Leonie Agnew

Love reading aloud? Love writing!

Every year I read my class the same book – Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. Why? One of my favourite memories from primary school was hearing it read by my Year 3 teacher.

Mrs Vanderworth did voices. Now, I normally struggle with creating voices when reading aloud, and I can never remember exactly how they sounded from one day to the next. However, I nail my performance with that book, because Mrs Vanderworth’s voice stretches across decades like a time-travelling ventriloquist act. It’s a voice I can’t get out of my head. Thanks to her, I get begged all year to “do the Fudge voice”, but I suspect it’s really my enthusiasm for the story that starts off a series of chain reactions.

See, Judy Blume wrote a series. The Fudge books fly off my school library shelves because everyone wants to know what happened next. I also remember how my teacher would explain words and mime out the actions, and the way meaning slipped off the page and into my growing vocabulary. The world grew wider with every page. I try the same with fact walls, group discussions on character and vocabulary jars, so we can see how many words we’ve learnt.

It’s a short leap from oral language to writing. We do character descriptions of Fudge, rewrite chapter endings, create maps and tinker with creative recounts from the point of view of different characters. When I’m teaching paragraphs or speech marks in a small group, I’ll reach for the class novel and say, “See, this is how you do it. Look here.” Obviously, I also model, but I often see the light go on when I pass them the book.

When I’m teaching paragraphs or speech marks in a small group, I’ll reach for the class novel and say, “See, this is how you do it. Look here.”

I realise my enthusiasm fuels theirs and it makes me wonder if other teachers, those who say they don’t have time for reading aloud to their class, know what they’re missing. It creates such enthusiasm for reading
and writing. (I also own the rest of the series and I end up dishing them out in a bidding war during SSR. Reading engagement: tick!)

I’m also a children’s author, so I’m fussy about what I read aloud. My last few books have been for intermediate-aged kids, too old for my students, and it’s easy to tell. They’re bored by page two, almost rolling on the ground and staring at the ceiling. My first book, Super Finn, remains my best read-aloud novel. I realise now that’s because of the humour, fast-paced chapters and the strong reliance on dialogue. Those kinds of books work best.

Other books I’ve linked into writing are The Legend of Worst Boy in The World by Eoin Colfer, Fuzzy Doodle by Melinda Szymanik and illustrated by Donovan Bixley – this is a brilliant sophisticated picture book with a tie to writing – and any “Horrid Henry” books. They’ve never failed me.

So, pick up a children’s book and get stuck in. Better still, try a book from the Storylines NZ Notable Book list. (Google it – you won’t regret it.) If it’s a little tricky at first, well, your enthusiasm will be infectious. Include voices and mime, then sit back and watch the writing and oral language improve. However, you’ve been warned: if they start flicking Blu Tack across the classroom, try another book!

Leonie Agnew is a primary school teacher and the award-winning author of four children’s books, including Super Finn and The Impossible Boy. She  lives in Auckland.

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