Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts

Monday, 1 June 2020

Empathy Day: Guest Post by Planet Omar Author Zanib Mian

Empathy is a vital human force. One that creates happier children, stronger communities and a better world. It’s come into sharp focus during the pandemic and right now, we’ve never needed it more. Empathy is being able to imagine and share someone else’s feelings.

The good news is that it's a skill you can learn, and Empathy Day on 9 June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. Empathy Day focuses on how we can use books to step into someone else’s shoes. Scientists say that we can train our brain with stories – the more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.

Empathy Day was established by not-for-profit EmpathyLab, who are on a mission to inspire the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement. On 9 June they will host a day of brilliant online events and home-based celebrations to help children READ, CONNECT AND ACT using empathy. Children can join in whether they're at home or at school, and authors, illustrators, schools and libraries across the country will all be taking part.

To mark the countdown to Empathy Day, Zanib Mian, whose book Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet is included in EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy Collection, has chosen an extract from their book and tells us why they feel it’s a powerful read to develop empathy.


Extract from Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, Chapter 8

One afternoon, when we were doing an art lesson about Picasso, Mrs Hutchinson was so excited about how he made everything abstract that her curls started dancing with joy. She asked us to paint self-portraits just like his. Charlie and I were having loads of fun giving ourselves colourful triangle noses and weird-shaped eyes, when Daniel walked past our desk and sent the dirty water pot tumbling onto my painting.

‘Oops, clumsy me …’

There he was again with the upside-down talking. It definitely wasn’t an oops moment, it was a hey, let’s ruin Omar’s painting on purpose moment.

Charlie’s mouth dropped open in surprise and my heart took a little dip, as if it was falling into a different and less comfy place in my chest.

It seemed like Charlie could tell exactly how I was feeling. Because he leaned in to whisper, ‘He’s just a big frogspawn head. I bet you can paint a new one even better!’ And he gave me the biggest toothy grin I’d seen yet.

I imagined what Picasso looked like. I wondered if he looked like some of his paintings, all out of shape, but happy. Happier than all the other paintings from those old days. And then I thought, hey, what if some kid had ruined Picasso’s painting at school one day, which is why it came out all different and weird and that’s what made him famous? So I took my paintbrush, I grabbed it like it was alive and like it was the first time I ever held a paintbrush, and I painted.

When Mrs Hutchinson saw my work, her curls almost rose to the ceiling.

‘Omar, Omar,’ she said. ‘You DID this?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘It’s … wow. It’s brilliant!’

Daniel’s face was red. Like the beetroots my dad will never eat. He passed me a note.

It said:

WATCH OUT

Zanib Mian writes:

As I wrote this, I felt sad for Omar. But I also felt very proud of both Omar, and his new best friend Charlie, for how they handled the situation.

When Daniel tips over the paint pot, Omar recognises his emotions and allows himself to feel them, which is always the first step towards moving on from them. He didn’t use words like, ‘I felt sad,’ or ‘I felt upset.’ But we know how he felt because of the way he describes his heart falling into a different, and less comfy place in his chest. Unfortunately, everyone has probably experienced one of those moments when someone has said or done something, that made their heart ‘drop’ like that, with disappointment, sadness or discomfort, which is why readers might empathise with Omar at this point.

The reason I chose this extract to write about for Empathy Day however, isn’t solely for the empathy that it may elicit from readers. It’s because the way Charlie reacts upon seeing this happen to his friend is one of the most gorgeous Charlie moments in the book! Charlie is an amazing friend to Omar during this incident. He’s there for Omar. He sees Omar. He recognises how Omar might be feeling, and he does something to help him through. That is a wonderful example of showing empathy towards others. It’s a complete empathetic reaction.

What I love most is how this scene displays what showing empathy for someone can do. Encouraged by Charlie’s words, Omar regains his spirit and produces a piece of art more brilliant than before!
That’s the beauty of empathy – it has a great power to change every situation for the better.

For the first time this year, EmpathyLab will host its Empathy Day programme online to support families at home. Schools and libraries across the country will also be offering a wide range of home learning and story-time activities.

