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

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Reading For Displeasure: 13 Books To Take Children Out Of Their Comfort Zone


Reading for pleasure is all the rage in schools, but how often do we, and the children we teach, read for displeasure? Or, perhaps more accurately, for discomfort?

Ask any number of readers what they like about reading and there will be plenty of replies on the theme of escapism. Internet memes carry lines such as "Books: a cosy doorway to paradise".

Actually, for many, it should be that books are a doorway out of a cosy paradise.

Click here for more, including 13 recommendations of books for a range of ages which will take children out of their comfort zone and into the shoes of others: https://www.tes.com/news/13-books-take-primary-pupils-out-their-comfort-zone

Note: This article does not cover the whole range of uncomfortable life situations that people find themselves in. I have focused in this article on issues such as loss (of a loved one, of a sense of safety, of a sense of community) as well as racism. It is by no means a definitive list. I would suggest that there could be plenty more articles submitted to the TES highlighting books that will help children to understand other life circumstances.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Book Review: 'The Children of Castle Rock' by Natasha Farrant

‘The Children of Castle Rock’ is a daring new adventure story in the tradition of all good boarding school novels. Lovers of Harry Potter, Malory Towers and The Worst Witch will immediately find something in this new story that they identify with. The boarding school setting allows for the all-important parentlessness that so often sets up the protagonists of children’s books to have rip-roaring escapades that their parents would never allow. Farrant brings Famous Five-style adventure right up to date with mobile phones and various other trappings of modern life.

Except in Natasha Farrant’s latest book it is some mysterious communication from Alice’s largely-absent dad that prompts her and her friends to abscond from school to embark on a crazy adventure across remote areas of Scotland. The fact that the Stormy Loch’s behaviour management ethos doesn’t follow the normal strictness found in other fictional schools makes matters worse… or better… depending on which way you look at it.

The main theme of this book really is children’s relationships with adults: Alice’s mum has died, her dad is pretty useless, and she’s actually closest to her Auntie, the aptly named Patience. Fergus’ parents have split up and are not amicable and Jesse lives in the shadow of his older brothers and is desperate initially to win his parents’ favour with his violin playing. The teachers at the school are a rag tag bunch headed up by the Major who is quirky, to say the least – a rather progressive ex-army man who challenges all stereotypes of head teachers in children’s fiction. The book crescendos with some unexpected outcomes where children’s relationships to adults are concerned – I won’t spoil it, but this isn’t your typical children’s book ending.

The book has a very strong narrator presence making it unlike any other children’s book I’ve read. Farrant often hints at things are to come, referencing future parts of the story that are relevant to events that are happening at the point of narration. The narration is where the playfulness of this story comes leaving the characters largely to get on with the serious business of embarking on their quest to subvert the orienteering challenge in order to transport a secret package to a rendezvous with Barney, Alice’s shady father. Along the way the children experience the joys of wild swimming, fishing and camping, torrential rain and storms, breaking and entering, food poisoning and being chased by proper baddies, not to mention the highs and lows of pre-teen friendship.

The book is aimed fairly and squarely at children of a similar age to the children in the book – upper key stage two and lower key stage three children will love this story. There are some starred out expletives which give it a little edge, and leave little to the imagination – something to consider when using the book in school or recommending it to children. With a diverse set of characters, themes that are relevant to the lives of many children and a main character who loves writing, there is also definite scope for this being used in the classroom as a stimulus for discussion. A recommended read.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Book Review: 'Make Me Awesome' by Ben Davis

In this hilarious send up of self-help guides and larger-than-life celebrity life coaches Ben Davis introduces Freddie, gamer and son of a failed antiques dealer, and Chuck Willard, 'inspirer and giver of dreams'.

Things aren’t going too well for Freddie Smallhouse. His dad left his successful job to set up his own business which failed and now they’re living at Uncle Barry’s but he’s about to kick them out. Freddie enrols on Chuck’s Complete Road To Awesomeness programme and sets about trying to make the family’s fortune. One failure after another doesn’t perturb our hero, not when he’s got Chuck’s AWESOME tips and advice to hand.

In this laugh-out-loud tall tale Freddie learns about friendship, integrity and true success as he muddles his way through his response to his dad’s despondency. Amongst the hilarity (the headteacher is called Mr. Bümfacé – pronounced ‘Boomfachay’) there’s a really touching story of how a not-quite-yet teenager might try crazy things in an attempt to deal with a difficult home situation.

