The Pinocchio Effect – 12 Ways to Make Read-Aloud Stories Come AliveBy Abby Connors
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.” [continue to page 2]