Prior to the big day, EmpathyLab are hosting a Countdown Fortnight on their social media channels (26 May-8 June). Highlights include brand-new empathy-themed illustrations from leading artists, short stories from favourite authors and video readings of empathy-boosting books and poems from the writers themselves. Families can also download a new Family Activities Pack, featuring 14 writing, drawing, crafting, listening and reading activities to do at home: https://www.empathylab.uk/family-activities-pack

Events on 9 June will begin at 9:30am with Children’s Laureate and best-selling author Cressida Cowell, who will introduce Empathy Day. The day’s activities, designed to introduce children to the concept and importance of empathy and how to put it into action, include a draw-along with Rob Biddulph, a poetry challenge with Sarah Crossan, Empathy Charades with Joseph Coelho, exercises on listening with Jo Cotterill and Robin Stevens, before rounding up the day with an activity on putting empathy into action with Onjali Rauf and Sita Brahmachari. Finally, an evening event with Cressida Cowell, Muhammad Khan and psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee aimed at parents, teachers and librarians will address the science that drives EmpathyLab.

The full programme can be found HERE https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020

Join in with the #EmpathyDay social media campaign and share your #ReadforEmpathy book recommendations.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Being A Reading Teacher 2020


Back in the summer of 2016 I blogged about how I'd become a Reading Teacher (with a capital R and T, as Teresa Cremin says). I reflected on how prior to that year, and therefore for quite a huge chunk of my career as a teacher, I had not even been able to class myself as a reader, let alone a Reading Teacher. I went on to outline the benefits of being a Reading Teacher that I had experienced in the 8 months since I had taken up reading again.

I re-read that blog post today, maybe for the first time since 2016. So complete is my transformation that I was shocked to even recall that there was a time when I was not a reader, nor a Reading Teacher.

Back then, I recommended that anyone wanting to develop a reading habit should join Goodreads, and I'd echo that today as it has been a boon to my development as a reader. There's a part of my character that really likes the challenge of trying to read a certain number of books and another part which likes to document my own progress.

Over the years my reading interests have meandered but never waned. Sometimes I read a lot of picture books. Other times I read a string of Middle Grade novels. After that I often get MG fatigue and read something a little more grown up, a little more factual, a little different, at least.

I've tried to read outside of my comfort zone without running roughshod over my rights as a reader. I read what I want (but not when I want - life dictates otherwise) and I follow my fancy: the next book on my TBR pile is not always the next book I read. If I get into Viking-themed children's literature then the next few books might just have to be along those lines too. Invariably this kind of activity causes me to side-step into reading of adult non-fiction related to the subjects and themes of the children's books I've been reading. One book inspires the next in one way or another.

I'm writing this as a reflective and celebratory post, so I am sorry if it comes across as smug and showboaty. But I'm also writing it because in the intervening years I think I have noticed a problem.

I have been fairly vocal about my love for reading, not only on social media but in the schools I have worked at and have worked up a reasonable reputation as someone who loves reading (I won nerdiest teacher award the year I left my previous place and my #shelfie was easy for the children to guess because it contained many children's books). But I think I may have given a false impression: namely that I have always been a reader and that it comes naturally to me. Children and colleagues do not know that I consciously transformed myself into a reader. I suppose I suspect that this makes going from zero to being a full-on reader is unattainable - that in some ways my obsession and fervour is actually a stumbling block to others.

I need to rectify this. I need to be brave enough to share my story - to show that changes can be made to one's habits. I think those who feel like there is no time in life to become a reader might need to hear my experience of how changing habits can make more time for reading. Or perhaps I'm just assuming too much that I can change other people? Even if I don't need to explicitly share these things, I certainly don't want to act in a way that puts other people off finding their own obsession with reading.

Another point of reflection for me is that, since writing, I have become class-less. I now no longer have so many opportunities to speak to children about my love for books. Sure, every day that I sit in the canteen and eat with the children I ask them about the books they are reading and engage with them on the subject. I get down on my knees at the bookshelves when children are choosing books and pick out a few recommendations - some children even know to come and find me for this purpose.

If my school is to be one where Reading Teachers lead in the classroom then the school needs a Reading Deputy to lead it. A Reading Deputy who finds and creates more opportunities in the day to share the book love with the children. If you are a class-less teacher who still manages to do this I'd be very interested to hear from you - Simon Smith and Karl Duke, I'm looking to you guys as I know you are doing fantastic things. But I know that there will be many other SLT members and other non-class-based members of staff who manage to take a lead on reading - please get in touch with your tips and advice for me!

