Reading: Let the story unfold


The best reading experiences at school can stay with children, and be treasured, for a very long time. Sally Player describes how she delivers rich literacy opportunities for her Reception class every day.

Story time is a highlight of the day at Cypress Junior School in Croydon.
Story time is a highlight of the day at Cypress Junior School in Croydon.

A 10-year old girl whom I had taught was introducing me to her younger sibling. ‘This is Mrs Player,’ she said, with a huge grin. ‘She loves poetry, reads great stories and she is always losing things!’

Not a bad statement to have as an epitaph, I thought, although I am not really disorganised and careless; I just tell children that I am so that they have to write me reminder notes – a purpose for writing! As I reflected more deeply on her comment, it filled me with a real sense of pride.

Sally Player

A teacher is unlikely to be remembered by their pupils for producing excellent worksheets, but I had evidently created memorable reading experiences for this child some five years earlier, through my personal passion for storytelling and poetry.

It would be heart-warming to think that every child from a very early age has spent hours listening to nursery rhymes while being bounced up and down on a lap, or has snuggled up happily each night to listen to a bedtime story, or has regulary visited a library. We want the adults who read to them to do so with confidence and enthusiasm, retelling traditional tales and favourite stories that they heard themselves as children.

The sad reality is that some of the children we teach may have had few, if any, of these experiences. It is therefore of paramount importance that we acknowledge the necessity to incorporate rich reading experiences into our daily practice and provision as experiences to be treasured and remembered long after children leave our classroom.

Making story time memorable

It would be highly unusual for a day to go by in an early years setting without at least one ‘story time’ session. This should be a time that children relish, a time for excitement and wonder, a time to revisit familiar stories and to experience something new.

To achieve this, even before we select the text to be shared, there are practical aspects of the story time experience that we need to consider. First, and really importantly, are the children physically comfortable? I find it impossible to give my full attention to a lecture or a film if I am shuffling on a hard chair or sitting too close to someone else, if I am too hot or too cold, thirsty or hungry.


A story becomes more enjoyable when children are sitting comfortably

How can we expect young children to engage in the fascinating stories we are sharing with them if their physical needs are not met? Then we need to ensure that the environment is as distraction-free as possible. Children will find it more difficult to listen to a story if, for example, they can hear a phonics song being played in the room next door or if parents are gathering outside the window waving, and we all know the havoc that ensues if a butterfly should find its way into the classroom.

Do we always sit in the same place, on the same chair, to read a story? It can be insightful to actually sit on the classroom floor to gain a ‘child's eye view’ of this particular reading experience. Are we sitting where we can be best seen by all children? Are we holding the book too high or too low? Are the illustrations large enough for a group of children to see in sufficient detail to respond when we pose a question about them?

Giving due consideration to these often overlooked, practical matters will set the scene for the quality reading experiences we want to provide.

So how do we decide upon the text to be read aloud? Hopefully, not by grabbing the first book that comes to hand or one that fits the current theme, regardless of its literary merit. Around 10,000 new children's titles are published in the UK every year, presenting us with greater choice than ever as we contemplate the books we offer to the children we teach. Many of us have favourite stories, dog-eared and well-loved, that we have read aloud to classes of children over the years.

With such a plethora of reading material, practitioners should use their knowledge of their current cohort of children and of their individual interests to choose texts strategically. Texts containing unfamiliar words and phrases should be selected, to extend children's vocabulary and their interest in words. I always keep my Wordpot handy, to collect words so that they can be revisited.

Now that we are satisfied that children are comfortable and that we have selected an appropriate text – one that may be intended to inspire children to select or initiate activities across many areas of learning – it is time to create a memorable reading experience. Too often, practitioners start a story telling session in the same predictable fashion, with obvious questions such as ‘Who is the author? What does the illustrator do? Where is the blurb?’ Are children likely to be gripped by such an introduction to a text? Put bluntly, we need to sell the story to the children and get them to buy into the experience.

If we unwrap a book that has mysteriously arrived in the post, take it out of a sack or a suitcase or find a dusty book in the corner of the classroom, we have immediately aroused children's interests. We need to express our own curiosity about the story that is about to unfold, creating an atmosphere of intrigue and anticipation, provoking children into asking questions. We should entrance children as we read to them, modelling using different tones of voice, taking on a character role, using gestures and maybe a prop, encouraging participation in repeated words and phrases whilst taking the opportunity to draw attention to different font sizes and features of punctuation. When children show disappointment that a story has ended or ask immediately to hear it again, I know we have shared a special time together. Sometimes they even clap!

