1 Dec 2009

Again, with feeling

Read-alouds are an integral and much enjoyed part of family life here in our Peaceful Home. We have lots of different sorts of read-alouds too. At bedtime we read a variety of books from Jemimah's bookshelf. Recently during this time we've revisited a number of our old favourites; Charlotte Voake's beautifully illustrated edition of Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjohn; Graham Oakley's The Church Mouse; and Jack and the Beanstalk retold by Edith Nesbit and gorgeously illustrated by Matt Tavares are titles that we return to again and again when bedtime rolls around. Currently we're reading Holling's Tree in the Trail, an Ambleside Online selection that we turned into a read aloud when we Australianised AO2. Jemimah generally chooses these when I am chief reader; Daddy prefers to select his own from the shelves.

Jemimah reads aloud to me. I think of this as reading practice; she doesn't. She regards it as a way that she can entertain me, and she makes quite a performance out of ensuring that I am listening to and enjoying the story. Because this is 'reading', I chose the story based on her current reading level. She is currently midway through Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and just about to begin Kate Di Camillo's The Tiger Rising. (We have loved Despereaux and Edward Tulane as well in the past.) I delight to see how her reading is improving - and how her love of reading is developing!

I get to choose the family read-alouds as well (Oh the joys of being Mummy!). Mostly we read these during the long journeys between our Central Victorian home and our holiday place in Melbourne, a three hour journey that we make about two weekends in three. We can get a lot of books read in this amount of time. We use the Charlotte Mason methods of short readings of several books, prolonging the agony, as it were, but also allowing us for form a relationship with the characters. Currently we're reading The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle (oh how we all love this story!); Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (oh how we all adore this story!); Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H White (oh how we all delight in this story!) and The Complete Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (many of which we like and some of which leave us quite bemused - What the Moon Saw is a case in point.) Andersen wrote 168 Tales, and we're ¾ of the way through.

We read at other times too in addition to our school books. We're that kind of family, and I am well aware that the time for this amount of reading aloud is short. In only a couple more years Jemimah will be reading her books silently to herself, and read-alouds will become an indulgent treat. Sad though it will be, this transfer of responsibility is critical according to Miss Mason:
It is a delight to older people to read aloud to children, but this should be only an occasional treat and indulgence, allowed before bedtime, for example. We must remember the natural inertness of a child's mind; give him the habit of being read to, and he will steadily shirk the labour of reading for himself; indeed, we all like to be spoon-fed with our intellectual meat, or we should read and think more for ourselves and be less eager to run after lectures.
Until this time, reading time is a wonderful time in our life. I read aloud a lot. And I think I read aloud well.

Reading out loud well is a skill. Even with children's picture books. Reading aloud a book with rich language like Mistress Masham's Respose is harder still. Some books can be downright difficult. Have a look at a paragraph or two of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle to see what I mean. How do you think you'd handle it? (If you want to know the context of the story it takes up just at the end of Jemimah's narration.)
"Yea, good father," said Robin, "but thou seest that my clothes are of the finest and I fain would not get them wet. Methinks thy shoulders are stout and broad; couldst thou not find it in thy heart to carry me across?"

"Now, by the white hand of the holy Lady of the Fountain!" burst forth the Friar in a mighty rage, "dost thou, thou poor puny stripling, thou kiss-my-lady-la poppenjay; thou--thou What shall I call thee? Dost thou ask me, the holy Tuck, to carry thee? Now I swear--" Here he paused suddenly, then slowly the anger passed from his face, and his little eyes twinkled once more. "But why should I not?" quoth he piously.

"Did not the holy Saint Christopher ever carry the stranger across the river? And should I, poor sinner that I am, be ashamed to do likewise? Come with me, stranger, and I will do thy bidding in an humble frame of mind." So saying, he clambered up the bank, closely followed by Robin, and led the way to the shallow pebbly ford, chuckling to himself the while as though he were enjoying some goodly jest within himself.
Now this is a very funny passage. In it Friar Tuck decides to beat the arrogant Robin Hood at his own game. So what do we have? First we have pompous Robin Hood. Next we look at Friar Tuck's reaction. At first he is self-righteously indignant. Next he is introspective, and then at the end he is piously amused. Very amused indeed as he considers what is going to happen next...in his imagination at least. Ah, but does anybody every really outwit Robin? At this stage through the story we would find that rather unlikely.