There is a part of me which is satisfied that I managed to bring myself on this journey, regardless of whether or not others join me. But there still remains the desire to share this passion - and it will be this desire, this passion, that wins over the satisfaction of knowing that I myself am a reader. I understand the benefits of reading and I want other people to experience them too - that's no bad thing. So forgive me once more if this post was just some self-congratulatory tosh, but I can't stop talking up reading and trying to get other people on their own journey as readers.

Must dash - there are books to be read.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Getting Ready For The 2020 KS2 Reading Test

If you're just here for the free resources, then here are the links:

Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12250306

Mark Scheme for Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mark-scheme-for-booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12260913

Booklet 2: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-2-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12257463

However, if you have a little more time, have a read about the thought process that has gone into the resource creation.

But, before you start reading my bit, I can't stress how important it is that you read Penny Slater's blog series of reflections on analysis of the 2019 reading test. It is in 4 parts and it has been the reading of these that has brought me to write this blog post about how I am hoping to prepare for the 2020 test:

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-1

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-2

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-3

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-4

One of our main reflections on having given our year 6 children a go at some of the past papers is that stamina is a key skill which needs to be developed.

With this in mind, I looked at the wordage breakdowns that Tim Roach and Penny Slater provided:

Given that 2019's test had the longest reading extracts ever I decided to use its word count as a benchmark for developing some reading comprehension activities that we could use with the children to develop their stamina.

It wasn't just the word count that was the issue. Previously, we had no way of checking whether or not the reading materials we were using in reading lessons were of a comparable difficulty to the texts used in the tests.

I used a simple online analysis tool to get some more information: https://datayze.com/readability-analyzer.php

I ran each of the three 2019 reading texts through the tool and got the following information:

The Park:


Fact Sheet: About Bumblebees:


Music Box:


Using this data I set about finding similar suitable texts (in both length and readability) to use for a series of test-like comprehension activities. The aim of these activities is to replicate the length and readability of the second and third texts in the 2019 paper so as to provide around 40-45 minutes' worth of reading and answering questions. So far, at my current school, reading lessons have not provided such practice at such length so in the run up to Easter we have adapted our timetable to allow for longer reading lessons.

To aid me in the creation of these questions I re-made the questions from texts 2 and 3 of the 2019 paper and used these as a template (click the link to download these from TES). I also did a quick analysis of both question types (e.g. short written answer, complete the table, multiple choice tick box etc) and an analysis of the content domain coverage (using the information in the mark scheme):

Fact Sheet: All About Bumblebees:

Content Domains:

2a = 2/19 marks = 11%
2b = 9/19 marks = 47% (2 mark questions)
2c = 6/19 marks = 32%
2d = 3/19 marks = 16% (inferences in NF)
2g = 1/19 marks = 5%

Question types:

Short answer (one line): 14, 17, 18, 21, 26 = 5/15 = 33%
Medium answer (two lines): 19, 22b, 27 = 3/15 = 20%
Complete table: 15, 25 = 2/15 = 13%
Multiple choice tick box: 16, 20, 23 = 3/15 = 20%
Tick table: 22a, 24 = 2/15 = 13%

Music Box:

Content Domains:

2a = 1/17 marks = 6%
2b = 5/17 marks = 29%
2d = 9/17 marks = 53% (3 mark inference questions)
2g = 2/17 marks = 12%

Question types:

Short answer (one line): 31, 34, 35, 36, 38 = 5/12 = 42%
Medium answer (two lines): 28, 30 = 2/12 = 17%
Long answer (3 marks): 39 (32 is also 3 marks) = 1/12 = 8%
Complete table: 32, 33 = 2/12 = 17%
Multiple choice tick box: 29, 37 = 2/12 = 17%

So far I have identified several texts which I have begun to create reading comprehension questions for. With the ones I have created so far I have stuck quite closely to the questions from the 2019 test, however will probably deviate more to bring in more variety as I create more resources.

