12 Tips for Making Read-Alouds Come Alive!
When is a story not a story?
When it’s sitting on a shelf, of course. But that’s not the whole answer. A story isn’t a real story until it’s read with thought, energy, skill, and imagination. Like Pinocchio, it will stay “wooden” (or paper) without a little magic to bring it to life.
We all know it’s not enough to read the words on a page aloud. Stories need our humor, our feelings, and our imagination – and our skills – to come alive. Think of how your favorite novels have affected you – have touched you, enriched your life, sparked your imagination. This is what we need read-aloud stories to do for our students, but stories need thoughtful and creative readers to bring them to life for young children.
Here are twelve ways to make this magical transformation happen:
Choose a story that really appeals to you. If you don’t like it, the children won’t like it – trust me on this one. Some things can’t be faked. There might be just one intriguing character, one comical situation, or illustrations that catch your eye – but there has to be something about the story that you’re genuinely eager to share with your students.
Start with a “trailer.” Most of us wouldn’t go to see a movie we hadn’t heard anything about. Often, we base our moviegoing decisions on the trailers we see on TV or the Internet. These trailers show us the stars of the movie, indicate whether it’s a comedy or a drama, and let us know if we can expect action, suspense, romance, or even gorgeous scenery.
Young children also like to know something about a story before you read it. If it’s funny, tell them enthusiastically how much it made you laugh. If there’s a surprise ending, tell them to be on the lookout for it. Tell them what led you to be interested in reading the story. Was it the title? A funny picture on the cover? Sharing your initial curiosity with the children can make them curious about the story too.
It may seem obvious, but practice, practice, practice. When you read a story aloud, you’re performing. You wouldn’t play Hamlet or Blanche DuBois without any rehearsal – you’d practice diligently and thoughtfully. The Big Bad Wolf may not be as iconic a role, but he deserves a bit of preparation too. He needs to be scary, but you don’t want anyone to cry or hide their eyes. He has to be comically scary. It’s not easy. There’s an art to all this.
While we’re on the subject of practicing, practice slowing down if you need to. I’m from New Jersey and I tend to talk very fast. I really need to make a conscious effort, every single time I read to young children, to slow down my speaking voice so they can fully understand every word. Practicing the pacing really helps.
Read with animation and emotion. I’ve heard teachers read stories who might as well have been ordering a pizza. Vary your tone of voice, make the most of thoughtful or suspenseful pauses and dramatically express unexpected turns of events. Remember, you’re the narrator, all the characters, and sometimes a commentator. Everything children get from the story, they get from you.
Use different voices for different characters. One voice might be deep and rumbly, one might be high and squeaky. (Don’t overdo squeaks and other odd sounds, though – it can hurt your vocal cords.) If the story is funny, exploit the comic possibilities of contrasting voices. And don’t stop there – try a Western accent for a cowboy, or an oily, sly voice for the tricky fox in “The Gingerbread Man.” Voices and accents can bring an extra layer of meaning to the words on the page.
Rhythm instruments can add interest to a read-aloud story. In “When the Moon Smiled” by Petr Horacek, for instance, the moon magically awakens and puts to sleep the various farm animals. Children may gently shake maracas or jingle bells whenever the moon smiles. In other stories, cymbals can be used for crashing noises, and sand blocks are wonderful for mimicking the sounds of wind or rain.
Chanting or singing are a natural part of many stories. Picture books often have recurring refrains which may chanted or sung by the students, such as “not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” If you notice a repeated refrain, get the students involved by having them chant or sing along. I’ve found this significantly increases children’s attention (since they’re eagerly waiting for their part) and auditory memory (since music and rhythm stick in their heads more than ordinary prose).
Even when a refrain isn’t obvious, you can insert a refrain in many children’s stories (which are mostly repetitive), such as “And he still couldn’t find his hat” or “so on they went.”
Add sound effects. Where would a movie or TV show be without sound effects? They heighten the drama, the suspense, the comedy – every emotion in every scene. Ask your students to help you come up with interesting sound effects using body sounds, instruments, or other sound-makers.For example, the story “Clink, Clank, Clunk!” by Miriam Aroner is a fun story in which a car breaks down part by part as the driver takes on more and more passengers. These breaking-down sounds can be made by clanking cans together, shaking plastic blocks in a jar or box, or just making funny body sounds like clicking teeth, popping lips and stomping feet.
Have you heard? You can leave out a _______. Picture books are often written in rhyming couplets. A very fun and simple way to keep kids’ attention is to occasionally leave out the second rhyming word and let them fill it in. Here are some tips to use this technique most effectively:
Announce to the group in advance that you will sometimes leave out words to see if they can guess what they are. Kids love to guess! This turns the story into an instant “game.”
This technique works best with kindergartners and first graders, who are old enough to recognize rhyming sounds but young enough to find this game challenging. I’ve used it with some four-year-old groups successfully, but only using very easy rhymes.
Even for older children, the rhymes should be fairly obvious. You want this to be fun, not confusing or frustrating.”The pig said no and shook her head. /’I’m tired,’ he said. ‘I’m going to _____.” is just about right.
Before the “blank,” pause meaningfully, raise your eyebrows, and look around as a clear signal that the children should call out the rhyming word.
This technique not only hooks children into careful listening, it also helps them develop phonemic awareness and auditory memory.
Add art projects to engage students – helping you tell the story with color and images. They could create pictures of animals, people, and objects in the story, hats, costumes, puppets, and more. After the story, they can make illustrations to portray scenes and characters. Art projects engage some students more than any other techniques.
Use dance to enhance the story. This is the perfect solution for those children who lose focus due to pure physical fidgetiness. Fortunately, a surprising number of picture books offer opportunities for dance and movement. For example, “The Road to Mumbai” by Ruth Jeyaveeran, a delightful, imaginative introduction to Indian culture, features a snake charmer .and his dancing snake. You can play a recorder, or just pretend, while your students dance like snakes – you could even do a “snake freeze dance.” “The Hubbub Above,” by Arthur Howard, includes some elephants dancing the cha-cha at a rambunctious party. Children love dancing like elephants!
Lights, camera, action! Well, maybe not lights and cameras. A wonderful way to bring new life to familiar stories is to have your students act them out. “The Three Bears” and “The Little Red Hen,” for instance, are bursting with dramatic possibilities. If you wish to include the whole group in a dramatic performance, consider”casting” roles of trees, flowers, and so on, or select a story with a built-in cast of “extras,” such as Arnold Lobel’s hilarious “The Crickets” or “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” by Jonathan Emmett.