I was not a confident reader in school. Fortunate enough to begin school knowing how to read, my abilities stalled mid-way through, and I couldn’t seem to move beyond the very simplest texts. I did not read much, with the exception of some truly trashy American “series” books (Sweet Valley High; The Babysitters Club). I do not recall at any point having to read aloud in front of a class.
In secondary school, my reading repertoire remained limited. Winning a prize for English in year 9, I spent the money on The Diary of Adrian Mole, which I’d heard was good. The Head of English was appalled. I recall my first brush with Shakespeare – a valiant year 8 teacher having us perform “Pyramus and Thisbe” from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I hated it. I don’t have any memory of reading this play in front of my peers, though it seems likely I did.
Moving into year 10, my memories of reading begin to crystallise. This was the time when anxiety entered. I was, for the first time, becoming truly excited about books, prompted by a teacher of unparalleled excellence. I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings: I’d read a lot, but it tended to be extremely straightforward. Furthermore, where I’d learned new words, I’d learned them by sight, with no idea how to pronounce them. I can’t manage to forget being picked up for saying “guess-ture” for “gesture.”
Reading texts I was challenged and absorbed by in class was balanced with abject fear: would I be asked to read aloud? If so, how could I possibly make sure I was pronouncing all the words right and reading at a decent speed and putting enthusiasm into my voice? It seemed impossible. Conversely, I loved reading plays – the shortness of the lines and the space around the text lessened the fear for me.
In short, on becoming an English teacher, I had read approximately twenty-five pages of text aloud to a classroom of students in my life. Surprisingly, this did not seem to be a problem. I was advised during training that students would benefit from “guided reading,” where they sat in groups and read to each other as I circulated, checking students were on task and understood. The painful exception was my first year’s 10 set 5, who were studying To Kill a Mockingbird, and seemed unable to read this alone. I valiantly attempted to breathe life into the text, but my shoddy reading skills (among other things) meant disengaged students. (When I finished, a marathon 287 pages later, they applauded. From relief.)
As the years went on, I’d found reading aloud becoming easier – if I’d taught a text before, for example, I would feel more confident and could put more energy into the reading. Yet mere familiarity was not enough. Last year, I decided I needed to do more. Over the course of the summer, I practiced reading aloud daily – poems, short stories, newspaper articles – whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I rehearsed. I improved.
In September, with my year 10 class I’ve written previously about, this exercise was invaluable. With reluctant readers, I found for the first time that I could engage them with the sheer entertainment of me reading. I found myself putting on voices, dramatically pausing, and even walking around the room at the same time as reading (and, most impressively I feel, at one point crawling around the room, while simultaneously demonstrating a narrator’s slide into madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper”).
Then, last week, something amazing happened.
I hadn’t asked year 10 to read aloud in front of the whole class. They had done some reading in pairs, but in an extremely limited way. I had felt happy enough “modeling” good reading for them.
But last week, as I read, a student chimed in with me. My first thought was that she was mocking me, as this class so often does (this is a common theme among many of my classes. I’m easily mocked). I paused, unsure of what to do.
And the student carried on reading.
She stopped at the end of the paragraph, and I picked it up. And then a second student chimed in. I stopped. She kept reading.
It’s the strangest and in some ways most beautiful thing I have experienced, and I hope my words here do the moment justice. In this week the class has transformed itself from one where I did all the reading, to one where students are themselves choosing to publically read, and even actively asking me if they can read aloud. I’ve never put any pressure on any of them to do this, and wouldn’t want to put them on the spot – after all, I have first-hand experience of feeling terrified of this in front of peers. But I couldn’t be more delighted that they have taken matters into their own hands.