Here are the texts I have found so far (texts in bold are texts from 2019 test):

Fiction:

Title
Wordage
Ave. Score
Flesch Reading Ease
Jane Eyre
807
3.242
98.05
The Wrong Train
800
3.54
97.29
Armistice Runner
774
3.634
92.19
Music Box
908
4.414
90.64
Louisiana’s Way Home
803
4.436
89.78
The City of Secret Rivers
789
4.53
90.56
Floodworld
896
4.646
90.54
The Park
636
5.342
88.51

Narrative Non-Fiction:
Title
Wordage
Ave. Score
Flesch Reading Ease
Lightning Mary
495
3.52
94.32
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
908
6.066
79.15


Non-Fiction:
Title
Wordage
Ave. Score
Flesch Reading Ease
Human Digestive System
870
5.574
79.7                              
Pets in Cold Weather
650
5.932
83.59
When You Grow Up
700
6.55
84.75
All About Bumblebees
632
6.87
68.48
Henry 8th Wives
748
8.594
70.77
All About The Circular Economy
814 (+diagrams)
8.754
66.51
Dr Jane Goodall Interview
789
8.784
67.47
What is a Bushfire?
657
9.218
64.46
Tutankhamun
649
9.408
61.42


Most texts have been sourced from Nat Geo Kids and LoveReading4Kids.

A note on the Flesch score: The Flesch score uses the number of syllables and sentence lengths to determine the reading ease of the sample. A Flesch score of 60 is taken to be plain English. A score in the range of 60-70 corresponds to 8th/9th grade English level. A score between 50 and 60 corresponds to a 10th/12th grade level. Below 30 is college graduate level. To give you a feel for what the different levels are like, most states require scores from 40 to 50 for insurance documents.

So, looking at the above non-fiction texts, and converting the US grade system to the UK year group system we find that, according to this simple analysis, All About Bumblebees could potentially be a year 9/10 level text, better suited to 13-15 year-olds. However, the Flesch Reading Ease scores are calculated using only number of words, number of sentences and number of syllables in words.

In order to get another idea of readability I also averaged out the scores from the 5 other readability scores that the analyser provides (Gunning Fog Scale Level, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, SMOG Grade, Dale-Chall Score, Fry Readability Grade Level). None of this is an exact science but I hope it gives a ballpark idea of how difficult the texts should be in order to match the texts in the test.

Interestingly, although the text The Park is shorter, and is in the number one position in the 2019 test, it comes out as being a slightly more difficult text than Music Box. In this instance, we must assume the shortness of the text, combined with simpler questions (a heavier focus on retrieval than inference, for example), makes this an easier part of the test. I think it also shows us that the difficulty of the text based on these scores can vary, therefore the questions we ask must be complex enough (if we are wanting to replicate the difficulty of the test for practice purposes).

When choosing the non-fiction texts I tried to find things that of a similar interest level to the SATS texts - I also wanted to make sure that there was a variety of subject matter and text type. When choosing the fiction texts I tried to find extracts in which something happens - it wasn't just a case of finding a chunk with the right wordage.

With all this in mind, with the texts I currently have, I suggest the following order of use for the resources I intend to create:

Lightning Mary + Human Digestive System = 495 + 870 = 1365 words
Pets in Cold Weather + Jane Eyre = 650 + 807 = 1457 words
When You Grow Up + The Wrong Train = 700 + 800 = 1500 words
Henry 8th Wives + Armistice Runner = 748 + 774 = 1522 words
All About The Circular Economy + Louisiana’s Way Home = 814 + 803 = 1617 words
Dr Jane Goodall Interview + The City of Secret Rivers = 789 + 789 = 1578 words
What is a Bushfire? + Floodworld = 657 + 896 = 1553 words
Tutankhamun + The Girl Who Fell From The Sky = 649 + 908 = 1557 words

A few examples of the texts and questions that can be downloaded on the TES website:

Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12250306

Mark Scheme for Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mark-scheme-for-booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12260913

Booklet 2: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-2-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12257463



Once again, here's the link to download the reading comprehension resources:

Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12250306

Mark Scheme for Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mark-scheme-for-booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12260913

Booklet 2: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-2-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12257463

Please do keep checking back on that link as I will keep adding resources as I create them. Even if you don't need to use them as I intend to, hopefully they can be useful beyond my own setting.

Postscript:

I'd just like to make it clear that this isn't the only thing we will be doing in the run-up to SATS - we will still be reading a class novel, doing Reciprocal Reading, Fluency Reads and so on. We will also be soldiering on with teaching the wider curriculum!

Friday, 20 September 2019

Extract From 'Guardians Of Magic' by Chris Riddell

An extract from Chris Riddell's latest book 'Guardians of Magic', the first book in the new 'The Cloud Horse Chronicles' series:

Chapter 1: The Runcible Spoon

Zam Zephyr woke early and climbed out of bed, careful not to disturb the other apprentice bakers of Bakery No. 9, who were still fast asleep around him.