‘Make Me Awesome’ is an easy read yet the age of the protagonist (he’s at secondary school), and a couple of the jokes (reference to the rude channels on TV and perverts, for example), mean that this would be really suitable for reluctant KS3 readers as well as KS2 children. With better, slightly more sophisticated jokes than a David Walliams and more plausibility than a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, ‘Make Me Awesome’ will go down very well with those children looking for a funny, quick read.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Book Review: 'The End of the Sky' by Sandi Toksvig


It's no secret that one of my favourite books for children is 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig, so when her agent offered to send me a copy for every one of my workshop delegates at Reading Rocks I could hardly say no. In fact, I also asked for an extra copy so I could read it myself.

'The End of the Sky' picks up on many of the themes that Hitler's Canary covered, albeit in a completely different historical setting. The story tells of a family fleeing Ireland in the 1800s, hoping to make a new life on the west coast of America. The story chronicles the terrible journey that many of the pioneers would have made on the Oregon trail and doesn't shy away from the loss and sadness that was experienced by them.

As I read I kept reaching for Google to find out more about the book's contents: Choctaw 'Indians' sent foreign aid to Ireland; the John Bull was a steam engine made in England and shipped in pieces to the US without any instructions as to how to put them together; the Allegheny Portage Railroad really did carry canal boats up and over the mountains. This book really is an education, especially for children living in the UK who will have very little idea about the journeys people made as they looked for a new life.

The book's main theme is family, and how others might become part of a family. It deals with loyalty, loss, resilience, racism and probably must crucially, feminism. The female characters really shine in this book, but never in a forced way - it just celebrates a variety of achievements and abilities from holding a family together to leading a whole wagon train safely across a desert, to preventing a buffalo stampede to cooking delicious food. Toksvig's gift lies in highlighting and exploring current issues in an accessible and non-threatening way, as well as providing plenty of opportunities for her readers to learn historical facts.

The book is a little on the long side and unevenly paced: at times the story seems to be a little too drawn out (perhaps deliberately as it does give a sense of the journey west taking a long time) and at other points, particularly towards the end, the book feels rushed. When compared to 'Hitler's Canary', 'The End of the Sky' is not as well written and has a more sombre mood overall - there are fewer light, hopeful moments which help the reader to keep going.

If you're looking for a book with a strong female lead for upper key stage 2 readers then this would be a worthy addition to a growing selection of books in that category - it has the potential to change the perceptions of both boys and girls when it comes to gender stereotypes. It also provides a fascinating insight into a significant part of UK and US history, times and events which are generally ignored by the UK primary curriculum. Overall, 'The End of the Sky' is worth a read, but prioritise 'Hitler's Canary' if you've never read any of Sandi Toksvig's books for children.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Independent Reading With My Children

I often try to catch my children unawares in order to film them carrying out their day-to-day activities without the inevitable showiness that occurs once they know the camera's on them. This holiday we have instituted 'reading time' before bed - a perfect opportunity to sneak up on the children and catch them going about their business in a natural way. Before filming this I had checked that all three girls were busy reading on their beds, but when I actually came to video them, other things happened:


First of all, my eldest (who has just turned 7 and will be entering year 3 in September), got up as soon as I entered the room. But this was not because I had come in, it was because the Mr. Men book she was reading (Mr. Mischief) had told her to get up and look out of the window! She engaging with the text so much that it prompted her to respond physically. As I had intended to film them without their knowing, I didn't interact verbally with her when she explained what she was doing - I later broke this vow of silence.

Then, as I entered the room of the younger two children, the youngest (aged 3, about to begin a second year in Nursery) noticed me and broke off from her activity. Prior to my arrival she had been reading the very well known 'The Tiger Who Came To Tea' by Judith Kerr. For her, reading means orally retelling the story - this is a book she is very familiar with. She proceeds to exhibit that showy behaviour I mentioned before by showing the camera the book she had been engrossed in - again, I elect not to respond verbally (although I can assure you, I communicate very well with my face, and I did so at this time).

