If you’ve ever tried sharing a book in class, with pupils taking turns to read a section aloud, you’ll know what scenario tends to develop. On the one hand, there’ll be the shy, self-conscious readers who may struggle to make sense of the words, thus losing confidence. Then there are those who don’t have a part, and who quickly become bored and distracted.
Many years ago, when my own children were at primary school, I volunteered to become a parent reader, hearing each person in a small group read a chosen passage aloud, while the others waited for their turn, often mucking about.
The whole thing was a dismal failure – and not likely to motivate the kids to take up reading as their favourite hobby. That sort of missed opportunity is a big problem. As the National Literacy Trust has put it, “Lacking vital literacy skills holds a person back at every stage of their life. As a child they won't be able to succeed at school, as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market, and as a parent they won't be able to support their own child's learning.”
Going back to my volunteer session and those young learners, I could see that if we were to make real progress I needed a way to get every reader in the group engaged and enjoying themselves. It was then that I came up with the idea of writing short plays for reading aloud, giving everybody a part. These little “playlets” were an instant hit, and dearly loved by the children.
Some twenty years later, as a widely-read children’s author, I became the Children’s Laureate, and collaborated with Pearson to take the idea of similar plays to schools nationwide. The result was Plays to Read, an exciting initiative for KS1 and KS2 pupils, using all I had learnt about reading in groups to maximise fun, inclusion and engagement in the classroom.
I wrote about half of the plays myself, and we commissioned other top children’s authors such as Geraldine McCaughrean and Jeanne Willis to write the others. The resulting series of attractively illustrated plays enables teachers to involve primary pupils in reading and performance, whatever their learning level. Incidentally, that word, “play”, is particularly relevant, since play-acting is an extension of the kind of play which children naturally engage in all the time – trying out different roles and learning to communicate, take turns and speak with real expression.
Each of the Plays to Read is for a cast of six, and even those with a minor role have lines interspersed throughout the play, ensuring that their interest is maintained. The plays are short, and pupils are encouraged to swap roles between reads, so that any new vocabulary is reinforced in a varied way. The different parts are colour-coded, which helps the children to follow the text and to come in at the right time.
I’ve seen painfully quiet pupils transformed into performers through the reading process, acting with assertiveness and confidence. I’ve seen the real sense of occasion that arises – and how riveted the whole class becomes, fascinated by watching their peers in a new light. The whole experience boosts the children’s self-esteem, and improves their reading in a way that is hugely enjoyable.
Encouraging children to have fun reading aloud, pretending to be different characters, is not only an excellent way of tackling shyness, boredom and illiteracy, but of boosting children’s skills in communication and turn-taking, while also strengthening empathy and teamwork.
Plays like these – playing like this – can help to create solid connections between reading and enjoyment. They’re a long way from my first failed session at that primary school, many years ago – and thank goodness for that. Our children need to learn to love language and stories. They need to develop literacy, and if they can have fun while they’re at it, why not bring the playtime into class?
Learn more about the Plays to Read, and buy today.
Julia Donaldson is an award-winning children’s writer and playwright, best known as the author of the worldwide rhyming sensation The Gruffalo. In 2011 Julia was nominated as Children’s Laureate, and teamed up with Pearson to launch Plays to Read.
Together, Julia and Pearson have also created a separate series of plays for whole-class performance. These are the six Plays to Act; all dramatisations of well-known picture books.
Learn more about Plays to Act, and buy today.