It was the day before the Grand Duchess of Troutwine's Tea Ball and Zam was too excited and nervous to stay in bed. Today, they would bake for the tea ball tomorrow. All twelve bakeries in the city competed for the honour of making the most delicious treats for the ball. If anything went wrong again, after last year's disaster that put Bakery No. 9 at the bottom of the heap, Zam and his friends would be sent home in disgrace. The thought of his father's disappointed face was too much to bear. No, Zam thought. He would do anything he could to make sure that his baking was perfect.

In the corner of the attic dormitory, his best friend Langdale the goat boy was gently snoring. Beneath the flour-sack blanket, his hooves twitched as he dreamed of chasing blue butterflies through the summer pine forests of the Western Mountains. In the other corner, the two Shellac sisters clutched the comfort shawl they shared. In the cots in between, the gnome boys from the Grey Hills slept soundless and still, five to a blanket, their small grey-tufted heads just visible.

Looking out of the window, Zam could see the golden roofs of the palaces glittering in the early morning sunlight. He gazed up at a billowing cloud and made a wish: 'To bake the best gingerbread ever, he whispered. 'Cloud horse, cloud horse, far from view, make this wish of mine come true.'

Zam took his apron and cap from the hook and crept out of the attic, leaving his friends to their dreams.

Zam ran all the way down the stairs to the basement, opened the door to the flavour library, and stepped inside. This was his favourite place. He loved how precise, tidy and ordered everything was here. He smiled to himself. With everyone asleep upstairs, it was the perfect time of day to practise without any interruptions.

Shelves lined the basement walls from floor to vaulted ceiling. Looking up through the glass paving stone, Zam could see the shadows of feet walking overhead as people passed the doors of Bakery No. 9.

The shelves around him were stacked with jars of all shapes and sizes, each clearly labelled.



Zam selected the jars he needed, opening each one in turn and taking pinches of the powders they contained. Carefully, he placed the spices on little squares of baking parchment, which he folded neatly and placed in different pockets of his apron. Satisfied with his choices, Zam crossed the stone floor to a large chest of drawers set in an alcove. He opened a drawer labelled 'Index of Crusts' and selected one with crinkle-cut edges and memorized the baking instructions written in small lettering on the underside.

‘For a crumbly texture, short, intense mixing and slow bake in quiet oven ... Zam read. The memory of the calm, reassuring sound of the head baker's voice filled his head, as it always did when Zam read his recipes. 'For a more robust biscuit, easeful mixing with broad, generous spoon and a short, fierce bake in busy oven...

‘Broad, generous spoon,' Zam repeated to himself, returning the crinkle-cut crust to the drawer and closing it. He looked up and was about to select one of the wooden spoons, which hung from the hooks in the ceiling, when he trod on something. It was a large spoon he hadn't noticed lying on the flagstone floor.

'That is so careless,' Zam muttered, picking it up. The spoon was broad and long handled, carved from a single piece of wood, by the look of it. Zam turned it over. It was a slotted spoon, full of small holes, with three large ones near the base of the handle.

‘Easeful mixing with broad, generous spoon,' the head baker's voice sounded in Zam's head.

‘Perfect,' he said, wiping the spoon on his apron before slipping it into a pocket.

He selected a favourite battered old book from a shelf: The Art of Baking. “There you are," he said happily and climbed the back stairs to the kitchen.

An hour later, the other apprentice bakers had been woken by the six o'clock gong and were filing in, putting on their caps and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Balthazar Boabab, the head baker of Bakery No. 9, followed them into the kitchen smiling.

'Good morning, apprentices!' he said cheerfully, peering over the top of his half-rim spectacles. “As you know, the twelve bakeries of Troutwine are baking for the Grand Duchess's Tea Ball tomorrow, and we all have our parts to play.W

The head baker smiled again, a little ruefully this time. 'Bakery No. 1 is doing the first tiers. Bakery No. 2 the second and third tiers. Fillings are being produced by bakeries No. 3, 4 and 5. While No. 6, 7 and 8 are baking pastry shells and meringues. - Bakeries No. 10 and 11 are fruitcake and turnovers, and Bakery No. 12 is making floating islands...' Balthazar Boabab took a deep breath. 'This means, once again, Bakery No. 9 is picking up the crumbs…'

The apprentice bakers began to mutter. It wasn't fair. They had tried so hard, but they weren't being given a chance.

'I know, I know ...' said the head baker. 'It's not ideal, but after last year's cake collapse and exploding-eclair incident, Bakery No. 9 has a lot to prove ...'