Upon my entrance, my middle daughter (aged 5, and due to start in Year 1) was in the process of climbing from the top bunk to get a new book, having just finished one (which she had thrown on the floor - some work needed on the treatment of books!). She immediately requested that I take a picture of her - that showiness again - but fairly readily engaged in a brief conversation about what she was doing (my plan to surreptitiously film them now aborted, I elected to speak to her). Despite forgetting which book she'd just read (laziness I think - she couldn't be bothered to even try to remember) she was able, once prompted, to talk about why she liked the book she'd just read - 'Mr. Seahorse' by Eric Carle. Normally, this would have evolved into a longer conversation, but I was conscious both of the video length, and her desire to get on and read another book.

This little episode has had me reflecting on the reading habits of my children, and what they might teach us about young children and reading in general. Let's take each of my daughters in turn:

Daughter #1 (aged 7): This holiday she has read a real range of books. Not averse to longer 'chapter books' (she has read things like Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley, Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books, Dick King Smith's Sophie books and some of the Flat Stanley series by Jeff Brown, amongst others) she has actually spent more time reading shorter picture books and non-fiction books. She has particularly liked the Kingfisher 'I Wonder Why' books, 'What I Believe' by Alan Brown and Andrew Langley (published by Ted Smart and well known by primary teachers) and 'The Usborne Children's Encyclopedia'. This thirst for general knowledge does not surprise me - whilst watching an episode of Blue Planet together (watching nature documentaries is one of our daddy/daughters activities) she already knew lots about the featured animals as she had 'read about them in a book'. She has also partaken enthusiastically in a Mr. Men/Little Miss craze (as seen in the video) that started with a charity shop haul of Roger Hargreaves' comical little books.
  • It is generally thought that children, particularly girls, are less likely to read non-fiction texts - perhaps this is untrue, and perhaps we need to ensure they have better access to these books, and that we look for opportunities to encourage the reading of non-fiction books when the desire is there?
  • We should allow children to follow their preferences when it comes to reading at home - they don't always have to be engaging in reading long books bit by bit because other types of reading can be just as valuable.
Daughter #2 (aged 5): This time last year she was probably annoyed that she couldn't yet read sufficiently enough to read alone - now she can read almost anything without hesitation, and always with excellent intonation - a big thank you to her excellent reception teacher! Once she starts reading, or being read to, she feasts on books, but she doesn't always elect to read at times when she could. However, once she gets started (usually at bedtime) it is very hard to get her to stop! She has especially enjoyed the Mr. Men and Little Miss books (these have been a boon on car journeys as we can stuff tons of them in the pouch on the back of the car seats) and they have brought her independent reading freedom. She has also particularly liked reading family favourite picture books, as well as some new ones such as 'Oi Dog!' as she really enjoys rhyming texts and poetry, and often learns large sections by heart - 'Toddle Waddle' by Julia Donaldson was one of the first books she could 'read' by memorising it. Most of her choices this summer have been fiction books, unlike my eldest daughter.
  • Having just observed Daughter #2 reading over her breakfast, I am prompted to ponder how we can encourage children to read of their own accord - I might've been tempted to stop her reading whilst trying to eat a bowl of cereal, but perhaps it is worth allowing her to just get on and read when she wants to? Just as we allow children to follow their preferences when it comes to book choice, maybe we need to think more about how we can allow children to read when and where they want.
  • For younger children it is worth having a good idea of the types of text they enjoy - this helps with borrowing and buying new books for them. The question is, can this knowledge help us to search out books from other genres that might appeal?
Daughter #3 (aged 3): After a year in nursery she can read and spell CVC words, and some CCVC words with initial blends such as 'sh'. As mentioned before, her mode of reading is orally retelling stories that she knows well - her favourite for this during the holidays has definitely been perennial favourite 'The Hungry Little Caterpillar' by Eric Carle. Although she does like the occasional new book, she is much more likely to choose a book that is well known to her, for example, during a week away, she wanted 'Zog' by Julia Donaldson to be read to her on three separate occasions (we acquiesced). Most of the Julia Donaldson books that we own fall into this category of 'books to read and read again' - daughter #3 is also very fond of rhyming, as are most children of her age.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition - even if it gets a bit monotonous as an adult! Daughter #3 can 'read' by telling the stories in her own words, using the pictures to guide her - this is a real skill and is not to be looked down on! She can do this because she returns again and again, both with adults and on her own, to high quality and age-appropriate texts. An EYFS classroom should reflect this - it may only need a handful of carefully curated books with a focus on high quality not quantity.
Although my children have been reading for pleasure this holiday, they have no doubt learned things - new words, new facts, new stories, new ideas - and they've certainly given me some food for thought. I wonder, if you're a parent, have you made any observations of your children reading that have got you thinking about how you teach and encourage reading?

