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

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Giving the Gift of Reading: Activities That Promote Reading for Pleasure

After reading this great blog post by Rob Smith of the Literacy Shed I spent some time in reflection, questioning myself, my past practice and the blog posts I've written. I thought about the implications of the piece for the future, in my practice, in my advice to others and in my writing. Actually, I, without noticing initially, demonstrated my mastery of reading, and showed that I am a truly independent reader who automatically spends time responding to what I have read. Exactly what we want to develop in the children we teach, yes?

Amongst lots of other good stuff about reading for pleasure, Rob's blog post paraphrases part of a conversation he had with author Frank Cottrell-Boyce:
'"We make children pay for listening to us read, or reading a great book by making them do ‘stuff’ afterwards. We need space for just giving without the need for payback."

He later echoed this sentiment when he said, "A book given freely unlocks doors for children."'
And it was this, as well as a list of 'payback' activities (see below), that challenged my thinking the most.
Types of payback 
  • Comprehension questions based upon the text that was read;
  • Finding similar themes/devices/vocabulary in other texts;
  • Writing a review based upon the text;
  • Writing anything based upon that which has just been read;
  • Restricting a child to certain books (band) until they have read enough books sufficiently well;
  • Having a test which measures how well the child has been reading;
  • Reporting how well – or not well – the child has been progressing in their reading;
  • Depending on their responses the child receives extra reading practice to do even if they want to or not.
A note first on the list: the first four types of payback are quite different to the second four types. The first four are more focused on practise of reading skills whereas the second four have a strong assessment focus.

To begin properly then: a look at that term 'payback'. The word 'payback' suggests that when we require children to complete 'payback' activities the reading a child has just completed was not for them in the way that a gift would be for them. It asserts that if we expect them to respond with a 'payback' activity that the activity itself is not beneficial to them, but is for the benefit of the teacher. It also assumes that if teachers give children reading without 'payback' activities that the reading is somehow more for them. But surely children need to value 'payback' activities as for them too, as part of the gift?

Correctly designed 'payback' activities (more on this later as this is key) should develop essential reading skills which, when exercised, lead to better comprehension and as a result, increased enjoyment of the text. We can only really enjoy reading when we have a good understanding of what we've read. No-one who is not at the early stage of reading finds lasting pleasure in the act of decoding. If a 'payback' activity helps a child to learn or practise a skill, then the sense of fulfilment and achievement they experience doing that can too be part of the gift we teachers give. It's at this point that my thinking may have moved away from what Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Rob Smith meant by 'payback' activities - it is probable that I am now thinking about what the alternatives are to true 'payback' activities.

During a child's time in school we have the opportunity to give them more than they be able to give themselves. Yes, we need to do all we can to enthuse them to go home and read books, giving themselves the gift of time spent reading, and we should ensure that the activities we ask them to do in school don't put them off doing this, but when they are in school we have a chance to give them skills and understanding that they might not gain or develop just in the act of independently reading.

The journey to independence is not one of independence. Children need to be scaffolded and supported to reach ever higher levels of independence. You don't become a master swimmer by being shoved in at the deep end. By giving good 'payback' activities (we'll stop using that term from now on because we're talking about something else now) we support a child on their road to mastering the act of reading by becoming independent, just like I was after reading Rob's blog post. Achieving these levels of mastery and independence is what leads to the enjoyment of reading: children who know they will struggle to understand a book will not want to read it for pleasure. And if they are made to read it without having mastered the necessary skills to understand it, they won't experience the pleasure that a child with the relevant skills will.

It then becomes our job (teachers, parents, any adult who interacts and reads with children) to help children to see the value of the activities we guide them to do in response to their reading. This recognition may come implicitly as they see for themselves that the skills we are teaching them and allowing them to practise through the response activities we provide are helping them to understand, reflect more deeply and enjoy what they have read. We may have to spell it out a little more and explain how the response activities are for them, and that being taught skills and having a chance to practise them is part of the gift we give as educators.

The CLPE's Reading for Pleasure publication doesn't actually cite any type of response-less reading amongst its ten things that work when it comes to reading for pleasure (although their suggestion of a read aloud programme doesn't specifically require response). Many of the ten suggestions (numbers 5, 6, 7 and 8 specifically) suggest that some kind of response to a text leads to reading for pleasure - I assume that the responses they suggest link to and flow out of the read aloud programme they advocate.

As well as highlighting to children that response activities can be part of the gift we give, we have to ensure that what we are providing is a gift. This is where the 'correctly designed' part comes in.

A key factor to consider when designing response activities is that they improve interaction - with the text and with other readers. Response activities can be used to develop reading communities (as found in the OU research into reading for pleasure). The kinds of reading communities in the schools they studied didn't happen overnight, they developed: as adults realised there is a natural need to respond to reading they provided more opportunities to do so which eventually led to 'new and extended opportunities for interaction around texts'. We can create these communities, but only by giving children the opportunities and skills to do so - the response activities that we give should fit this criteria.