'But that wasn't our fault,' protested one of the gnomes.

'The last head baker didn't pay off the League of Rats, said Langdale the goat boy, stamping his hooves, "and they ruined everything…'

'Nothing was proved,' said Balthazar gently. 'I am head baker now, and things are different, aren't they?'

Zam and the other apprentices nodded. It was true. Bakery No. 9 had changed since Balthazar Boabab had taken over: no more bullying, tantrums or random punishments. The kitchen was a happy place, and everyone was respected and baking beautifully. It was just as well. A year ago, after the disaster of the last tea ball, Bakery No. 9 had almost been shut down and everyone sent home. If Balthazar hadn't joined them from the fashionable Bakery No. 12, the apprentices would have had no future. None of them wanted to let him down.

"But what about the rats?' asked Langdale anxiously.

‘Let me worry about them,' said the head baker, doing his best to sound cheerful. ‘After all, we have heard nothing from the rats since I arrived.
Meanwhile, you have baking to do. We will be making the crusts as well as gingerbread and some spun-sugar decorations. And, at the tea ball itself –

Balthazar cleared his throat; even he couldn't sound cheerful about the next bit – 'Bakery No. 9 will be doing the washing-up.

The apprentice bakers groaned.

‘Langdale and the Shellac sisters are on shortcrust pastry shells,' Balthazar instructed. 'Gnomes are on glazed piecrust. Zam, are you confident to bake the gingerbread and help me with the spun sugar?'

'Yes, head baker,' said Zam excitedly. “I've already been down in the flavour library ...

‘Baker's pet,' muttered Langdale.

Balthazar gave the goat boy a stern look. But before he could say anything, an unexpected sound silenced them all.

In the shop, the doorbell had rung, and now they could hear the scritch-scratch of claws on the floorboards.

'I smell a rat,' said Langdale.
 


Publishing 19th September 2019 | Hardback, £12.99 | Macmillan Children’s Books | ISBN 9781447277972

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Right Book for the Right Child (Guest Blog Post By Victoria Williamson)

I remember very clearly when my love affair with Jane Austen began.

It was the summer between fifth and sixth year of high school, when I was seventeen. I’d picked up Pride and Prejudice for the first time, but not because I actually wanted to read it. It was a stormy day despite it being July – too wet to walk up to the local library. It was back in the nineties before the internet, Kindle, and instant downloads were available. I wanted to curl up on the sofa to read, but I’d already been through every single book in the house. All that was left unread at the bottom of the bookshelf was a row of slightly faded classics belonging to my mother. I only picked the first one up as there was clearly a book-drought emergency going on, and I was desperate.

The reason I didn’t want to read it, was because I already knew it was going to be totally boring.
Well, I thought I knew it. I’d already ‘read’ the classics you see. When I was ten or eleven, thinking I was very clever, I branched out from my usual diet of fantasy and adventure books, and opened a copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I can’t remember why now – it might have been another rainy day and another book emergency situation, but whatever the reason, I spent several miserable hours ploughing through page after page of unintelligible drivel about Lincoln’s Inn, Chancery, and a bunch of boring characters who said very dull things, before giving up in disgust.


I ‘knew’ from that point on that the classic novels teachers and book critics raved about were the literary equivalent of All Bran instead of Sugar Puffs, and I wasn’t interested in sampling any more.

I didn’t pick up another classic until that rainy day at seventeen, when I sped through Pride and Prejudice in a day and a night, emerging sleepy-eyed but breathless the next day to snatch Emma from the shelf before retreating back to my room to devour it. That summer, after running out of books by Austen, the Brontes and Mrs Gaskell, I tried Bleak House again. And what a difference! Where before I had waded thorough unintelligible passages without gaining any sense of what was going on, I now found an engaging, and often humorous tale of a tangled court system far beyond the ‘red tape’ that everyone was always complaining about in present-day newspapers. Where before I’d only seen dull characters who rambled on forever without saying anything at all, I discovered wit and caricature, and a cast of people I could empathise with.

That was when I realised that there wasn’t anything wrong with the literary classics – it was me who was the problem. Or rather, the mismatch between my reading ability when I was ten, and the understanding I had of the world at that age. I could read all of the words on the page, I just didn’t understand what half of them meant, and I thought the problem was with the story itself.