And to finish, my youngest daughter orally retelling 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar':

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, 17 May 2017

From The @TES Blog: Why Every Primary School Needs To Embrace Non-Fiction

Everyone has their favourite children’s book. And it is almost always a work of fiction. While children do read a lot of non-fiction, it is not venerated in the same way as the novels and picturebooks beloved to us all.

Unfortunately, this can make non-fiction seem somehow less important and some can even question its place in the primary classroom.

We need to fight this denigration of the genre: non-fiction books are essential tools in the primary classroom. Here is why:

Click here to read on over on the TES blog: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/six-reasons-why-every-primary-school-needs-embrace-non-fiction

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Book Review: 'It Ain't So Awful, Falafel' by Firoozeh Dumas

Firoozeh Dumas is an Iranian author - right away you have a reason to be using this book, 'It Ain't So Awful, Falafel', in your classroom; the majority of us teachers teach very few texts by non-white authors. As Darren Chetty wrote 'diversity should start at story time'.

And whilst the focus of this laugh-a-page, partly-biographical novel is difference, it serves better to highlight the differences in how people treat those who appear to be different. In many ways the book's protagonist 'Cindy' (real name Zomorod) is no different to the group of friends she builds after she moves to California, yet she experiences varying degrees of treatment from other key characters in the book. It's useful in the classroom to have both positive and negative examples of how others should be treated - this funny and charming story has both.

Once the scene is set the story revolves around the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the 1970s - we see how events abroad cause people to stigmatise and behave  negatively towards those who they perceive to be linked to things happening in far-off places. The story is a safe place to start classroom discussions about stereotyping, ignorance and critical thinking.

The other main theme of the book is relationships (what book isn't about relationships at its core?); what's striking is that despite her embarrassment at times, Cindy clearly loves and respects her parents - positive parent-child relationships are not always portrayed in children's literature. 'It Ain't So Awful, Falafal' also shines a spotlight on close friendship groups (Cindy's contains a nominal Christian and a Jew), relationships between children and their friends' parents and it has a literal look at the concept of 'love thy neighbour'. All of this provides further opportunities to discuss the treatment of others, especially in a plurality of differing relationships.

For a light-hearted springboard for exploring some heavy subjects, an upper key stage 2 teacher couldn't go far wrong by introducing 'It Ain't So Awful, Falafel' to their classroom. With super-short chapters this is the sort of book equally as perfect as an end-of-day read aloud as it would be in a more formal reading lesson. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

On the TES Blog: The 9 Essential Components of a KS2 Reading Scheme

After the shock results of the key stage 2 reading test last year, there is barely a primary school in the country that hasn't prioritised reading this year. There are many creative ways of encouraging not only a love of reading, but a high level of competence in the subject. You'll have your own, of course, but here’s a reminder of some of the basics that a good reading scheme can’t do without.

To read the 9 essential components head over to the TES blog:

Monday, 13 March 2017

Book Review: 'The Night Spinner' by Abi Elphinstone

Ask a child what 'The Night Spinner' by Abi Elphinstone is about and they will speak of magic and monsters, adventure and action. But those are just plot features. Beneath all that, this is a book about far more.

In actual fact, this book is about loyalty, kindness, bravery, resilience - all those things we're attempting to teach our children through well-intentioned school display boards and PSHCE lessons. Where these attempts might not have long-term impact, a book like this, in the right hands, really could.

Aimed at Key Stage Two children, this rip-roaring adventure, where dull moments are banished, is the perfect vehicle for many-a lesson on those personality traits that we all agree are essential for our children to possess. As an adult, it's difficult to see where the reality of the story ends and metaphor begins: one of the book's main villains is a dead ringer for depression as she steadily drains the lead character, Molly, of all hope, leaving her feeling increasingly unable to go on with her quest. Throughout the book Molly, aided by a colourful array of characters, learns how better to deal with her feelings of self-doubt and becomes a case study in how to overcome adversity through perseverance. There is so much for children to learn about themselves as the thrilling story unfolds.

