Is reading a public or a private experience?

My parents had a very personal definition of story which covered things that had happened to them or people they knew. These were generally exchanged orally at mealtimes. However, they didn’t read stories to us or tell us stories for children.  I suspect that maybe this was something even their own parents didn’t do for them.

Anyway, in our family, if we wanted someone to tell us stories, we had to find other sources. There were children’s TV programmes which were fairly story-based in the early 1960s until adventure series slowly took over. But even these only got limited broadcast time. Children didn’t sit around watching TV much in our house. We busied ourselves variously while following our mother in her housework, even participating providing we followed instructions. We played, squabbled, said our prayers and went to bed early.

Books would turn out to be the main source for stories. And learning to read was a great leap forward in finding my own. But that would have to wait until I was 5 at finally started primary school.

Learning to read

Like all children of my generation, I learnt to read with the Janet and John books. Not exactly uplifting in terms of narrative, with their heavily stereotyped gender roles for all the characters, these were standard for learners throughout the 1950s and 60s in the UK.

They used the “look and say” method, so we recognized and memorized whole words rather than breaking them down into sounds.

In class, we would have collective work to do to prepare reading, using the board and wall charts. This actually pre-taught much of what was in the readers, giving us a visual to go with the keywords set in writing, so it was the start of the memorize-recognize connection. Then our teachers would call us out to their desk, one by one, to hear us read while the rest of the class were busy with something else. Reading meant reading out loud while somebody listened. It was a public experience. This oralizing from words on a page – there were also pictures to help – felt strange but exciting, as if something was passing through me from the page to the sounds I uttered. It was like being part of something new.

Local library in Ilford – Source Wikipedia

Building a new relationship with words and story

With time, books became richer in narrative. Our teachers would read certain books from our class library to us, which we could sometimes request. The reading would be punctuated with showing pictures either before or after hearing the text. The teacher was in control, but the reading was shared with us. We had to listen and catch the words if we wanted to get the story.

We were also fortunate to have access to a selection of books at school for leisure reading. They were picture books with text. Being allowed to read them was a reward for finishing work set in class.

Our Mum also enrolled us at the local library, which was within walking distance along Ilford High Road at a side entrance to the ornate Ilford Town Hall, now called Redbridge Town Hall and a Grade II Listed Building. We borrowed books regularly from there.

As well as reading books, I also memorized stories that I read at school and copied them out by hand when I got home, oralizing in a low inward voice in the process. I found that I could remember whole chunks of text. This activity was totally absorbing, as I was writing, oralizing and reading back the results.

After 3 years in the Infants’ section, I was comfortable reading. When I started at Junior school, we had moved from Ilford to Harlow New Town, and the new mix of population made me realize just how lucky I was, as reading was by no means a given for all my classmates. Effectively, this meant that, for them, reading could only be a public experience under teacher supervision. I can now see how this could slow down a lot of what went on in class.

A teacher’s oralization of a children’s book

However, reading definitely had pride of place along with Maths. Throughout primary school, teachers would typically read to us at the end of the day, as a restful way to finish. Some were better at this than others and, as we got older, much depended on the choice of book and their own ability to bring a text to life. In my last year of primary school I had Mr Harding. He was clearly nearer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he knew his stuff and loved reading to us.

His choice that year was The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea by Eric Linklater :

The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea, written for children, is a fantasy, in which Davy Jones and all the drowned pirates under the sea are discovered guarding the great knots that tie latitudes and longitudes together to keep the world from splitting.


In fact, Mr Harding knew the book by heart. He had read it to my sister’s class the year before, and probably many others. Ours was a pretty full classroom, with almost  50 pupils, but this was a time when we all listened. The story, which we got in episodes of our teacher’s choosing, lasted for weeks.

Mr Harding wouldn’t ask us many questions during this activity. Just a few at the beginning to situate the action and characters. Sometimes he would ad lib his own version of the text, adding in reminders of why who said what when. That was just to keep us all on track, but the change of rhythm was also part of his art of telling us that story. Then imagination was left to wander. Seamlessly, when each episode finished, it was time to go home.

Photo Johnny McClung – Source Unsplash

Breaking the rules about silent reading

By the end of primary school, we had long since been moved into silent reading – this was even written into our timetable on the wall in class.  Silent reading is a magic process where the story moves inside the reader: you read to yourself and nobody else.

It can be seen as internal speech. Silent reading increases reading speed. It can also be organized as a collective process in which everyone, even the teacher, takes part.

This was presented to us as an inevitable goal, parting of growing up. It explained why libraries were such quiet places. All those books waiting to be read. With The Pirates, however, our teacher took us back to reading as the performance it had been when we first learn how to read ourselves.

Source Dreamstime

But when Mr Harding read Linklater’s fantasy story to our class, he gave us more. It was a full-on oralized text. He read with us in his presence, we were his listeners.  He read to us like a parent or an older sibling would read a bedtime story – pupils occasionally dozed off briefly during the reading – but he was reading to a whole crowd.

He broke all the rules we had learned about silent reading. What we had gained in speed, we had lost in shared group narrative. He restored narrative. He made the story come to life in the moment, and he made it last. It was beyond look and say. It was meaning shared. It was proof that reading could be both a private and a public experience.

Thank you, sir.

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