Reading aloud to children is one of the most important teaching activities there is. Here at Papmambook, we’ve often written about what this experience gives a child and why reading aloud should be part of every family’s routine. But teachers need to read to kids too–in school, preschool, and the library. It’s one of the best ways to introduce kids—often with differing levels of independent reading skills and knowledge–to book culture.
But a teacher typically won’t read to just one or two kids comfortably seated on either side with a clear view of the pictures. Teachers usually read to groups. Two kids can sidle up close, but the third or fourth child will end up listening from a distance, not to speak of the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the reading space, no matter how cozy or designed for discussion it may be, is not quite the same as your own home.
In other words, the bigger the group of kids listening to a book simultaneously, the more formal the space becomes. It becomes harder to create the right environment for reading.
What is a proper “reading environment” and why does creating it matter? You could compare it to a beaker meant for a particular chemical reaction. Here, that reaction is a discussion around a book, a kind of dialogue which entails more than the listeners simply taking in information. They should feel something, too. That, in fact, is the mission of the reader–to invite the listeners to emotionally engage with the text.
There’s a conflict between the goal of the reader and the expected reaction.
Emotional engagement in reading is a personal process. When a parent reads to a child, that personal connection comes naturally. A parent (or sibling) is someone the child is close with. They read directly to the child–an expression of love and attention. It’s natural for a child to share feelings with a parent. It all comes together to create a context that encourages personal communication—one-on-one interaction. And while the author may appear to occupy the space between the child and their parent, the author speaks with the parent’s voice.
Reading to a group, however, is a different story. Listeners need to feel that the reading is directed at them personally–reading aloud has to bridge that gap and somehow take on the form of personal communication.
For that to happen, we need to learn to lift our eyes up from the text as we read and look out at our listeners over the book–not at any one person in particular, but in a sliding glance that acknowledges at least two or three listeners. When you look at kids, they see your gaze directed at them, creating a sense of “presence”—you didn’t just dive into the book, you’re not just a voice. You’re telling them you’re still with them, noticing and taking in their reactions. In other words, you care about what they’re experiencing.
In order to lift your eyes from the text, you need to be able to silently read further along in the book, remembering the end of the phrase and saying it out loud as you look up at your listeners. And then you’ll need to slow down. There’ll be a slight pause, allowing you to exchange looks with the children listening. You signal to them that you understand what they’re feeling.
Sometimes the reader will use the pause to show the children the illustrations. But that’s optional.
You can set aside time after reading just to examine the pictures. For example, you can read the book and then look through the illustrations together, revisiting the plot of the story.
Showing illustrations to a group of children is yet another art form. It’s best not to do it at all if the book is a smaller one and there are many young listeners craning to see. Another option is to scan the illustrations beforehand to project them on a screen during the read-aloud.
Seating matters. Younger kids like preschoolers and first- and second-graders are best seated in a circle. If you’re confident in your ability to retain kids’ attention, you can suggest that they sit (or even lie down) on a rug. But that’s not always the best choice. Sometimes having the kids in a relaxed position can cause them to get distracted and start bothering their neighbors.
A circle is a good configuration for little ones. It smoothes angles and brings the children closer to the reader.
Teenagers, on the other hand, should only sit in a circle if the group has established a relationship of trust. A formal group is best seated in rows so that they don’t see each others’ faces.
Think of a movie theater or live theater, places people go to seek out moving cultural experiences. There, the viewers sit in darkness. That, of course, makes it easier to see what’s happening on the screen or the stage. But what does it mean to say “easier to see” in terms of how the audience has been prepared for emotional engagement? It means our attention is localized and directed in a particular way. But that’s not all the darkness facilitates; it also allows the viewer to hide her emotions from others. In one sense, the viewer is having an experience alongside everyone else, while in another, the darkness protects her from “exposure.”
Teenagers are afraid to expose themselves. They don’t want to express feelings that are considered “wrong” in their subcultures. They tend to be scared of looking stupid.
That’s why, for teens, rows are preferable to a circle. If you can make it darker and limit the “spotlight” to the reader, so much the better.
Little kids don’t need that darkness. It can be useful for creating a sense of mystery, but then young listeners will need something to hold onto. In theaters or at the movies, they know an adult is sitting next to them. But in a situation where there’s just one adult to go around, it’s best to limit any barriers of access to that adult (and darkness is one such barrier).
There are a number of other details. When I used to read at preschools, I’d suggest that children bring stuffed animals to the read-aloud circle. That way the child’s “little one” can sit in her lap and “listen” as well. A stuffed animal is a useful tool. You can hug it to your chest or fiddle with it if you need to do something with your hands. It adds an element of role play to the read-aloud. Any preschool psychologist will confirm that that’s useful.
Of course, this introduced an extra concern—there had to be enough (desirable) stuffed animals for everyone in the group. If the same toy was a favorite of two or three kids, I’d have to keep track of whose turn it was to hold it.
I’ve never offered teenagers anything to hold. Not out of principle, though–it simply never occurred to me. Now I do think it can be a good idea. No teddy bears or bunnies, of course. Stress balls that fit in the palm of your hand or strings you can wind around your finger could be helpful to some. But you have to be tactful, avoiding explicit directions to “go and take something.” Just leave out a basket with some fidget toys. They’ll silently call out to the kids themselves: “Take me if you want to keep your hands busy!”
But the most important element of a read-aloud is, first and foremost, choosing a book to captivate your listeners. A close second is reading with expression. Many teachers have had to choose between an acting and a teaching career. If they’ve settled on the latter, all that means is that teaching is the field where their acting and directorial potential can be realized.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova