Simple secrets from authors and storytellers
By Lori Hadacek Chaplin
In 1939, when artist and popular children’s author Tomie dePaola went to kindergarten, the first question he asked his teacher was “When do we learn to read?”
The teacher answered, “Oh, we don’t learn how to read this year. We learn next year in first grade.”
Little Tomie replied, “Fine, I’ll be back next year.” And he stomped out of the school.
DePaola told Today’s Catholic Teacher, “My mother convinced me to go back to kindergarten because if I didn’t pass, I wouldn’t get into first grade and then I’d never learned how to read.”
Tomie reluctantly went back to kindergarten. In September, on the first day of first grade, he raised his hand to ask about reading. “Before I even opened my mouth, the teacher said, ‘Friday.’”
“Obviously, the teachers [had] talked about me,” dePaola said, chuckling.
Catch the reading bug
What is it that sparked a love for reading in little Tomie? His mother read to him every night. He told TCT, “Now I do everything I can to help people — especially young people — to get the reading bug at a very early age. All you have to do to inspire children to read is to read to them.”
Sarah MacKenzie, the author of The Read-Aloud Family, explains that we shouldn’t read just any book. Teachers and parents need to read books that interest them because students recognize immediately when the reader is not connecting with a book. If they see their teacher revved up about reading, they’re more likely to feel the same energy.
“You’ve got a much better chance of carrying that child into that wonderful place,” MacKenzie said in her podcast Read Aloud Revival, during an interview with author Kate DiCamillo on the topic “Reading Aloud for Connection.”
MacKenzie also suggested reading picture books, even with older children, because picture books are often written more eloquently than chapter books or middle-grade books. Plus, the vocabulary and the reading level in a picture book are higher. “A beautifully written picture book is like poetry and an art gallery combined into one,” she commented.
DePaola, who has written more than 200 children’s books, recommended that teachers create a sense of anticipation when they read to their students. He shared a story about how his fifth-grade teacher, Rose Mulligan, did this.
“She’d read aloud to us every afternoon. School ended at 3:30 p.m., and a little after three, we put our work away and she read from books she selected. She would read up to a point — and especially on Friday — she would leave us dangling. We were all anxious to come back on Monday to find out what was going to happen.”
The student that “hates” reading
There’s always that student who huffs, “I hate reading!”
DePaola recalled a time when his sister asked him to talk with his youngest nephew, who claimed to hate reading.
“I called him up and said, ‘I heard you don’t like to read.’ My nephew replied, ‘I hate reading.’ All of a sudden, I heard him say, ‘I hate R-E-A-D-I-N-G.’ In my mind, I saw reading in capital letters. What he hated was when the teacher said, ‘All right, now we’re going to study reading.’”
He added, “My nephew loved to be read to, and he loved stories, but he hated the way reading was taught.”
Like Tomie’s nephew, many children associate reading with work rather than with enjoyment. Reading aloud or listening to audiobooks can change that association.
Reading aloud is a great benefit to the student — whether it’s the teacher reading or an audiobook playing — because it allows students to become acquainted with more complex storylines. Teachers also can choose literature that sparks their own interests as well as the students’.
Grade-school children aren’t going to read all 624 pages of David Copperfield — nor should they — but a teacher can introduce them to exciting age-appropriate excerpts. When they’re older, they’ll recall how Davy overcame a wicked stepfather and headmaster, and they will want to find out the rest of the story. Our job as teachers is to show students that reading is not drudgery, but rather a door to different and exciting worlds that add color to our lives.
Mem Fox, a retired teacher, children’s author, and literacy advocate from Australia, noted in an interview on Reading Rockets.org, “If we’re always reading something that’s more difficult than they can read themselves, when they come to that book later or books like that, they will be able to read them.”
Even a junior-high or high-school teacher should be reading aloud to students. “There’s always something that is too intractable for kids to read on their own,” Fox continued. “We’re always pushing them ahead [to something that is a] little bit harder. That’s why we should keep reading [out loud] forever.”
To inspire students to read, teachers can take a story from a book and put it into their own words. Writer and well-known narrator Jim Weiss told TCT that his love of reading came from his parents’ appreciation of books and storytelling.
“When my brother and I were growing up, my father would tell us bedtime stories every night. And the stories generally came from classic literature or history,” Weiss shared. “Whenever he could, he would have the book nearby to encourage us to improve our own reading and to read the originals.”
Now Weiss uses his abridged audiobooks as springboards to inspire children to read and to teach them to think. At the end of the story, he encourages the listener to do further reading and research.
