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

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The More-ness Of Reading

A blog version of my Reading Rocks 2017 workshop:

The purpose of reading

What is the purpose of reading? Most people would say that we read for enjoyment and to learn. There will be those who think some books are for enjoying, and some are for learning from. Other folk will agree that the act of reading in order to learn something is enjoyable. Some readers will only do it for one reason or the other.

Children’s novels are ostensibly written so that children gain pleasure from them, and from the act of reading. But if we actually considered some of the books that children read, and if we scratch beneath the surface, we will find that children’s books are for so much more than pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, they are for learning.

Reading is for more than enjoyment and learning

Learning about what? What can made up characters in made up places doing made up things be possibly teaching children? Well, when it comes to making my point, quotations abound – from researchers, authors and children who read:

Friday, 18 August 2017

Book Review: 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' by Stewart Foster

This book isn’t about Dan. And it isn’t about Alex. It’s a book about bullying and friendship. Dan is angry about his brother and Alex has OCD and worries about everything; Alex is an easy target for Dan. But their mums are friends and they force them to finish off building Dan’s raft together – neither of them relish this prospect to begin with, but as they work together, things begin to change.

There are often two sides to every story and Stewart Foster tells both equally well in ‘All The Things That Could Go Wrong.’ Over 61 short chapters Dan and Alex take it in turns to tell the story from their perspective giving the reader an inside track into the mind of both a child with OCD and a child who is channelling their feelings about their own difficulties into bullying someone else. Children can often be very black and white about bullying - this book will help teachers and parents explore with children the possible causes of a bully’s behaviour. It could also encourage children who are expressing their emotions in a negative way to talk to someone about how they are feeling.

The tension between the two boys is held throughout the book, making for an exciting read – children and adults alike will not want to put this book down as they end up rooting both for Dan and Alex. The book would be great to read aloud to the class but individual chapters could be used equally well to link to other texts that focus on similar themes (such as ‘Wonder’ by RJ Palacio and ‘The Goldfish Boy’ by Lisa Thompson) – particularly the ones which give an insight into why Dan bullies Alex.

A thoroughly enjoyable read for readers aged 9-13 who love to read exciting stories about real life issues.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Going Deeper With Dahl

Recent research shows that many teachers have an over-dependency on Dahl. Indeed, his books are excellent so he is certainly a best-selling children's author, and one who everyone is aware of: it's no surprise that he continues to be well-loved and well-read. And whilst I would be the first to advocate promoting a wider range of authors and books, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We often read Dahl books with young children (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first 'proper' book I remember reading to myself at the age of 7) because the plot lines are easy to follow, the characters are wild and wacky and the stories are exciting and funny.

So, when reading with younger children, we can easily skip over the more horrific details and focus on the heart-warming stories and crazy words. But it is in these details that we have the opportunity to explore so much more: sadness, tolerance, difference, poverty, neglect, bullying, abuse, evil, animal cruelty, safety, unrequited love - all of these in his most-popular children's titles without touching his lesser-known books, or his publications for adults.

With this in mind, anyone who is familiar with Dahl would be able to mentally flick through their library of his books and identify how the stories could be used to help children understand the world and themselves a little better - especially with those trickier issues that we don't always know how to broach with children.

Five ways to go deeper with Dahl:


I've always been fascinated with the fact that so many stories for children are about children with no parents (nearly all Disney films, for example). The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG all fall into this category. Why do story tellers do this? Do young readers fantasise about having adventures, and if so, do they get the impression they can only have them if parents are out of the picture? That would certainly be an interesting discussion to have with children. These books all provide great opportunities to discuss how many children all over the world are not brought up in a traditional family unit - an opportunity for our young people to empathise with others.


Even where parents are present, as is the case in Matilda, relationships might not always be as they should be. Reading as an adult it is quite shocking how the Wormwoods treat their daughter, and indeed how the Trunchbull treats Miss Honey and the children in her school. Work here could go beyond the identification of good and bad characters to discuss right and wrong, looking at human rights for children and what is and isn't safe for children to be exposed to. Opportunities to study intertextuality are available here too: James' aunts’ treatment of him could be studied alongside.