It's becoming increasingly popular for a female protagonist to be associated with action and adventure stories but Abi Elphinstone's trilogy is a welcome addition to the growing canon of books fronted by strong female leads. The fact that Molly Pecksniff - who doesn't flinch at jumping from a bridge onto a moving train with her wildcat - is a girl, certainly does not make this a book for girls. Whilst it is important that girls have such a positive role model, its also crucial that boys are presented with a character who really challenges gender stereotypes. Books like this have the power to change minds and shape thinking.

For all of this, 'The Night Spinner' and its two preceding volumes thoroughly deserve a prominent place on the shelves of our libraries and schools. Not that they will stay on the shelf for long!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy

There is no better place to tackle issues traditionally covered in PSHCE lessons than in a reading session. I don’t mean just by reading non-fiction texts about the issues, I mean by reading fiction. Consider these two quotes from two generations of British authors:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” – George Eliot

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

Many-a keen reader would identify with what both Eliot and Blackman said. In fact, when asked, many would admit that the main purpose of their reading is escapism – being given a window into another world where they can almost ‘be’ someone else for a while. I remember how emotionally attached my wife became to the characters in ‘A Time Travellers Wife’ – she thought about them, and cried about them, for weeks afterwards, often returning to the book to re-read excerpts. Those of us who love to read also love experiencing that feeling of empathy, as we learn about the lives of others, whether they are lives we’d love to live or not.

And it’s those lives that we’d not love to live that it is most important that we read about. Especially with children. C.S. Lewis said:

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Many of our children will come up against these cruel enemies and so need to know how to respond, but we also need to protect them from becoming those cruel enemies. To extend the idea behind that quote: since it is so likely that children will meet those who live life differently to themselves, let them at least have heard of how to treat those people when they do meet them. Fiction is a perfect gateway into the worlds of others who live life differently.

If you are a reader of any quantity of children’s books, titles will immediately spring to mind which have the potential to evoke empathy in children. Indeed, many children’s writers specifically aim for this, just as George Eliot did in her time. Two such books spring to my mind immediately: ‘Wonder’ by R. J. Palacio and ‘Hitler’s Canary’ by Sandi Toksvig, which, as readers of this blog will already know, I’ve used in my year 6 whole class reading sessions this year. Both books help children to be “better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them”.

‘Wonder’ was written, according to Wikipedia, “after an incident where [Palacio] and her three-year-old son were waiting in line to buy ice cream. Her son noticed a girl with facial birth defects. Fearing he would react badly, Palacio attempted to remove her son from the situation so as not to upset the girl or her family but ended up worsening the situation. Natalie Merchant's song "Wonder" made her realize that the incident could teach society a valuable lesson.” ‘Wonder’ is written precisely to challenge the reader’s thinking, to present them with a different viewpoint to their own and to provide them with frame of reference to access when they experience people who differ to them in real life.

And it does just that from my experience. The children in my class this year responded incredibly to the book. Not only did they think that it was ‘the best book ever’, but they articulated clearly how the book, and the discussions we had surrounding it, had helped them to understand better those with disabilities. It’s hard to quantify but I’m also sure it has made them kinder to one another too.

‘Hitler’s Canary’ is about the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War Two and the resulting rescue of the majority of Denmark’s Jewish population. Obviously, it explores racism through its characters and plot, but it also challenges attitudes towards differences in general. At one point early on in the novel the mother character says, “In this house we respect and cherish differences. Let me tell you that the very atrocities you are worrying about occur when people are obsessed by their differences.” This is in reply to comments about a homosexual character in the book.

The linking of non-fiction texts to our reading of ‘Hitler’s Canary’ has enabled children to engage more with the novel than the group of children to whom I read it last year. An almost unexpected effect of this increased engagement is the depth of thinking that children have displayed. During a recent lesson, prompted by the children’s thoughts, we discussed many related issues which proved that the text was causing children to draw parallels to real-life issues. These parallels were only drawn because of the heightened understanding of how others feel; it showed that the children understood not only how historical and fictional characters felt but how those same feelings might be felt by real people in real and current situations.

We discussed the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict, including its origins and its complexities and I had the opportunity to share my wife’s experience of a press trip which allowed her to speak with officials on both sides of the conflict. They had their own ideas about how the conflict could be resolved and the non-fiction text we had studied about Danish underground resistance groups (some of which were started by young people) provided me with fertile ground to encourage them that one day they could make a difference in situations like this – this led to an exploration of my role as a teacher and how I hope to make a difference in my work. Children began to show empathy not only for the characters in the book but also for a range of real people who have lived or who are living.

