Monday, February 21, 2011

Reading Aloud in the Classroom: Roald Dahl's The BFG Is a Bit Long for Beginners

I made the resolution this school year to read out loud to my students every day. There are many reasons for this. Important reasons, in my opinion. For one thing, reading aloud fosters a love for reading in children and young adults. It models reading as a positive behavior. And it helps raise test scores, makes kids more successful in school, and increases their vocabulary. I've always been an avid reader; Jim Trelease and his amazing book The Read Aloud Handbook showed me why I had to read aloud to my students, too. We started with Roald Dahl's The BFG, then moved to the short novel Mick Harte Was Here by Junie B. Jones series author Barbara Park. We are now mid-The Hunger Games in one of my classes. (The others are still reading Mick Harte.)

The BFG is, like most of Dahl's writing, full of fantasy and other-worldly creatures. BFG is an acronym for Big Friendly Giant, a lonely being whose days are spent trying not to become a non-friendly giant. The other nine giants who live in the aptly-named Giant Country survive by eating "human beans." The BFG, on the other hand, understands this is wrong and therefore exists on the "filthsome" snozzcumber, a repulsive vegetable only found in Giant Country. His fellow giants sleep by day and travel all over the world by night, snatching children and adults from their sleeping beds to gobble up. The BFG, on the other hand, travels to Dream Country, captures good dreams -- also called "phizzwizards" -- and blows them into the bedrooms of sleeping children.

One night, an orphan named Sophie sees the BFG as he slips around London with his dream-blower trumpet. He fears capture -- and placement in a giant-viewing zoo -- if she tells anyone, so he takes her with him back to Giant Country. The two of them forge an unlikely friendship, then come up with a plot to take down the nine man-hungry giants. This plan involves the Queen of England, and is brilliant in its simplicity.

The BFG was probably not the best choice for beginning read-alouds. My students loved the BFG and little Sophie. They liked the invented words Dahl used, and the funny scenes like when the BFG shares "frobscottle" with Sophie -- and they share the resulting "whizz-poppers" (yes, this is a fizzy drink that causes the drinker to pass gas -- a recipe for immediate giggles in a room full of middle-schoolers). They didn't particularly like how long it took for us to read this first read-aloud book. At almost 200 pages, I didn't think of it as a particularly lengthy tale. But I didn't count on how long it would take for me to stumble over all those invented words, not to mention the BFG's poor grammar. For example, a BFG quote (thanks to the blog Terb's World):

"I is never having a chance to go to school. I is full of mistakes. They is not my fault. I do my best."

Overall, the kids ended up loving the Giant and Sophie, as well as the story, but not the amount of time we spent reading it. This was a primary reason for my choosing to read the 88-page Mick Harte Was Here as our second novel. Now, as I stated above, we've chosen to tackle the almost-400-page The Hunger Games. But the kids are seasoned listeners now, and have the ability to listen for longer periods of time than they were at the beginning of the year. I have also had a lot of practice, and that probably makes a difference in my reading-aloud abilities.

Roald Dahl is, of course, the author of the much-loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and The Witches, among many more.


  1. +JMJ+

    I'm reading aloud Beverly Cleary books to a fourth-grade girl I tutor. I'll bet she'd like this one, too. =)

    I love your description of your students as "seasoned listeners." Listening might seem like a passive activity, but teachers know that it's a skill that needs to be exercised. Your students sound like they're getting a lot of necessary practice in your class.

    Now, I hope you don't mind if I ask how much freedom you have to structure/schedule your classes. All the middle school classes I've had personal experience with (as both a student and a professional) were very rigidly structured and full of graded activities: so if a teacher made a resolution to start reading aloud to students every day, in the middle of the school year, it wouldn't be possible without throwing the syllabus and grading system completely out of balance.

    Thanks! =)

  2. Those are very good questions, and if you are familiar with the middle school Language Arts standards for Tennessee, you know that they are pages long. I still meet all the standards in my classroom, but I also make an effort to stop 5-10 minutes before the bell rings each day to read. Sometimes that doesn't happen (thus, the BFG taking months to read!). But usually it does. And I have an added advantage with my homeroom (the class that is already reading The Hunger Games): I have them for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon, much of which we spend reading.

  3. +JMJ+

    Thanks, Joanna. =) Good luck finding a few minutes each day for your reading!

  4. As a former Fifth Grade teacher, my students loved this book. Like you have mentioned before it depends on the kids - Do they like books? What genre do they enjoy reading? What is a favorite author? WE, as educators, have got to turn these kids on to reading. Keep up you good work Joanna! You are making a difference ! ;)

  5. The hunger games are awesome! the adventures of katniss and gale will keep them listening for hours on end

  6. wonderful publish, very informative. I ponder why the other experts of this sector don't understand this. You should continue your writing. I'm sure, you've a huge readers' base already!
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