The role of parents

While practitioners are acutely aware that learning does not start when children cross the threshold into their classroom in the morning and end when they leave in the afternoon, we must ensure that we make this explicit to the children themselves and to their parents.

Settings need to develop ways to engage with families and establish effective links so that the culture of reading that has been developed at school is extended into the home. This can be, as the saying goes, easier said than done, and even when parents are ‘on board’, this is not a guarantee that children will be adequately supported out of school.

Many parents have assured me that, although they are committed to supporting their child's reading development, they have limited opportunities to read with them, citing issues such as health, housing, work pressures and family commitments. My heart sinks to think that while some children have no access to books at home, there are others who are surrounded by books that no one has time to read to them.

 

We must also acknowledge that many parents feel insufficiently skilled to support their child's reading development effectively, expressing their own feelings of inadequacy and ‘phonic confusion.’ Putting on reading workshops and sending home information packs may help in some cases, but it was the filming of a series of phonics lessons and putting them on the school website that made the most significant difference in our setting. For parents unable to attend workshops or overwhelmed by the phonic technicalities on a handout, these videos proved to be physically and intellectually more accessible. Meanwhile children enjoyed joining in at home, demonstrating and practising their skills.

I have, for many years now, set an Autumn Reading Challenge in Foundation Stage. This involves children sharing a set number of books at home over a period of weeks, in order to be awarded a much-prized certificate. For example, a book set in the woods, a book about a snail, a book with Very in the title. Children are also encouraged to participate in the Advent Reading Challenge, sharing one book at home every day in December until Christmas Day. Structured initiatives such as these support and encourage parents to play an active role in their child's early reading development, and demonstrate that practitioners value and welcome their involvement.

Becoming ‘reading detectives’

Regular practise is vital for the consolidation of early decoding skills and recognition of tricky and high frequency words. For children to be engaged, excited and motivated as they cover the same content repeatedly, practitioners need to be creative in the reading opportunities which they provide, and a quick internet search will yield plenty of activities when we are at a loss for ideas.

My teaching of ‘tricky words’ in phonics lessons is always accompanied by a Family Fortunes buzzer (uh-uhhh) and a reception desk bell (ding). Children join in with a crossed forearms action, knowing that when, for example, they read ‘w-a-s’, they do not say ‘wazz’ (uh-uhhhh), but ‘woz’ (ding.)

Hiding words and sentences outside, typed in very small font, has excited children to be reading detectives, armed with magnifying glasses. Reading words written on materials such as pebbles, wood slices and Jenga blocks has been very popular in my class. Children love using Scrabble tiles to build words and this has supported their recognition of upper case letters. Daily, timed flashcard challenges have proved successful in motivating competitive boys, who may be unconfident readers, to increase their sight vocabulary and they have delighted in their measurable progress.

Access to interactive whiteboards and tablets enables us to present a multitude of reading opportunities in the format of songs, games, book trailers and e-books. These range tremendously, in my opinion, in terms of quality and should be deployed only if they truly enhance our reading provision. I have noticed that children with limited concentration or recall during a story-telling session with a book may become transfixed by the same story when it is presented onscreen as an animation or video.

Michael Rosen's expressive reading of Going on a Bear Hunt and the animation of Polly Dunbar's Penguin have, for example, stimulated lengthy and excited discussions in my classroom. We need to encourage all children to become active viewers, modelling how to translate and interpret what they see, provoking conversation in order to deepen a shared viewing experience. Having watched a story on screen, I have found that young children often become much more confident and reflective than when responding to the same story in text form.

By acknowledging rather than decrying the appeal of modern technology to young children, I believe that we can use it advantageously to enrich their literary experiences.

Reading to my class is the greatest pleasure of my school day. Together, we laugh and sometimes nearly cry, we feel exhilaration and impending peril, we wonder and we predict. It is not only the children who will remember some of these moments for ever.

Key points

  • Think about the suitability and comfort of the environment of where stories are told
  • Select books and stories carefully with your individual cohort in mind
  • Home links are vital for supporting a culture of reading
  • Children's captivation begins with the way a story is told by the adult
  • Tricky words can be taught in creative ways that take words off of the page
  • Provoking conversation is key to promoting an enjoyment of stories and this can harness the use of technology

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