Our reading material also allowed me to challenge attitudes towards the Jewish people. One child in particular held some negative views about Jews which he revealed he had gained from internet searches. Without the discussion around both the book and the supporting non-fiction texts I would have been unaware and thus unable to challenge the views. In addition to this I was also able to advise on safe and sensible use of the internet as a result of this debate. As well as teaching empathy a novel can highlight where there is a lack of empathy, thus being an important assessment tool.

These conversations have also provided me with ideas for further reading content. It is clear that I can use future reading sessions to read around anti-Semitism with a view to dispelling myths and increasing understanding. I will also use texts to continue to encourage children that they can make a difference in society. It has also been made evident that the children have some awareness and understanding of current issues and that some of them like to have the forum to discuss them – an increase in the use of reading materials related to world affairs would seem to be a way to further engage them in reading and discussion. So, the added bonus of reading for empathy is that it can provide the teacher with a clear path forwards, making imminent text choice easier.

So when selecting texts (fiction or non-fiction) choose wisely; not just based on reading ability, links to topic, enjoyability and so on, but also on the issues that are covered in the texts. Try to find texts which will promote discussion about social, moral and cultural issues and the values that we’d like our children to hold. In doing this reading sessions become multi-purpose, providing an arena for exploration which does not appear forced but becomes a natural part of classroom life, thus embedding and interweaving your approach to education hot potatoes such as British Values and the Prevent strategy. Carefully-chosen fiction really does have the power to change hearts, minds, lives and the future.

I’ll leave you with one more quote:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” —Katherine Patterson, author of Bridge to Terebithia
Click here for a great list of books which promote kindness, compassion and empathy from Book Trust
Click here to visit the Empathy Lab UK website to find out more about the creative power of words to build empathy, and the power of empathy to make the world a better place
Click here to visit the Empathy Library website, "a digital treasure house to share inspiring books and films to spark a global empathy revolution"
Click here for CLPE's Celebrating Kindness booklist

Additional Reading for the science behind all this:

Good News for Bookworms: Reading Novels Boosts Your Empathy
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, Study Finds
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (sign up for a free account to access this journal article by psychologists and researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano)

More great quotes from authors about reading and empathy:

"In reading, you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals." - Neil Gaiman


Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Scaffolding Inference (Quick Reference Guide)

Inference skills in the new cognitive domains are summarised as:

2d: make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text

Penny Slater's helpful article 'Reading Re-envisaged' explores the links between vocabulary knowledge and inference skills. Her conceptual model (pictured left) represents how inference skills rely on good knowledge and understanding of vocabulary. In her own words:

"...the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first."

So, another cognitive domain comes into play, one which children must be confident with if they are going to be able to make inferences:

2a: give / explain the meaning of words in context

This approach also explore the possibility that development of inference skills could be supported through the use of retrieval skills.

2b: retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction

The Theory

The theory that I have been trialing is that inference skills can be taught by first studying the vocabulary used and then retrieving relevant information before going on to make inferences about a text. If inference is 'a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning' then first a reader must be able to identify where the evidence is (retrieval) and before that the reader needs to understand the words used to present the evidence. In the model I propose (see right) the understanding of vocabulary is the foundation on which information retrieval is built, which in turn provides the support for making inferences.

The Practice


1. Decide on an inference question (2d); the question stems based on the 2016 KS2 reading test made available by Herts for Learning on their blog are really useful for this.
2. Begin to work backwards - work out where in the text the children need to go to locate useful evidence and ask a suitable retrieval question (2b).
3. Continue to work backwards - which words or phrases do the children need to understand in order to be able to understand the evidence then ask a careful vocabulary question (2a).
4. Once this process is complete (it may take a while at first), check that the 2a and 2b questions will adequately lead the children into answering the 2d question. If not, go back and tweak the questions.

For a more in-depth exploration of this technique, including examples of questions: http://thatboycanteach.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/scaffolding-inference-trialling.html
Many of the examples from the blogpost are available for download here:
https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/-11416437

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Being A Reading Teacher

At the beginning of this year I decided to shake myself out of a long slumber, to blow the dust off my 'library' and to become a reader again. I joined the 'fifty book challenge' and promptly got my wife on the case too; fifty books in a year (we are both currently on track).

