There is a great deal of poor material on the market and one can easily be fooled by delightful illustrations and a lively cover. The quality of a story should never be compromised and time spent selecting material to read will pay great dividends later.

When choosing a story it is important to remember that not all stories were written to be read aloud. Many books on the market today have been produced for a more personal experience. For example, ‘flap’ and ‘turn’ or ‘smell’ and ‘feel’ books are not easy to use effectively in larger groups. Similarly, stories that use ‘speech bubbles’ are also notoriously difficult to navigate, as are those that use highly unusual font size, shape and page positioning. A good test is to actually read the story aloud first. From this you will quickly be able to assess its ‘read aloud’ qualities.

When choosing stories to read aloud to young children look for those that have:

  • an inviting cover and simple, clear, bright, vivid illustrations
  • attractive characters, believable or otherwise, that are few in number but well-developed
  • an interesting beginning that moves straight into the main plot
  • a simple storyline
  • plenty of action coupled with suspense or events
  • that surprise
  • humour
  • simple dialogue and repeated phrases
  • a great ending that both satisfies and surprises.

Good stories can also come in different shapes, sizes and formats and practitioners should ensure that children are exposed to a wide range of material including:

  • story books
  • board books
  • big books
  • cloth books
  • bath books
  • photographic books
  • wordless books – these really challenge the story teller!

In some settings practitioners have found it useful to choose weekly themes for story time. These could include:

  • a collection of books by the same author
  • a themed collection: stories about cats, pigs, or cars, for example
  • topic-related stories such as weather, food, shopping or animals
  • stories from other lands or cultures.

When and where should stories be told?

Story time essentially needs to be relaxed, unhurried and undisturbed. For it to be a successful experience for all, choose a time when the children are at their most alert and the storyteller’s energy levels are high. Why, then, do we choose to read most stories 15 minutes before lunch or at the end of the school day? Premium time for story time is mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

Comfort during a story is highly important. Cushions or small seats can help and, as we all have individual ‘comfort levels’, some children may prefer to lie down or curl up to feel comfortable. What is essential is that all children can easily hear and see you and you can also see all of them.

Remember, story time does not always have to be in a traditional setting, with children surrounding the teller who is in a ‘comfy’ chair. Many early years settings have created special outdoor story areas, among gardens, under willow arches, or beneath the branches of trees. Some have space, or have made it, to construct storytelling castles, boats, cottages or caves in previously poorly used areas of a building. Somewhere ‘special’ for story time may seem a luxury, but many of us believe it is a basic requirement.

Story time should also find its way into all areas of learning. What better way to introduce ‘time’ than through the story of The Time it Took Tom? A perfect companion to a discussion on healthy eating is The Very Hungry Caterpillar; and how could children experience the exploration of fruit without Handa’s Surprise?

Why tell stories?Since the beginning of mankind, stories have been important – above all for the pleasure and fun of the experience, both for the teller and listener. For the early years child they offer much more, providing opportunities to:

  • enjoy a social experience with peers
  • listen carefully and contribute orally
  • be exposed to rich vocabulary, phrasing, rhythm and rhyme
  • become involved in role-play and mime
  • extend memory and recall ability
  • sequence a series of events
  • answer questions and share knowledge
  • understand the nature of a story, exploring plot, character, event, cause and conclusion
  • be exposed to the work of many authors and hear great stories
  • enjoy the skills of a good storyteller
  • make sense of their own world as well as be transported into other imaginary or unvisited worlds and cultures
  • gain an insight into their own lives and lives of others
  • experience the full range of human emotions
  • step out of the present into the future and past
  • create pictures in their minds and dream.

The tools of the story reader

Voice
The voice and personality of the reader will add to the richness of the experience so it is important to:

  • avoid reading at the same level – change volume, pace, tone and pitch
  • build suspense by reading slowly and build excitement by reading quickly
  • not worry if you can’t achieve different accents or voices, simply change the depth or volume of your voice
  • avoid a rhythmic or ‘sing-songy’ style of delivery – it is soporific
  • practise clear diction and play with your voice beforehand – enlarge the voice as if in a theatrical performance.

Gesture
You can use your body like a giant paintbrush or sparkler to create images in the air with hands and feet when reading a story. If the book is held in one hand, there is still the opportunity to bring the story to life with the remaining limbs!

  • Express moods, for example lowering your shoulders for sadness, showing anger with clenched fists or shaking your body to show fear.
  • Use your arms and hands to draw imaginary pictures or to mime elements of the story.
  • Turn the pages at different speeds to create different moods – peep over pages to create suspense.
  • Use the book itself to create shapes and images; for example, wave the book like a bird in flight, point the book like a shark’s fin or shake the book if the story has a ‘chase’ as part of the plot.

Facial expression
Watch an audience of young children listening to a story – they fix their attention on the reader’s face as much as the illustrations themselves. They feed from the reader’s expressed energy, excitement and mood.

Reading a story must become a theatrical performance – the face of the reader and the expressions it creates are an essential element of any successful story time. From the moment the session begins the reader must show they are fully absorbed in the story. His or her face should express:

  • atmosphere
  • character and characterisation
  • humour
  • anticipation and suspense
  • a sense of their own enjoyment of the story.

Movement
While there is a place to snuggle up cosily on a soft seat to read a story, it is often an excuse to collapse at the end of a day. Instead, use movement to add drama and build images for children as the story unfolds. Too much movement can be distracting, but careful use adds greatly to a ‘performance’.