The OU findings also recognise that developing reading for pleasure in this way is complementary to other reading instruction. Without a teacher planning to develop reading communities and providing reading instruction (amongst other important factors) any time a child spends with a book runs the risk of becoming 'a routine procedure void of reader engagement and interaction'. In avoiding providing 'payback' activities we must ensure that we don't remove that which actually helps a child to receive the gift that books can give. The OU research suggests that without reading aloud and book talk in a social reading environment, time given over to just reading may not always be time well-spent. Click here to read more from the OU research on independent reading.

So, a key message is that response activities (not 'payback' activities), when focused correctly (on talk especially, which can be facilitated by the asking and answering of questions), are actually a part of the gift that we give to children. Allowing and encouraging children to value these activities, rather than seeing them as the price they have to pay for reading something is crucial to their success as readers and actually should lead them to greater engagement with, and enjoyment of, what they read. Even when response activities don't centre on talk, different forms of reading instruction (including other kinds of response activity such as the ones listed as 'payback' activities) can focus on allowing children to engage with and enjoy reading.

It's important that we don't prioritise response-less reading if we have not given children the tools they need to respond independently. Only when we have worked towards this, to paraphrase Frank Cottrell-Boyce, will a book given freely unlock doors for children. As we develop these skills with children through our instruction and the response activities we give, children will begin to read more independently in scenarios where they don't have to complete 'payback' activities - and this should be our goal. Of course, I definitely don't believe that children should never have the chance to read without having to respond in some way, but I also think that we should seize opportunities where we can to develop the skills they need to become successful and joyful readers who respond naturally just as I did when I first read Rob Smith's article.

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.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Problem With Your Class Novel

OK, I'll admit right away that I'm not about to lambast the time-honoured tradition of choosing and reading aloud a book to your class. Actually, to me, doing that is almost sacred - it's an absolute must for so many reasons.

So, if you don't currently read a novel to your class, make sure this half term is the half term when you start. But I suspect I'm preaching to the choir here, and if that's the case, there are a couple of points to bear in mind.

When do you read your class novel? Is it given priority or is it on a if we've got time basis? A practice seems to have arisen that could be seen as cheapening the act of reading for pleasure: reading the class novel at home time. Potentially, children could begin to see reading as something only done to kill time and, whilst that can be true and valuable, it might be a damaging attitude to be inadvertently generating. Given that 3pm is the time when many teachers will read perhaps the only book that their children are truly invested in, I think it's worth challenging, even if it is controversial. 

Unless you are totally committed to safeguarding that time for reading, there are so many pressures on that end of day slot - giving out letters, sorting out things to take home, assemblies and just a general end of day feeling. What would happen if you brought your class novel time to the beginning of the day, or the start of the afternoon? From my own experience I've found that it is the best, most relaxed, most inspiring way to start a morning or afternoon of learning. It can calm, focus and provide a shared experience which can feed positively into the rest of the day.

Another way to ensure that reading, particularly reading of a shared text, is prioritised, is to link it to your curriculum. This will depend on your school's policy but there may be opportunities to link to your topics or your English work. Again, many of you will already be doing this, but I think the raising of another point in relation to this might be helpful.

Be careful not to over-rely on your class novel, particularly during your English lessons. Yes, class novels are a great way to support the teaching of SPAG (I wrote about some ways of doing that in October 2017's Teach Primary Magazine), writing composition and reading skills but if they are all that is ever used, children run the risk of not being exposed to a wide variety of reading materials. 

An easy way to get around this is to use your class novel as an anchor point to which you link other texts, fiction and non-fiction. Find other books, stories, excerpts, leaflets, articles and so on that have links to your class novel and then use them throughout your curriculum. If you've selected your class novel well, then children will most likely be invested enough to want to read linked texts as well, which in turn might help them to better understand the class novel.

Conversely you might want to consider reading a novel which is not at all linked or used to teach anything else. This will be much more likely to develop that reading for pleasure.

For those children who are preparing for statutory tests, for a chance of success it is probably crucial that they are not taught reading skills solely through the use of a class novel. In the tests they come up against unknown texts and, regardless of difficulty, they are less likely to want to read them in a meaningful way - in comparison to their class novel they won't be as interested or invested in those texts. If all they've ever had to do is practise reading comprehension skills based on a book that they love and care about then they may not have the resilience to be able to access unfamiliar texts such as the ones they will encounter in the tests. Whether or not be click bait title works remains to be seen!

For those unswayed by arguments involving testing its worth pointing out that in real life we access a wide variety of text types and, if someone isn't a 'reader' (for want of a better phrase) then the thing they're least likely to need to read is a novel. In fact, what they need to be able to read to survive in life is non-fiction. Whilst using a class novel to teach literacy skills can be really engaging and worthwhile, using them as the only text type might not prepare children for life.

I urge you, I implore you, to read your class a book, a little each day, preferably at a prioritised time. But I also warn against the potential dangers of becoming too reliant on the class novel
as a basis for other learning.

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':