A Read Aloud Recipe

28 June, 2024

Becci Smith is a practising primary school teacher, reading for pleasure consultant and the Children and Schools events programmer for Stratford Literary Festival. Prior to this, she worked as the Learning and Participation Manager for The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival leading on the Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils project and in theatre outreach for three years. You can get in touch with her at hello@beccismith.co.uk

What memories do you have of being read aloud to as a child? Can you remember how it made you feel? Twenty-two years later, in a testament to the power of reading aloud, I still remember the cosy, magical feeling created when my Year 5 teacher read ‘The Ship That Flew’ by Hilda Lewis. In this blog I will explore the importance of reading aloud, share tips on how to select a great book for reading aloud and reflect on some of the oracy and performance skills required to read aloud well.

Why is reading aloud important?

There is so much national and international research available on the benefits of reading aloud. Amongst many other things, reading aloud supports children’s language skills, expands their vocabulary and helps to develop their attention span. It also supports children’s overall mental health and wellbeing and builds empathy and social skills that can open the door to important conversations. But perhaps most importantly, reading aloud strengthens a child’s relationship with the reader – be that a parent/carer or a teacher.

How to choose a great read aloud

Let’s talk about book selection. How do you choose a great read-aloud text for your class? The truth is that the vast majority of books can be made into successful read-alouds if you employ the oracy and performance skills we’ll discuss later on in this blog. However, some books do make it considerably easier for you so, when choosing your read-aloud, here are some questions to consider:

  • Do the characters in the book have distinctive voices, making it easy to know who is talking even when the pupils aren’t looking at the page?
  • Does the book have short (age-appropriate) chapters with plenty of cliffhangers, so your pupils feel a sense of progress each time you read it and are impatient to hear what happens next?
  • Will the themes in this book prompt interesting discussions or emotional responses from your pupils?
  • Is this book just above the level at which the majority of your pupils can read independently to keep their interest?
  • If you are reading to younger pupils, does the book encourage pupil participation? Look for texts that have a strong sense of rhythm, or repeated phrases that pupils can join in with.

And finally, once you’ve introduced a great read-aloud, don’t forget to stock more books by the same author in your classroom or school library so children can seek them out after you’ve finished!

How to read aloud well

Now that you have chosen your book, let’s look at some oracy and performance skills. It’s highly likely you are already doing these things unconsciously, but it’s worth taking some time to think about them if we want to make our reading a truly engaging and inspiring experience for our listeners.

Before we start

Are you aware of your natural talking speed? Often it’s hard to hear ourselves in the moment, so you may need to record yourself and listen back to see if your natural tendency is to speak quickly or slowly. What you are aiming for is a steady baseline pace that you can then speed up or slow down for dramatic effect. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, it might be worth planning out these changes in pace for certain sections of the book ahead of time.

I would definitely recommend getting to know your text before you attempt reading it aloud. Not only will it allow you to plan any changes in pace but it can also ensure you don’t make the mistake of giving a major character a distinctive accent that will end up being impossible to sustain. Even if you are well prepared, it’s quite possible that you will end up mis-reading something. Don’t be afraid to go back and reread if you missed a question or exclamation mark. In these moments, you’re modelling for pupils how to improve their own reading aloud.

Using Your Voice

Are you altering your volume and pitch deliberately to demonstrate characterisation? Changing these things is a quick and easy way to let your pupils know which character is talking – low and quiet for a sneaky villain, for example, or loud and high for the energetic hero.

It can be fun to have a go at an accent, but see the comments about pre-reading and sustainability. Perhaps you could you vary your tone to make it clear which character is speaking, using a huskier or more gravelly voice for an older or villainous character, for example?

Listen below for some more tips on how to use your voice effectively.

Using Your Body

And how about using your facial expressions and body language to convey the drama of the story and the feelings of the characters? It doesn’t have to be a big, Oscar-winning performance (unless you want to!) but using a bit of body language can make a huge difference to the impact of the story.  You might feel self-conscious at first, but it helps to remember that this is not just about entertaining the children, it’s about helping them to better comprehend the text and the characters. Plus, the more you ‘get into it’ and show your enthusiasm, the more permission it gives for your pupils to be enthusiastic about the book too.

Think about flow

Are you going to be reading the book aloud without interruptions or will you be stopping for booktalk? Once again, pre-reading is helpful so that you can plan where those stops should come without breaking up the flow of the book too much. Also, what is your strategy for the words the children might not know? Will you write them on the board and come back to them later? Stopping for every potentially unfamiliar word may make them lose track of the story so it’s always good to have a plan in advance.

When all of these different elements come together, it really does make for a fantastic read-aloud experience and one that is likely to stay with your pupils for years to come.

Further Resources

For some great read-aloud recommendations, explore some of the booklists below:

  • Michelle Robinson, BookTrust Writer in Residence in 2023, chooses ten fun read-aloud for EYFS and KS1.
  • Recommended Read-Alouds for Lower KS2 and Upper KS2 from The Reader Teacher.
  • Storytime Favourites for primary pupils of all ages from Books for Topics.