I was reminded of this little episode in my own reading history recently when I spent the summer in Zambia volunteering with the reading charity The Book Bus. One afternoon we were reading one-to-one with children in a community library, when I met Samuel. Samuel had a reading level far above the other children, and raced through the picture books and short stories they were struggling with. I asked him to pick a more complicated book to read with me for the last ten minutes, and after searching through the two bookshelves that comprised the small one-roomed library, he came back with a Ladybird book published in 1960, called ‘What to Look for in Autumn.’

He did his best with it. He could read all of the words – the descriptions of wood pigeons picking up the seeds to ‘fill their crops’, the harvesters – reapers, cutters and binders – putting the oats into ‘stooks’ and the information about various ‘mushrooms and fungi’, but he didn’t understand anything he was reading. Needless to say I looked out a more appropriate chapter book from the Book Bus’s well-stocked shelves for him to read the following week, but the incident reminded me of the importance of getting relevant books into children’s hands if we’re to ensure they’re not turned off by the reading experience.

This is a problem often encountered in schools when teachers are looking for books to recommend to children. A lot of the time we’re so focused on getting them to read ‘good’ books, the ones we enjoyed as children, or the ones deemed ‘worthy’ by critics, that we forget that reading ability isn’t the only thing we have to take into consideration. We have to match the child’s level of understanding to the texts that we’re recommending – or in the case of that Ladybird book, get rid of outdated books from our libraries entirely!

Children often find making the leap to more challenging books difficult, and comfort read the same books over and over again – sometimes even memorising them in anticipation of being asked to read aloud with an adult. If we’re to help them bridge this gap, we must make sure our recommendations are not only appropriate for their reading level, but match their understanding too, introducing new words and ideas gradually in ways that won’t put them off.

Samuel and I were both lucky – we loved reading enough that one bad experience wasn’t enough to put us off, but other children might not be so fortunate. Let’s ensure all children have the chance to discover the joy of reading, by getting the right books into the hands of the right child.

Victoria Williamson is the author of Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (click here for my review) and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, both published by Floris Books.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Misguided Reading (6 Questions To Ask When Planning A Reading 'Lesson')


How should we teach reading? What do we even mean by 'reading'? Decoding? Comprehension? Both? Is it more than that?

Scarborough's Reading Rope - image from EEF's 'Improving Literacy In KS2'

Scarborough's Reading Rope breaks things down a little more and, if nothing else, serves to show that there is quite a lot going on when one picks up a book to read.

If the above 8 headings (background knowledge; vocabulary; language structures etc) were all the necessary components of being able to read, is it the case that if we teach them all, children would be able to read? If so, how explicitly do they need to be taught? Can some of them be developed unwittingly in a language-rich, book-rich environment? Do teachers and schools really have a chance if a child isn't being brought up in such an environment?

So many questions, and given the range of advice that exists about reading instruction, I'm not sure we have the answers - at least not readily. Indeed, the 'reading wars' have been raging for years (although they focus less on comprehension) - just how exactly should we teach children to be able to read so that they can read words and understand their meaning as a whole?

My personal experience is that this is something that depends heavily on context. During my own career I have taught classes of children who have needed very little reading instruction and vice versa - I am judging this simply on their ability to understand what they have read. A cursory analysis of  the differences between these classes reveals that it appears to me to be the children who have been brought up in a language-rich, book-rich environment who, by the time they are 10 or 11, can read exceptionally well and don't need teaching how to comprehend what they have read. Of course, some children will have been brought up in such an environment and still need help with their reading.

Why does context matter? Well, for the purposes of this blog post, it matters because what one teacher in one classroom in one school somewhere does, might not work for another teacher somewhere else.

For example, a reading lesson consisting of asking children to complete two pages of mixed written comprehension questions might work with children who can already decode, comprehend and encode, but it is questionable as to how much they will have actually learned during that lesson. A lesson like this might have the appearance of being successful in one setting but, share those resources online with a teacher in a different context and they might not experience the same levels of apparent success. The children in the second teacher's class might need teaching some strategies before they can access such an activity.

And what does said activity amount to in reality? Just another test. Weighing the pig won't make it fatter - it's just that weighing it also won't make it any lighter either: if a child can read already, then these kinds of activity might do no harm. But we must be clear: this practice of repeatedly giving children comprehension activities composed of mixed question types is not really teaching children much. However, perhaps the stress, or boredom, of constantly being weighed might start to have negative consequences for the pig: children are potentially put off reading if their main experience of it is repetitive comprehension activities.

