally and ask them to close their eyes and form a mental picture of a scene or character. In doing so, you are strengthening their ability to visualize. When your kids’ eyes are shut, ask them specific questions to help them create the images. Here’s an example:
“Boys and girls, close your eyes and picture Charlotte writing the first word in her web. It’s late at night, and all the other animals in the barn are asleep. Keep your eyes closed and raise your hand when you can see this.” Wait. You’ll notice that it takes some children longer than others to do this. After all hands are up, continue. “Now picture Charlotte scrambling over her web to make the letters. Watch her go up and down and back and forth.” Again, pause for your students to visualize this. Some will be squinting hard. Others will be covering their faces. Some will be smiling as they watch the spider in their minds.
“Now, with your eyes still closed, look around the barn where Charlotte is working. What else do you see? A tractor? Some tools? The animals? Do you see any moonlight? If so, where is it coming from? Raise your hand when you have looked around the barn. “Pause for hands. “Before I ask you to open your eyes, look back at Charlotte’s web. What letters has she written in it so far? Is she almost finished? Where is she right now? When you have seen this image, open your eyes, but please do not talk until I say you may. We want to give everyone a chance to visualize the scene.” After all eyes open, say, “Okay now, who’d like to share?”
When you come to a really good part in a book, stop and say, “Well, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today.” Your kids won’t like this. As they plead with you to continue, look at the clock and act like you’re trying to decide if you should or not—even though you know you’re going to. Hem and haw a little bit until you finally say, “Okay. I guess we have time to read just a little more.” Your students will forgive you for teasing them. If your reading cuts into math time, they will love you forever.
Incorporating Hats and Maps
Hats add fun. When sharing a mystery, wear a Sherlock Holmes hat. As you’re reading Caps for Sale, stack a couple of them on your head. When taking a ride through The Mouse and the Motorcycle, hold a helmet. While delivering Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” don a three-cornered hat. For “Casey at the Bat,” put on a baseball cap. And always read with a world map and a US map within pointing distance, so that you can show your kids where the story takes place. Then you’re reinforcing geography too. Eloise resides in New York. Madeline lives in Paris. Strega Nona’s home is in Italy. Harry Potter lives in Surrey, England. And the Little Prince crash-lands in the Sahara.
Teaching as You Read
While reading a book to children, sometimes teachers will stop and ask their kids to participate by, say, predicting what will happen next, or turning to a classmate and discussing something. There’s nothing wrong with this, but be careful not to interrupt the story too much. When stopping and starting too often during the read-aloud, you interrupt the pictures that children are creating in their minds. You break the rhythm and flow of the text—and the spell that the writer is trying to cast. Of course, it’s okay to explain vocabulary and ask questions as you read, but pull students away from a story as little as possible, so they can savor it.
Focusing Kids’ Attention
There is a trend these days to let children draw or work on something quietly while the teacher reads to the class. It’s probably to make more efficient use of time. I don’t recommend this. It can rob kids of the benefits of being read to. No one can give his full attention to two things at once. Plus, it’s disrespectful to the author. Authors deserve children’s full attention. To me, working on something while the teacher is reading is like talking on the phone with a friend when you’re out having dinner with somebody else.
Showing Your Emotions
When reading something funny to your kids, enjoy a hearty laugh. A teacher’s laugh is comforting to a child. If you read something sad, don’t be afraid to let your students see you get teary. Once, when I was reading a heart-tugger to my kids, they decided we needed a new classroom job: Kleenex box holder. Remember, when you laugh and cry while sharing a book, you show children two of reading’s greatest rewards.
When selecting a place to stop reading for the day, pick one that leaves your students wanting more. You want kids to whine when you stop. As a rule, children shouldn’t whine in class, of course—unless it’s at the end of story time. Then it’s okay.
After you finish reading to your kids, do not send them back to their desks to write about the plot or the theme or the conflict in the story. It will defeat what you’re trying to accomplish. As I touched upon earlier, not everything needs to finish with a writing exercise. For children, writing after a read-aloud is like looking up words in a dictionary. Not fun.
Remembering Your Purpose
All teachers know what happens when a substitute teacher continues your read-aloud while you’re away. When you return, your students will tell you that the sub didn’t use different voices or act out the story like you do. Kids want these things from their reader. Always put your heart into it. And always remember your purpose: to lure children into the wonderful world of the written word.
Excerpted from The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom by Phillip Done, available via Avid Reader Press.