Look again at the passage. It is difficult. It is written in language that we no longer use. It has archaic words and phrases: 'thou seest'; 'Methinks'; 'dost thou'; 'quoth he'; 'goodly jest'...I could go on. It also has quaint old fashioned words: fain (desirous); poppenjay (a vain 'parrot' of a person); jest (amusing prank). What do we do with these? We certainly cannot explain them all. This is not an isolated difficult passage in an otherwise easy book. It was picked at random. We must do better than this.

This is where the reader can either make or break the book. Your voice is all you have to convey the excitement on the passage. Sometimes with a read aloud you also have facial expressions and body language - widened eyes, leaning forward, looking into the eyes of your little one or two person audience, but I mostly read Robin Hood in the front (passenger) seat of the car. I have only my voice.

So this is what I do. This is my way to read the Classics of a Charlotte Mason Childhood. It may not be yours. If it is not I'd love to hear your read aloud tips in the comments. This is the Jeanne way. Are you ready?

I perform it.

No silly voices, mind you. Not most of the time anyhow, but I act it all the same. You should hear me as the vain arrogant Robin who is so sure that he can convince Friar Tuck to carry him across the river so that he doesn't get his fine clothes wet. I am quiet. I speak slowly and precisely with a wheedling, cajoling tone of voice. Then you should hear the indignation of Friar Tuck. Like the good Friar I too burst forth - not in a mighty rage, but in a loud, indignant tone of voice. I speak quickly, accentuating the 'thous':
"dost THOU, thou poor puny stripling, thou kiss-my-lady-la POPPENJAY; thou--thou WHAT SHALL I CALL THEE? Dost THOU ask me, the HOLY TUCK, to carry THEE? Now I swear--"
Ooh it is fun!

Next I pause. The great silence is great fun. Just when there is something exciting to anticipate I stop and wait, building the excitement. I don't say anything. That is the author's job not mine, I just wait. Then I read on.

I never stop to explain a word. If there is something Jemimah really wants explained she knows to wait until the end of the story - or end of the scene before interrupting. Nothing destroys the flow of a good story as much as stopping to explain the words. Do you really need to know the meaning of 'poppenjay'? Did you know the dictionary definition of this archaic word yourself? No, of course not, but you still know what it means, because of its context. Actually it's a delicious word, poppenjay. I might just start to use it myself. It's onomatopaeic - it sounds vain.

"You Poppenjay you."

I read slowly. Books like these contain complex images and ideas. Your audience needs time to internalise what you're saying. Sometimes I need to consciously remind myself of this. It is too easy to race along to the end of a section just so it is done. I make myself stop.

I sing. My voice is not that good, but if I know the tune - or one that fits, I'll give it a burl. On the other hand, the songs in Robin Hood are so long that both my audience and I would die a slow painful death if I attempted singing those. I turn them into poetry.

Finally I relax and enjoy the story. If I am not enjoying a book I will really struggle to read it so that my audience will. I had to put extra effort into What The Moon Saw, for example, and neither Jemimah nor her Daddy enjoyed it very much. The content of the story didn't help, but I probably didn't read it very well either.

The bottom line is whether your audience understand and enjoy. And how can we tell that? Ah ha - narration. Jemimah's exam narration of this book shows she remembers, understands and enjoys it.

I have done my job. The rest is up to the author.

On the weekend Jemimah had her best friend P over for a sleepover. The two girls were buddy reading in the back seat, one page each.

"No, no, P," Jemimah exlaimed as P was reading, "You don't read like that. (in a monotone 'school reading' type voice.) You have to put some excitement into your voice. That's what makes you a good reader!"