Poverty is a recurring theme too - most prevalent in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl paints a bleak picture of Charlie's family's lack of means, and again, this can be used as a starter point to discuss how many people in the world, including in our own country, our own towns, are less fortunate than ourselves. Another opportunity to link texts lies here with the depiction of Miss Honey's simple lifestyle in Matilda. In both stories we actually see the nicest characters being the poorest - perhaps a good debate topic can be derived here: Is it better to be rich and unkind, or poor and kind? Or something along those lines to help children to assess what the most important things in life are.

Difference and Diversity

What Dahl book doesn't deal with difference in some shape or form? The BFG's a friendly, vegetarian giant in a world full of vicious, human-eating brutes, and when he's not in giant country he's still a giant, making him very different to the humans he meets. Willy Wonka is quite something else, as are his Oompa Loompas, not to mention how different each one of the children are. Matilda has special powers. Danny lives in a caravan and poaches pheasants. The bugs inside the peach are a very diverse bunch. It might seem contrived to use these characters to explore difference and diversity but actually, to children, these things matter, and make sense - in the context of these stories they will be able to explore ideas that they would find difficult to begin to understand from real-world examples.

Consequences of Choices

Finally, Dahl's books provide fertile ground for discussing choices and how consequences can affect us. Again, in the safe space of fiction children can discuss the negative effects of meddling with prescription drugs (George's Marvellous Medicine), the possible outcomes of contravening safety rules and not listening to adults (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or the potential results of being unkind (The Twits). Whilst discussing the actual events of the books (which are quite ridiculous), it would be easy enough to open up more general discussions that relate more to real-life scenarios that children might encounter.

Next time you pick up a Dahl book, think twice before you pass over it and decide to use something else. Consider the themes mentioned above; even if you don't use the whole book (many children are familiar with the stories anyway), consider how you might link a Dahl novel to another story you are reading. And next time you read Roald Dahl remember that there are opportunities to go deep with the content - perhaps you'll find further ways to get children thinking and empathising as they read the magical and wonderful adventures of Dahl's colourful characters.

And if you're a Roald Dahl fan, look out for ReadingWise's free Roald Dahl pack in July. It includes extracts from The Witches and George’s Marvellous Medicine and will focus on teaching 12 ‘mini-skills’ comprehension strategies allowing the children to explore the extracts and make meaning – great for struggling readers. It also includes a SATs-style ‘challenge test’ for each extract. This will be followed by an available-to-buy pack including extracts from a further eight Roald Dahl stories.

Monday, 12 June 2017

6 Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

"Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is an empathy engine." - Chris Riddell

If our wonderful former children's laureate is right (he is), every good book can help it's reader to understand and share the feelings of another because every good book introduces us to new and different characters. Whenever a reader immerses themselves in a new world, fictional or firmly based in reality, they open themselves up to the thoughts, feelings and ideas of another. For children, whose life experiences are limited by their years, books are the portal to limitless experiences that their short lives couldn't realistically provide.

And that's why EmpathyLab, a new organisation with a mission to use stories to help us understand each other better, have set up Empathy Day on June 13th. As well as encouraging everyone to share their favourite books which develop empathy with the hashtag #ReadForEmpathy they will be publishing their Read for Empathy guide for 4-11 year-olds - a selection of 21 books which help to build children's empathy.

In the wake of events such as the London Bridge and Manchester Arena attacks and their surrounding media attention, children need safe spaces to explore the issues they are faced with - that safe space can be found within the pages of a book.

With that in mind I'd like to share with you 6 children's novels that, as they feel empathy for book characters, will develop children's empathy for people in real life:

The Unforgotten Coat - Frank Cottrell Boyce

As featured in the Read for Empathy guide, this simple but wonderful story will leave you questioning where the line between reality and imagination lies. The reader joins Julie as she remembers how, as a year 6 child, she was brought into the fascinating world of two Mongolian brothers seeking refuge in Liverpool. The journal-like presentation and its Polaroid pictures bring the story squarely into the realms of a 10-year-old and provide children with the chance to understand from a child's perspective what it's like to be on the run from the authorities.

Oranges in No Man's Land - Elizabeth Laird

Set in Lebanon, this short novel introduces children to the life of an orphaned girl who, whilst in charge of her siblings and grandmother, navigates the bombed-out streets of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The horrors of being a child in a war-torn country are laid bare as Ayesha attempts to cross no-man's-land into enemy territory to find a doctor. At a time when children may very well be living alongside those displaced by war it is so important that books like this exist to help children understand what it is so many are fleeing. Elizabeth Laird's 'Welcome to Nowhere' features on the EmpathyLab Read for Empathy guide.

