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Case Study: How One Primary Made Its Reading Spaces Exciting Again

  • Case Study: How One Primary Made Its Reading Spaces Exciting Again

Space stations, secret gardens and magical grottos – creating spaces that excite and motivate young readers is essential to developing reading for pleasure, says Nikki Gamble…

Think for a moment about the places where you prefer to read. What images come to mind?

Did you imagine yourself reading in a deckchair at the beach; in the garden; sprawled out on the sofa; in bed at night? While we all have individual preferences, there will be common features too. Most of us will have thought about comfort and a place in which we can concentrate. It is hard to relax when our surroundings are not conducive to it, in place where piles of detritus might be stacked in a corner, the furniture is uncomfortable and the lighting harsh.

In this article we follow the journey made by one school, Heaton Park Primary, in creating a relaxed and comfortable environment that clearly shows reading is a valued activity. The process the school went through provides a useful model for any primary thinking about making similar changes, and shows in particular how everyone can be involved in the decision making process.

Let the camera do the talking

Heaton Park is a large school in Manchester with 380 children from nursery to Y6. It has a culturally diverse intake, with around a third of the children speaking English as an additional language, and a further third on the SEN register. I led the project alongside deputy head Anne Brignall, with pupils, teachers and parents getting involved at all stages of the development. A focus on authentic writing at the school in recent years had generated some outstanding results, and it was felt that a similar focus was now needed for reading so that both aspects of literacy could feed each other.

To begin, we decided to step back and take an objective look at the everyday messages children and staff were receiving about books and reading. A photo walk was planned, which we hoped would reveal existing good practice that could be celebrated and extended throughout the school.

Our walk took us from the staffroom, through corridors, around classrooms and into the library. In every area we asked the same questions – where was reading in evidence, and where were the missed opportunities?

We watched children using the school’s reading spaces and talked to them so that we could develop a better understanding of their thoughts and feelings. The camera worked as an extra pair of eyes; taking photographs made us look again at things that had escaped our notice. The process was revealing – the existing spaces looked decidedly jaded and unattractive, and there were some classes that had no identifiable reading areas at all. A significant percentage of the book stock was old, with portions of it older than some of the teachers.

We knew immediately that developing reading spaces throughout the school needed to be our first priority, which raised a number of questions: how were we going to get everyone on board, given the packed agenda for development? How were costs going to be kept reasonable? How could the spaces be made appealing for the children? And how could the new spaces be maintained so they didn’t lose their sparkle and attraction?

Staff development

We wondered what staff would make of the pictures we had taken on our photo walk. Anne displayed them in a staff meeting and the teachers were invited to add comments. These ranged from, “I must take those cushions home to wash!” to “The early years seem to have got it right”.

Though we had intended to start by looking at good practice, the teachers felt rather down-hearted. One joked that it was like doing the ‘walk of shame’. However, Anne reassured the staff that we would be repeating the process once the spaces were looking fabulous!

The teachers then worked in cross-Key Stage groups to discuss their thoughts about what an ideal reading space might look like.

Children’s views

Pupil voice was central to the project. We wanted to know if they read during their leisure time and where they preferred to read, so a couple of meetings were set up with the school council to share ideas. The children were very clear about what they wanted – a quiet, cosy space full of colour and texture, and one that didn’t stay the same all year round.

Though we could anticipate most of their responses, there were some surprises. For instance, Y6 were as keen to have soft cuddly toys and cushions as the younger children. The most entertaining response came from one child who told us he enjoyed reading in the bath with a bowl of chips to hand.

Well, not all requests could be accommodated, but the general principles could be applied. One of the immediate benefits of soliciting the pupils’ opinions about the changes was the impact on their attitudes. They were thrilled to be involved and delighted that their ideas were to be shared with staff.

Reading space kits

As the children wanted spaces that changed, and since the budget was limited, we developed the idea of ‘reading space kits’. These were transportable resources that could be assembled, dismantled and rotated around different classes every term, ensuring that the spaces maintained pupils’ interest. Teachers were encouraged to use their imaginations in devising their kits, but also to take account of a particular criteria based on children’s suggestions. As such, the kits should:

• Have a distinctive theme
• Appeal to boys and girls
• Provide seating
• Include thematic artefacts, soft toys, cushions and textures
• Offer a feeling of cosiness or an enclosed space
• Come with a selection of reading material to reflect the theme
• Include a fresh selection of books for wider reading taken from the school library stock.

To ensure a range of themes, each key stage was given its own rotation cycle: foundation, KS1, lower KS2 and upper KS2.

Putting the kits together

Three senior leaders led the process, exploring possible themes and deciding how the spaces would be created in their classrooms – which ranged considerably in size. This called for some lateral thinking in classrooms that didn’t have existing reading areas and with teachers who were subject co-ordinators, which required them to house the bulk of the school’s subject resources in their class space.

Solutions had to be found regarding unused furniture and de-cluttering resources that hadn’t been used for many years and were unlikely to be used in the future. Space was found in even the smallest classrooms, when the ideal arrangements couldn’t be achieved. The new reading space themes included ‘garden’, ‘space’, ‘magic’, and in Y6, ‘jungle’ – complete with camouflage netting and soft toys.

Using the reading spaces

The 2006 Ofsted report ‘Good school libraries: making a difference to learning’ [PDF] noted that primary schools tended to focus on issues such as accommodation, resources, choice of texts and display, while giving insufficient attention to library usage.

Applying this to our class based reading spaces, we recognised that the reading areas would only be of benefit if pupils actually had opportunities to use them. No matter how attractive, the spaces would be wasted if they were not fully occupied with children reading.

The school’s reading areas were already well used in early years and Y1 as part of continuous provision. The staff decided that time needed to be allocated during guided reading, but that there also needed to be a conscious use of the spaces as often as possible for reading across the curriculum. This needed to include reading non-fiction for pleasure, as well as for research-oriented tasks.

I love this book!

The enthusiasm from staff and children since has been infectious. Even the most initially reluctant of staff have been excited about developing their spaces and the impact they have had on the children’s voluntary reading.

At the end of the year, Anne was eager to take me on another walk around the school. Stopping at the reception class, we observed one five-year-old girl – who had not previously shown much enthusiasm for reading in the garden-themed reading area – hugging a book. ‘I love this book!’ she said, with real feeling.

Anne was clearly proud of the achievement: “Whilst doing a learning walk round school recently, I saw children tucked away in their reading spaces,” she said. “Some were so engrossed they didn’t even notice me. We are changing the attitudes and behaviours of our readers.” That’s progress!

Taking it forward

The staff kept their promise to make an end of year tour of the reading spaces to celebrate the achievements and successes. They now want to maintain the momentum by ensuring that the kits are rotated.

The lessons learned will be applied to the development of the school libraries – an even bigger project. And there are plans to make use of the new reading environments in a whole-school reading project that will forge explicit links between reading and writing.

The teachers have come a long way in helping the children develop a love of books and reading, but they want to go even further and include the whole school community: that’s a tribute to the staff at Heaton Park.

Nikki Gamble is the founder and director of the Just Imagine Story Centre; for more information, visit justimaginestorycentre.co.uk or follow @imaginecentre

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