Now maybe I need to do something about my daughter's poppenjay-like attitude towards her friends, but I don't think I'll need to teach her how to read aloud, with feeling. I think she has that down pat herself.


  1. Oh I can't believe Charlotte Mason said that, LOL!
    I can understand her point - that the children should be encouraged to put their own effort into reading. I'm sure Charlotte wouldn't mind if family read-alouds carried on. Andrew Pudewa talked about how important it is for children to hear stories read aloud - for their vocabulary and syntax. Some stories are really written for reading aloud, as is a lot of poetry.
    Our girls often take turns at reading a few pages of the read aloud too, as they do during our Bible reading times.

  2. PS, What a lovely read aloud spot you have there, with a beautiful view!!

  3. I 2nd rachaelnz about the view!

    And I agree with you about reading aloud. Like you I do it rather well & I have done it professionally as a children's librarian & I have some training in drama. The only year the reading corner was popular [more popular than anything else] at the Under 8s day was the year I did it. lol Amongst my choices were Where the Wild Things Are ~ & I had those shy little kiddies trying to bring down the roof with their roars! After a morning of that I had no voice but worth it to see non readers get excited about a book.

    Ditz has learnt from me as Jemimah has learnt from you ~ but she still likes to be read to on occasion.

  4. The view is of us in front of the Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan dominated by the 16th Century Gangtey Goemba at the top.

    It is not a very well lit photo. There is another better one, but in it I am smiling for the camera rather than reading the book, so I thought that this photo was a better illustration of the subject matter.

  5. Gorgeous post Jeanne! I can just 'hear' you reading aloud! What fun.
    I too enjoy it. I'm currently reading aloud Tales of A Korean Grandmother to my children. The elderly asian voice is a bit of a stretch, but I'm getting there!
    In our home though my husband is King of the read alouds (not that I mind in the least!) He is amazingly talented at it! The children all beg for him to read to them at bed time, and he has recently finished the Narnia Chronicles. Oh, the acting that takes place...you'd love it. He's been working away from home for the last 10 weeks (home for weekends only) and has come up with a way to voice email stories to the children! His stories are entirely made up of course, and full of hilarious activities - The Adventures of Captain Crankypants! He is also masterful at puppet plays!
    Anyway, I totally love your post, and I think Jemimah is very blessed to have such a fun mum!

  6. ohhhh...now you've spoiled it for me....:) I thought we could keep our read alouds going for years to come...I'm sure I read that in a CM type book, might have been "For the children's sake"? I'm hoping that we continue this for many years to come, long after Rebekah has learned to read...am I hoping in vain?

  7. Hi Jeanne,
    Oh, I would so love to hear you read that paragraph from Robin Hood IN PERSON. ;)

    Have a great week,

  8. Jeanne, I see how you suffered in Bhutan while we all worried for your safety! I hope that was a cashmere throw and you weren't bothered by any scratch wool! Beeaauutiiifuul!!! Beautiful picture and one of my favorites of you two - I don't remember it in the slide show.

    Don't worry Joyfulmum, I'm sure Miss Mason means not to read absolutely EVERYTHING aloud.

    I love reading aloud and love being read to as well - so do the boys.

    You blessed family - I imagine your husband is loving the read-alouds in the car as well!

  9. I am totally into reading aloud as performance. In fact, I cringe to hear people advocate stopping every sentence or so to ask kids questions about the text or pictures. To me, that is a sure fire way to kill enjoyment.

  10. Hi Jeanne...fantastic post! xxx

  11. Your latest post is fantastic. I enjoy that you add videos here and there, and very well written posts.
    Like you I love books, and a post like this I'm choosing to leave a comment, leave me in total admiration. I'm very happy I've found you, I have a wonderful reference to delightful books. These you mention here are a bit big for us. I loved The Church Mouse, but it was too foreign for my girls. I'm going to try Desperaux and more of your titles as time and maturity allow. Your picture looks lovely.


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...