I cannot remember learning to read (other than the flash cards my mum did with me pre-school) - I imagine I've always been able to read! As a child, thanks largely to Roald Dahl and later The Hardy Boys series, I was a fairly avid reader - the torch-under-the-covers type. Later in my teens, aside from 'Moonfleet' (still one of my favourite books) I read very little. Studying English at GCSE didn't do much to encourage me to read increasingly complex or canonical texts - we covered Jane Eyre but cannot recall actually having to read the whole book. By the time I was at uni I scraped my 2:1 by skimming through library books for the underlinings and highlightings of more diligent students who preceded me, without ever having to read a book in its entirety. And by that age I certainly wasn't reading fiction. After uni, Ian Rankin rescued me when I picked up a copy of 'The Falls' in a holiday cottage - I spent the next couple of years scouring charity shops and buying new releases; I'm now well versed in Rebus' career.

On one hand I regret that I fell out of love with reading - think of all the books I could have read during my 'dark ages'. But, on the other hand, I get to read them all now of my own volition, now that I'm a (mostly) sensible adult. I'm not one for those '100 books to read before you die' lists but I have begun to try out some of the books that feature on those lists: To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, Candide, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, The Old Man and the Sea. I can honestly say I've enjoyed each one - probably wouldn't have if I'd have been made to read them as a teen.

The benefits of me, as a teacher, reigniting my own passion for reading have been many fold. And consequently, I have come to be of the opinion that every teacher should be a reader - and more than someone who just reads the odd bestseller. In my blog post 'Reading for Pleasure' I outlined some of how my passion has been transferred to the children in my class but here I'd like to discuss further ways in which teachers who are readers (i.e. those who make a habit of reading) will see benefits in the classroom:

I am currently reading 'Reading Reconsidered' by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. It's full of highly detailed practical advice on how to teach reading skills. As I read, it dawned on me just how complex the reading comprehension process is. The authors of the book insightfully break down how to go about establishing and analysing meaning as well as outlining where difficulties lie. They reference many novels by way of giving supporting examples - because I had recently read some of the books mentioned I was able to understand the concepts put forward in the book much more comprehensively than I would if I'd have read it, say, in December. But greater than that, as the book discussed plot type and narrator techniques I was able to recall examples from my own reading: 'Oh! Slaughterhouse Five has a non-linear time sequence!' and lo and behold, a page later it's mentioned as an example.

It was following several similar moments as I read that I realised teachers must read for themselves. Yes, we should pre-read the texts we read and teach to our class, and we should read to help us make decisions on book selection but we should also read for our own enjoyment, at our own level. Why? Because it makes us into readers and it is the only thing that will give us deep insight into what books are like - the varying ways they are narrated, the different plot types, the similarities between two texts, the complexities of older texts, the devices used by authors. Having a continually growing understanding of what books are like is essential if we want to help children to learn how to gain meaningful understanding of a variety of texts. If we aren't readers then we will struggle to model what it is like to be a reader. We will find it difficult to identify why an author has chosen a particular word or why the narrator has left certain pieces of key information out. And if we can't model reading in this way due to a lack of our own experience, are we really teaching reading?

Being able to read does not make one a reader. Reading one age-appropriate class novel each half term hardly makes one a reader either. By skimping on one's literary intake (and I have learned this from experience) no matter how you 'push' for the children to enjoy reading, no matter how well you 'do the voices', no matter how Pinterest-worthy your beautiful book corner is, you will probably struggle to effectively teach reading. To reiterate: it comes down to knowing what books (in general, not individual books) are like.

And the encouragement comes in this form: it is an easy change to make. All you do is pick up a book and read it. And repeat. You won't need to go into too much deep analysis of your own reading - with half a mind on teaching reading you will start to naturally identify text features and literary devices and similarities between books. The very (continuous) act of being a reader will prepare you far better for being a teacher of reading than if you are not a reader. 

Of course, I would also recommend that you begin to read about the teaching of reading too - helpful books like Reading Reconsidered will open your eyes further to what you are reading in your own novels, as well as what is present in the books you read at school with the children. But get into reading novels for pleasure first - get a few of those under your belt as for most folk reading novels for fun is easier than reading non-fiction for learning purposes it it hones those reading comprehension skills all the same.

