By Hodges, Gabrielle Cliff
English Drama Media , No. 19
In 1996, The Independent ran a series of short pieces about an adult and a child reading together from both their perspectives. One piece was about Simon Russell Beale and his four-and-three-quarter-year-old nephew Ben who said:
Simon reads to me in the morning and at bedtime. I do get other people to read--my dad, my mum, my grandma. Simon does it best, because he's an actor and he can do lots of different voices and he can do a twisting walk. I can act as well, but not really without other people. I need someone to read a story while I'm acting. Sometimes he tries to look as if he's got no teeth. Mostly he reads things that happened in the olden days. He reads whole books out of his head, about gods and things (Gilbert, 1996).
Later in the article Ben mentions books for which he also has the audiotape and video and his favourite, Knee-High Nigel (Anholt and Robins, 1995): 'Simon's read me that. It's my best book. I think it's by Sainsbury's' (ibid.). What is interesting about the piece (quite apart from the idea of having Simon Russell Beale on hand to read to you), and one of the reasons why it has stayed in my mind, is the way Ben assumes his place so confidently at the heart of the reading process, even though--it would seem--he cannot yet read himself. He enjoys acting out stories, watching his uncle doing likewise and listening to the different voices of narrative. He has an eclectic view of what reading means to him.
Growing up with, not growing out of
Other young children who enjoy a similarly rich experience of reading early on, especially stories being read aloud, often recall it vividly in later life. The December 2010 edition of the English and Media Centre's emagazine included a brief report of a conference for 750 Year 12 English Literature students and their teachers. Among the keynote speakers was Michael Rosen and a high point of the conference was the students' realisation that he was the author of We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Rosen and Oxenbury, 1989): 'A roar of approval went up from the audience!' (McClay, 2010, p.5). There are many possible reasons for their enthusiasm, most likely happy memories of it being read aloud to them and performing it over and over again, with parents or teachers. If so, they will not only have heard its wonderful sounds and rhythms but felt the embodiment of the overall shape of the story as they headed in their imaginations outward-and then homeward-bound. In essence, they will have had a rich sensory experience of how drama, poetry and narrative can be woven together to form a particularly literary pleasure, one to grow up with rather than grow out of.
Although reading aloud with children is widely agreed to be beneficial, it is often assumed both by teachers and young people themselves that it is something you grow out of as you become an increasingly proficient reader. In this article I query that assumption and reflect on the potential value of reading aloud with older students in secondary school classrooms as well. To do this, I first draw briefly on aspects of my own reading research to discuss a combination of factors which contribute to individuals' enjoyment of reading aloud in early childhood. I then refer to one or two instances from the history of reading more broadly to suggest some of the reasons why reading aloud could play a more prominent part across the secondary age range. Throughout, I will be discussing the particular practice of adults reading literature aloud well with young people (not the rather different, often reviled, practice of students themselves reading round the class).
Exploring reading histories
I have recently undertaken an in-depth study of a group of students in the early years of secondary schooling who are habitual and committed readers. One important element of the research was taking a historical perspective towards readers, reading and readership. Two of the research methods therefore involved delving into reading histories: the students made collages of critical incidents in their reading histories, an activity I have discussed elsewhere (Cliff Hodges, 2010); they also interviewed a parent or grandparent about their reading histories, including recollections of being read aloud to when they were young. …