The Goldfish Boy - Lisa Thompson

One of my favourite books this year, The Goldfish Boy, is also featured in the Read for Empathy guide. Set in a typical street in a typical English town is this mystery thriller for kids. It features no refugees, foreign countries or racism but it does feature a boy house-bound by his obsessive compulsive disorder. Whilst in the grips of a brilliantly-told whodunnit, children will gain a unique insight into the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness. Read my full review here.

My Dad's A Birdman - David Almond

My 7-year-old daughter loved this short book by Skelling author David Almond. It's a whacky tale describing a father-daughter relationship which is attempting to cope with the loss of a wife/mother. I suspect adults and children will read into this very differently but it is a great starting point for helping children to think outside of the box when it comes to dealing with grief and loss. The fact that this is also a very funny story is testament to Almond's ability to perfectly walk the fine line between contrasting emotions.

Tall Story - Candy Gourlay

This easy-to-read story for year 6 - 8 children tells the tale of how a half-brother and sister meet for the first time, and how they learn to love one another despite their differences. Teenagers Andi and Bernardo meet for the first time when Bernardo, who at 8 feet tall is affected by gigantism, travels from the Philippines to come to live in London with his mum. The story weaves folk tales of giants into a story of modern life in two very different parts of the world and would be a perfect accompaniment to RJ Palacio's 'Wonder'.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away - John Boyne

Blurring the boundaries between fairy tales and real life, John Boyne, author of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', invites his reader to explore the escapist world of a boy struggling to come to terms with (spoiler alert) what turns out to be his mother's terminal illness. Written from an innocent point of view the adult reader will understand more than a child, yet it is entirely accessible to children at their own level. For those who long to use Patrick Ness' 'A Monster Calls' in the primary classroom but feel it is too grown up, this is the book you are waiting for.

I've chosen my #ReadForEmpathy books - what would yours be? Please share on social media using the hashtag.

To find out more about EmpathyLab's experimental work in primary schools, go to:

And remember:

“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Book Review: 'Cogheart' by Peter Bunzl

I must admit that I was skeptical about reading 'Cogheart' in the way that I'm skeptical about most popular things. That attitude probably comes from the regular confusion I feel when I hear the music that gets into the charts - how can so many people be so wrong?

However, I laid aside my misgivings, trusted the scores of teachers (on Twitter) who actually bother to read children's books and picked up a copy of Peter Bunzl's debut effort.

With its oh-so-en-vogue strong female lead (Lily will be held up as a role-model for my three girls) this rip-roaring adventure travels through a steam-powered, alternative-history Victorian landscape which is largely signified by the plethora of airships and steam-powered vehicles. Oh and the automatons.

And it's the book's wonderful 'mechanicals' and 'mechanimals' who steal the show. They are clockwork machines, robots essentially, who have been created largely to perform menial tasks - cook, butler, chauffeur and so on. Malkin, a mechanical fox and one of the book's most integral characters, is a little different - he was created as a companion. 

As a teacher I'm always on the look-out for books with the potential to provoke discussion and exploration of contemporary issues. In 'Cogheart' it's the relationship between humans and mechanicals that provides the most scope for developing empathy in children. The book provides a safe space to discuss why people use difference as an excuse for hatred. The fact that the book portrays the automatons to display more feelings than some of the human characters leaves the reader thinkingthat the machines really should be treated equally - children would enjoy debating this issue, and without belittling issues such as slavery, racism, sexism and so on, they could easily be introduced to the arguments and ideas behind the need for equality.

Without spoiling the story too much there are also multiple opportunities to explore moral dilemmas as the characters have to make decisions where neither option is particularly inviting.

Key stage 2 children will love the pacy action and the danger at every turn but you might want to be careful who you recommend it to - it deals a lot with death of family members. All in all, 'Cogheart' is a brilliant story of good triumphing over the considerably stronger evil of some truly fearsome criminals and is a portrait painted especially for children of how greed and desire corrupts. Definitely worth a read - I'm glad I followed the crowd!