One of my favourite read-aloud books is The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. The influence of poetry is obvious in this compelling modern fairy tale that begins as it might end.
When I introduce this book to children, I conceal it so they cannot see from which part of it I am reading. I tell them the title of the book and ask them to tell me whether I am reading from the beginning, the middle or the end of the book.
I then read, mostly without interruption though I do explain that ‘brink’ is the very edge, the first two pages that describe the Iron Man and how he stepped off the top of a cliff into nothingness and crashed into pieces on the rocks below.
The children listen in awe, fascinated by the size of the Iron Man, incredulous that he would step off the cliff, mesmerised by the telling of each part breaking off and crashing, bumping, clanging to lie scattered on the rocky beach.
They invariably tell me it is the end of the story. How could it be otherwise? When I tell them it is just the beginning, they are amazed and excitedly discuss how the story might continue. This could lead to writing if the children are keen, but there are other opportunities further into the story.
When this initial discussion has run its course, I go back to the beginning and read it again, stopping to encourage further discussion and to spark the children’s imaginations.
allow their imaginations to contemplate possibilities
Nobody knew where the Iron Man had come from, how far he had walked or how he was made, but children have many ideas to contribute to a discussion. It is great to allow their imaginations to contemplate possibilities. Nobody knows, so there is no right or wrong answer —another possible opportunity for writing if the children are keen, and we’re only a few sentences into the story.
The next two paragraphs describe the Iron Man. It is good to read and discuss each descriptive section so that children can imagine just how big he is. I haven’t shown the children any artwork by this stage because I want them to form their own images.
Phrase by phrase, we discuss the size and appearance of the Iron Man:
- ‘taller than a house’
- ‘head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom’
- ‘eyes, like headlamps’.
The Iron Man takes some imagining, and children might like to draw a quick sketch of what they think the Iron Man might look like.
We then read to the end of the section again:
‘Nobody knew the Iron Man had fallen.
The children have already shared their ideas of what might happen next, so I continue reading.
In the next part of the story, the Iron Man reassembles himself. First, an eye and a hand connect, and they go in search of other parts, collecting them one by one. The children are mesmerised by the process, imagining the scene. At the end of the chapter, the Iron Man disappears into the sea. Another end? No, just the end of Chapter 1. There are four more chapters.
By now, the children’s imaginations are on fire, and they are filled with ideas. They have a sense of who the Iron Man is and what he is capable of. Now is when I ask them to write, and they are always keen to do so, writing a new adventure for the Iron Man. I read no more of Ted Hughes’s story, until they have written and shared theirs.
Of course there are many other things that can be discussed and form the basis of other lessons as a follow up to reading the Iron Man, but I always like to start with writing.
It can also be good to discuss techniques used by Ted Hughes in writing the story; such as:
- Short sentences
- Metaphors and similes:
and encourage children to use them in their own writing.
Children could also design and build a model of the Iron Man.
They could imagine their own ‘monster’. Describe and draw it. Describe its special abilities. Write a story about it. Design and build a model of it. Contemplate: What would happen if it met the Iron Man? Would they be friends? Write a story.
If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that this story will spark children’s imaginations, inspire them to write, and motivate them to make models of the Iron Man and monsters of their own creation. And so far, all we’ve done is read and discuss the first chapter.
A printable version of this lesson Responding to the Iron Man by Ted Hughes is available free to registered users.
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