So, if you wouldn't consider yourself a reader, why not set yourself a challenge? Be realistic perhaps - don't aim to read too many too soon, or don't aim to read the heavier, more archaic classics just yet. I'd recommend using Good Reads (app or website or both) to track your achievements and I'd recommend first and foremost that you read for YOU - not even so you'll become a better teacher of reading, and definitely not so you can feel good about having ploughed your way through the James Joyce that everyone says is 'an absolute must read'.

To be a teacher of reading, you should be a reading teacher.

A version of this article was published in the TES magazine on 2nd December 2016 entitled 'Throw The Book At Yourself'. It can be read online, with a subscription, here: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/throw-book-yourself

Monday, 22 February 2016

Reading for Pleasure

Today we are roughly 14% of the way through this year. I am currently at 12% of my way through reading the fifty books that I've challenged myself to read this year. I love reading, and as a child I remember myself to be voracious when it came to books, but as an adult I've allowed all sorts of other things to push books out of my routine. I've always liked reading but for about two thirds of my life I have not been actively enjoying books. There has been a gradual ascent as I began to realise that I should just read the books that I want to read rather than attempting to read the books that I thought I should read. Now I truly read for pleasure and I really enjoy it.

And it has been my attempts to generate those same feelings in ten and eleven year olds that have simultaneously kindled them in me. I'm not ashamed to say that I read a lot of books intended for children or young adults. Two series of books particularly grabbed me: Philip Reeves' 'Mortal Engines' books and Rosemary Sutcliff's trilogy of books about Roman Britain (beginning with 'The Eagle of the Ninth'). Out of all those books I only read one to my class yet it was the start of something good for me.

Last year, at school, we invested heavily in class sets of 'real' books and, as such, the beginning of this academic year saw me and my class reading the excellent 'Noah Barleywater Runs Away' by John Boyne (of 'The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas' fame, a book which I subsequently devoured because I loved 'Noah Barleywater...' so much). 'Noah...' was a triumph ("sick book, innit, sir?"). After reading one magical novel my children were hooked ("What we reading next, sir? I bet it's not as good as 'Noah Barleywater'"). We picked up 'Tom's Midnight Garden' which they couldn't get into (I think largely on account of the fact as city-dwellers they don't understand the concept of having a garden) so we exercised our right as readers not to finish a book - something I do regularly ('We Need To Talk About Kevin', Jo Nesbo's 'The Redeemer'). Then, after reading it myself (in an evening, no less), we started 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig, and once again they're captivated (I've caught them trying smuggle copies home, and even worse, trying to skip to the end); it's their new favourite book. I read 'Carrie's War' last week, and whilst I love the book, I don't think it's for my class - they need their next favourite book, not just the next book. As teachers we need to make wise choices (which to pick up, which to put down) and to do that we need to know the kids in our class(es). I'm hoping to get a class set of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'; they've been enamoured by World War Two, of which they knew very little about, and I'm keen for them to find out more without actually having to teach a topic on it: the beauty of a good novel.

Now, the children in my class, after years of disinterest, are in the initial stage of what I hope will be a life-long relationship with books. They're discovering new words, new worlds, new ideas, new people and old history. I've seen it clearly impact on their writing; vocabulary, idioms and other turns-of-phrase magpied and used as their own. I use these books to teach whole class sessions, but the less I say about that the better, although I'm a strong advocate of it and a disliker of traditional guided reading. If we want children to love reading, then the first step in my experience is to read to them - speak aloud the thoughts and questions you have, the links you're making and the delight you find in particular phrasings. Read with expression; bring the book alive. Starting the day in this way does as much for me as it does the kids: win/win.

This week my wife, who is beating me in the Fifty Book Challenge, gave me a copy of John Green's debut YA novel 'Looking for Alaska' and whilst it's definitely not one I'll be reading to my class, it's such an amusing read - definitely more appealing than most of those a Penguin books the government want to flog to secondary schools. I suppose reading is rather a personal thing - I don't usually read based on recommendation - a well-designed cover, a familiar author or a decent bit of blurb is enough to pique my interest. Many of the books I've read on recommendation are ones I've not finished.

If there's any point to this post it is this: everyone can enjoy a book, but a book won't be enjoyed by everyone.