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Choosing Books to Read Aloud

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Or, How to Hear a Pin Drop

Being in agreement and social media might seem like two magnets destined to repel each other forever. But, when it comes to communities of children’s literature and teaching, discussing the class read-aloud, the planets align. According to many children and teachers, it’s the part of the day which can be the most enjoyable. The most accessible for pupils, and arguably the most beneficial too. That depends on your own views, but there is no doubting the amount of time spent by the people and organisations championing it. So choosing books to read aloud is high on a lot of people’s agendas.

It doesn’t matter which year group, reading to a class of children has been a winner for decades. Knowing the benefits, more and more secondary school teachers are reading to their classes, too. But, with all this pressure on teachers to make the most of this treasured and beneficial activity, choosing books to read aloud – the right books – can be a minefield. 

What genre? Does it need to be funny? Is it suitable for my year group? Is there something in it which could be a trigger? Will they relate to it? Does that even matter? Do I let the children choose it? Fiction or nonfiction? I’ve heard some people say you can read nonfiction out loud. Lots of people are saying I shouldn’t read certain authors? New releases, older ones, or classics? What if some children aren’t enjoying it? I want them all to look forward to it each day. What about length? Agggghhhhhhhhh!!!

However, the books that I pick might not work for your class. Even books recommended by other teachers that have worked for them won’t necessarily work for you. I have, however, asked some of the teachers in the communities mentioned above about how they choose books. What they take into account and what they consider. Don’t worry; there are plenty of book titles in here too.

As our panicking “teacher” above fretted, exposing children to a wide range of texts is a popular opinion. Various fiction genres, classics, nonfiction, folktales etc… As well as picture books and poetry, when choosing these based on what you know of your class, you can find texts that ‘speak’ to them.

Texts that ‘speak’ to us are gold, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they need a deep discussion or unpicking. After all, it should be enjoyable without “copious amounts of questions”. The texts that do understand us can be those dealing with sensitive issues. Exploring these safely in a class or group with a trusted adult close by is preferable. It’s a safe space where the children can ask the questions.

Discussion and informal chat, however, is a bullseye. Picture books with dilemmas, like The Bear and the Piano are great for this. Ones which promote diversity, inclusivity and more complex themes also work well. Picture books, What Happened to You; Proudest Blue; It’s a No Money Day; The Journey are all good examples.

Considering a schedule throughout the year is real long-term thinking. Year 2 is a time of transition for many readers. Moving from reading schemes to something which requires more investment. Using the first term for mostly picture books is a great way to build a reading community and get to know your class as readers, and as individuals beyond reading. Introducing short chapter books in the spring term moves children on. “We want children to be invested and engaged in longer stories”. 

This is just as important in year 6. It’s advisable to save some texts until the summer term after building a rapport with the class and forming a supportive discussion forum. Saving a text such as Boy, Everywhere ensures pupils have learnt all they need from the curriculum to understand the text more fully. And considering the length and accessibility of the text is important for similar reasons. Ensuring children are able to comprehend the text properly. Shorter books with higher interest ages work well for EAL and SEND pupils.

But our “teacher” still doesn’t know which book to pick. Recognised book awards long lists, and short lists are a good indicator of quality. In contrast, shelves in bookshops or supermarkets, bestseller lists, and those titles with paid ads online don’t guarantee quality. What we can agree on are our own opinions and those who really know what they’re talking about. Nikki Gamble’s Book Blast, Mat Tobin’s Padlet, Empathy Lab. It’s not fair to dismiss all physical or digital bookshops. Our partner bookseller Best Books For Schools is independent and specially curated with teachers and schools in mind.

Quality might mean something different to each of us. “A text must ‘say something’ for us to choose it as a class read”, for example. Something about life, loss, learning, humanity, beauty, fear, power, or make us laugh. Laughter is one of the best things in the world, after all. Precision of language can be a factor too. “Exceptional writing in fiction and nonfiction inspires us as writers”. Authors like, but not limited to, Katya Balen, Karl Nova, Elle McNicoll, Tom Palmer, Marcus Sedgwick.

Children voting on which book to read as a class is a nice way to give them some ownership and agency. Provide choices of three or four and then explore the covers, blurbs, first lines, first paragraphs, first pages… followed by a vote. Inevitably with a vote, there can be disappointment. If the vote does disappoint anyone, then lending the books the class didn’t choose is a good idea. “Huge hit” An Alien in a Jam Factory in year 2, and Wed Wabbit, Christmas Dinner of Souls, Orphans of the Tide in KS2 classes were all successes.

No one I spoke to chooses books to fit a topic or theme. Apart from “restricting choice”, this time is something to be separated from lessons. But saying that, after a topic has ended, a class might enjoy or even demand something linked. “The class loved the Elli Woollard Grimm’s Fairy Tales book after writing their own fairy tales”. Be warned, if you choose the first book in a series, you might be committing yourself to all of them. Princess Minna and Rabbit and Bear are wonderful examples that have hooked the same fairy tale-writing class.

Success is something to celebrate. Genuinely. Shout about it when a class love a book. When children are transfixed, or beg you to carry on reading, even when hometime comes. When discussion erupts between the class, making connections, or when children are talking about it together by themselves. If children are looking for copies in the library to sneak ahead, or referring to it afterwards when discussing other texts, or it simply “stays with them”. Some children will reread it afterwards. They might even tell you that they now have that book at home. Success might also be the children giving you ideas of which texts to use next. And sometimes, “asking the children is the best way to begin.” Adults don’t have to be the only ones choosing books to read aloud. But read them first!

Is there anything that doesn’t make a book good for a read-aloud? Long chapters can mean you may have to finish sessions in awkward places that aren’t natural stopping points. Long chapters can also drag and feel wearisome out loud; it’s very different from cosying up on the sofa. And if a book takes most of the year to read, it’s probably too long as well. Sensitive subjects need to be treated with caution and on a class by class basis. Some books are written ‘out loud’ in the sense that writers have read aloud their own work when writing it. Read a page to yourself and ask if it reads aloud naturally. Sentence length, grammar and vocabulary can all have an effect. Some books are just “better read quietly to yourself”.

Not only is there an uncountable amount of books to choose from, every class and every teacher are different too. A sizable combination for the perfect choosing class reads. Reading the book before sharing it shortens your odds, and you can decide if it’s suitable for your readers or includes something that might concern a particular child in the class. 

But apart from choosing books to read aloud and reading them, teachers must also enjoy the experience and want to read them. “Teacher enthusiasm and knowledge can make a book live or die in the reading.” And sincerity isn’t easy to fake. Class read-aloud times are often children’s most remembered and treasured moments from school. So it’s not just about making a book ‘live’; we’re talking about ‘happy ever after’.

With massive thanks to these people whose expert knowledge has made this post possible: Sam Creighton, Helen Morgan, Sarah Merchant, Vikki Varley, Sam Keeley and Kate Hitchings.

If you have enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy these resources:

Frank Cottrell Boyce talks about Reading Aloud with Nikki Gamble In The Reading Corner

Just Imagine reviewers choose their favourite read aloud stories

Nikki Gamble talks to Ben Harris and Sonia Thompson