  • Move slowly towards the children to build tension.
  • Move away to reflect faraway places in a story.
  • Rush across the floor, jump, slither or twirl, to reflect movement suggested by a story line.
  • Stand, sit or lie down if it adds to the setting suggested in a story.
  • Move to different positions to read if a story suddenly changes scene or place.

The five stages of story time

Story time can be subdivided into five clear stages: preparation, introduction, delivery, interaction and review.

1. Preparation
Every story needs time and energy to prepare. A story simply cannot be read well if the reader has not reviewed the book first. The story reader should:

  • read through the story once internally and once aloud
  • plan possible questions to ask
  • identify key moments in the story to emphasise or focus on
  • think about the children’s involvement
  • review illustrations and observe characters
  • familiarise him or herself with the plot
  • look for opportunities to build up suspense and anticipation, or add surprise
  • plan his or her involvement, as the reader, through gestures, movement and voice.

2. Introduction
I remember my own story times at home, which were made magical by the innovative ways my father began a story. Sometimes he’d give clues and often he’d wear the clue – how could I ever forget the colander he wore as a space helmet for ‘Tintin Goes to Mars’? The moment a story begins is vitally important, as it can create the mood for the whole session. The reader should be demonstrating through her body language that she is as excited as the audience. The book can be introduced through:

  • hints or clues such as props and artefacts
  • questions, and asking the children about their own experiences or knowledge of the story’s subject matter
  • sensory experiences – you have to eat fruit before Handa’s Surprise
  • setting the scene
  • raising expectation by rushing into the room as excited as can be!
  • sharing your own love of the story: ‘I just love this book and I know you will too!’
  • hiding the book until the last moment.

Once the book has been revealed, always leave a little time to look at the cover and talk about the title and author, but don’t take too long as most children can’t wait to get started.

3. Delivery
‘It’s not so much what is said, it’s how it’s said’, my drama teacher once told me. A great story can be destroyed by poor delivery and unfortunately few practitioners have the opportunity at any stage of their training to be taught the strategies of ‘engagement’. However, we can all read stories and read them well – it just takes practice.

Firstly, it is important not to read a story for too long. Young children have limited attention spans and 15 minutes for three- to four-year-olds and 20 minutes for five- to six-year-olds is long enough. Secondly, the story reader must be seen to be ‘there’ in the story itself and as absorbed as the audience are in the world the storyteller has created.

4. Interaction
Many readers and tellers of stories prefer not to be interrupted, believing that a break in a story destroys continuity and distracts from the experience. With young children I think this is both unrealistic and undesirable. Instead, focused participation should be welcomed as a central part of a story time experience. However, the reader will need to take care not to lose the thread of the story and should ensure that the children’s contributions relate to the story and not a discussion about, for example, last night’s birthday party. The reader might, during the story:

  • ask questions and encourage prediction
  • focus on illustrations
  • talk about character
  • encourage sound effects and suggest role-play movements
  • focus on vocabulary
  • encourage the children to join in with repeated phrases and favourite lines.

Readers can also have fun ‘ad-libbing’ or adapting a storyline. A poor story often needs a little ‘lift’ and adaptation can be quite desirable. Children who are following the story carefully will recognise changes and shout out with enthusiasm: ‘It doesn’t say that!’ For example, I regularly add 12 pork sausages, two Mars Bars, and a bag of Hula Hoops to the list of food the Hungry Caterpillar ate!

5. Review
If a story has gone well, children will often burst into a spontaneous shout of ‘Again, again!’ This is encouraging to the reader and if time allows can be a wonderful opportunity to reinforce or enjoy a story again, but a little time should always be found to reflect on and review a story by asking:

  • Did you enjoy the story?
  • Which was your favourite part of the story?
  • How did you feel when…? (an event)
  • Did you like…? (a character)
  • Did you have a favourite picture?
  • What kind of story was it? (human, action)
  • Would you tell a friend to read it?
  • Do you want to see pictures again?
  • Shall I read a favourite bit again?

To assess the children’s understanding, the practitioner might also ask a series of questions relating to the story. Always ensure that these follow-up sessions are short and sharply focused as the impact of the story should not be lost.

In conclusion…

If we want to avoid bringing up a generation of children of whom many will fail to discover the joy of reading, we must reverse the current decline in time spent reading for pleasure. Our challenge is to convince parents, families and practitioners alike that story time is a child’s right, not a privilege, and one of the most precious gifts that we can give our children is to find time to share a story together.

Neil is the author of wide range of illustrated story books for young children. Free downloadable resources to help practitioners, parents and children get the most out of story time are available on www.cornertolearn.co.uk.

Further information

Bookstart is a national programme that works through locally based organisations to give a free pack of books to babies with guidance materials for parents and carers. It promotes a life-long love of books and is based on the principle that every child in the UK should enjoy and benefit from books from as early an age as possible.

  • Multicultural and multilingual books are available from Letterbox Library and Mantra Publishers
  • 2011 is the National Year of Speech, Language and Communication organised by the Communication Trust through its Hello campaign
  • Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne is published by Walker Paperbacks
  • The Time it Took Tom by Stephen Tucker and Nick Sharrat is published by Scholastic Hippo
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is published by Picture Puffin
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