So, if weighing the pig doesn't make it fatter, what does? Feeding it. But with what should we feed them with? What should we teach them in order to help them to read words and understand what they mean as a whole?

Is it as simple as Michael Rosen suggests? Is it just a case of sharing books with children and talking about them? I've seen first-hand anecdotal evidence which certainly suggests that 'Children are made readers on the laps of their parents' (Emilie Buchwald). My own children, taught very well to decode using phonics at school, also appear to be excellent comprehenders - they have grown up around family members who read an awful lot, have had models of high quality speech, have partaken in a wide variety of experiences, have broad vocabularies and spend a good deal of their own time reading or being read to. Give them a two-page comprehension activity and they'd probably ace it. However, as already mentioned, this certainly won't be the case for every child brought up in such a way.

But what should schools do when they receive children who haven't had the privilege of a language-rich, book-rich and knowledge-rich upbringing, or those for whom that hasn't quite led to them being excellent readers? Downloading someone else's comprehension sheets and making children spend half an hour doing them isn't going to help them to become better readers. Should we teachers be trying to 'fill the gap' - to do the things that some children experience at home before they've ever even set foot in a school? Or is it too late once they're in school? Does the school-based approach need to be different?

As I said before: so many questions - questions I won't answer in this blog post. But I will leave you with something practical, in the spirit of this blog post, it'll be in the form of some questions to ask yourself when preparing a reading lesson:

Does this activity promote practice of existing skills or is it teaching them new strategies? Sometimes you will want to do some practising, other times you will want to teach them something new - how to ask questions of what they are readin, how to summarise what they have read, for example.

Does this activity help children to understand the text better or does it help them to understand a strategy better? Again, on some days you will just want to do activities that help children to gain a really good understanding of the passage; other days you might want to focus on teaching and practising a strategy such as inference making or visualising what has been described in the text.

Does this activity promote an enjoyment of reading? I tentatively include his question, and provide some clarification: I do not mean Is this activity fun? Reading is nearly always enjoyable when one understands what is being read. A reading task therefore can be enjoyable if it focuses on developing understanding of previously unknown word meanings which then helps he children to understand what hey have read. Anything that makes a child feel a sense of success will probably also be enjoyable for them. If they feel like it's pointless, repetitive or way too difficult, they lose that motivating sense of achievement.

Does the activity require silent completion or dialogic collaboration? I would suggest at the first option is reserved for testing - occasionally necessary; the second option should be key to a reading lesson. Teachers should be reading aloud, modelling their thoughts, demonstrating strategies, explaining word etymology and so on, and children should be joining in with this. Although the act of reading is usually a very private thing, a reading lesson will need to be the opposite if the children are to learn anything in it. A lesson can legitimately feature a set of printed out questions that require a written answer but should never consist of this alone - such activities will need surrounding with plenty of decent talk. And it's that book talk that will make the lesson enjoyable.

Do the children need any new prior knowledge (of the world or of words) before they access this text? Reading sessions can be derailed instantly if the children don't know enough about what they are reading to be able to understand it. Spending some time previously learning new stuff (could be by reading a non-fiction text) will help a following lesson to go much more smoothly - comprehension, including inference-making, relies on prior (or background) knowledge. Of course, some fiction texts (historical novels, for example) can be great ways for children to learn new things about a subject.

Have I (the teacher) read and understood the text and the questions and answers I intend to ask? When I've seen reading lessons go off the boil, it's usually because teachers haven't asked themselves this question during their preparation. Downloading someone else's comprehension sheets can easily lead to teachers not being able to answer the questions themselves and then getting into a right fluster in front of the children. Although a good reading lesson will nearly always follow a tangent or two, it's best to know where you're going in general: pre-empt the questions the children might ask, the words they might not know, and so on. Plan out what you will model, which questions you will ask and definitions you will give.

What other experiences of reading do the children in my class get? The timetabled reading lesson shouldn't be all that children get. They need to discuss vocabulary and read across the curriculum. They will benefit from a physical environment which celebrates reading. Adults who have read the books on the shelves and can discuss them with children will really boost their engagement with books and reading. If a lesson is the only time children experience reading then they may believe that reading only belongs in that slot on the timetable.

Perhaps by asking the above questions during lesson planning sessions, reading lessons might develop a little more focus and direction. By preparing in this way a lesson might end up being more guided than misguided.