Weiss has been storytelling professionally for 30 years. Educators and parents often will approach him and say, “I have a child who’s not interested in science or art, how can I motivate him or her?”
“I say, have them listen to Galileo and the Stargazers, and they’ll get interested in science. Give them Masters of the Renaissance, and they’ll appreciate art,” Weiss said.
Because many parents take his recommendations, people approach him or write to him and say, “I’m a scientist now because of that recording, or I’m a sculptor now, or I’m an author with two published books. And I got the idea because of all of the audios in which you told the story of Galileo, Jules Verne, or Arthur Conan Doyle and all the others and how they got their start.”
Enough time to read
What if you’re a teacher that feels ho-hum about books or feels you don’t have enough time to read?
“Our professional lives are frantic, chaotic, and overcrowded. We, therefore, need to make time for what we think is important,” Fox wrote on MemFox.com. “Audiobooks offer a solution for teachers to get more reading time in because you can listen while you rest, clean, or drive.”
Having a faculty meeting focused on books also offers a way for educators to discover new titles for themselves and their students. This offers teachers a chance to “rave about what they’ve read or are currently reading,” she explained.
What should I read?
Often students — and teachers — don’t read because they don’t know what to read.
“It’s our job as teachers to know our students, to know what books are being read and enjoyed by that age group, and to find subtle and nifty ways of making those books irresistible to the inactive readers in our classes,” Fox shared.
One last valuable piece of advice from the Australian author is to give yourself and your students permission to stop reading a book.
“You don’t have to finish every book you start, you know, especially if you really hate it. Get on to something new and different, for heaven’s sake, before you’re turned off books for life,” she advised.
Never too old
Jim Weiss’ wife, Randy Weiss, was an award-winning teacher in California. She developed the lead program in the state of California for high-risk middle-school students. She taught children that were considered hard cases. Often they were brilliant kids, but kids who misused their gift.
“They ended up in Randy’s classroom, and she read a lot to them. Inevitably when she would start to do that at the beginning of a school year, they would say, ‘What does she think? We’re babies?’ And then they’d get hooked and say, ‘Don’t stop.’”
In these must-listen audiobooks, the narrator’s reading enhances the story.
Bible Stories: Great Men and Women from Noah through Solomon, told by Jim Weis
26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola, narrated by Tomie dePaola
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson, narrated by Kirsten Potter
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, abridged and narrated by Jim Weiss
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, narrated by Anthony Heald
Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan by Veronique Olmi, narrated by Bahni Turpin (Note: The first half of the book has scenes of abuse, but the author deals with those scenes delicately. Please listen before using in class.)
Swordsmen, Saints, and Scholars: Great Men and Women of the Middle Ages by Jim Weiss, narrated by Jim Weiss
Further book suggestions
Sarah Mackenzie offers an extensive list of best audiobooks, books for girls, books boys love, and more at ReadAloudRevival.com.
Nine ways to improve your read-aloud voice
Fox and Weiss offer advice on how to be a captivating reader:
1. Introduce the story: With a few enticing sentences, give students an idea of the plot.
2. Create a catching start: “The way we speak our first line should be sensational. The aim is to grab our audience immediately and never let them go,” Fox says. The same is also true for the last line of the book.
3. Be expressive: “The ups and downs of our voices and our pauses and points of emphasis are like music, literally, to the ears of young children,” Fox says.
4. Use your eyes: Show emotional value through your eyes and try to visualize what’s happening in the book, because this will improve your delivery.
5. Avoid cutesy or patronizing voices: These can distract or even insult the listener.
6. Develop a vocal palette: Use pace, pitch, volume, evenness (abrupt or drawn out), texture (gravelly or smooth), and accents to add interest to the story. “You needn’t create exact vocal portraits. Even small distinctions can indicate character traits and help listeners differentiate between characters,” Weiss explains.
7. Pause: A well-placed pause adds drama.
8. Stop to ask thoughtful questions or to briefly clarify a point: “Be sure to renew the mood afterward by saying, ‘Now where were we?’ or ‘Well, let’s see if that is what Jack actually did,’ Weiss recommends.
9. Discuss the story: This helps the students to think critically about what they heard. “Encourage students to compare and contrast the story’s values, such as kindness versus selfishness,” Weiss says. “Present provocative questions [such as] ‘What would you have done?’ or ‘What might this person have done differently, and why?’”
Lori Hadacek Chaplin is a senior writer and columnist for Catholic Digest magazine. Her articles appear regularly in Today’s Catholic Teacher, National Catholic Register, Celebrate Life magazine, and OSV Weekly. She lives in Idaho with her husband, David, and their four children.
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