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How I Try to be a Reading Role Model in Primary

What trying to tackle his own height in children’s books taught Adam Parkhouse about reading...

  • How I Try to be a Reading Role Model in Primary

In primary, reading and teaching go hand in hand. Promoting a love of reading is not only part of the job, it tends to be a way of life for many teachers.

A brief scroll through my Twitter feed is often enough to verify this, and sometimes it’s hard to find the tweets about teaching between the new book posts, recommendations and reviews.

I shouldn’t really be surprised. When I started my PGCE, I was far more interested in the fact that I had access to a selection of children’s books than I was with any of the academic writing.

Over the last three years I’ve worked incredibly hard to raise the profile of reading in our school, and I’m now confident that our pupils leave having experienced books outside of the ones they would normally come across.

Initially, the things I did to raise the profile of books had nothing to do with my own reading habits. We hosted ‘bookshop’ evenings for parents, entered World Book Day display competitions and used a Lottery grant to renovate our library.

Then, eventually, I decided I had to change my own relationship to reading.

For the last two years, a key feature of my classroom has been a life-size, Quentin Blake-esque self-portrait. Many teachers use a competitive element to get their class reading more, and all power to them if it works.

For me, I’ve found that this works for pupils who are easily motivated, but fails to reach the ones you want it to. The goal behind the portrait? To chart my attempt to read my own height in children’s books.

This represented a fairly significant shift in my own reading habits – I love to read, but it tends to be science fiction, fantasy novels or comics.

I failed miserably in my first year. The format was all wrong, and demotivating. It was too abstract, too exact. While I was reading a range of books, I couldn’t tell you now what they were. I read more than I put up on display, but made it to around half my height.

I also didn’t really share what I was reading with the children. They saw me showing a huge interest in books and some of the pupils’ progress was impressive, but this wasn’t what I was after.

As with anything, things get better with practice. In my second year of the experiment I displayed my choices via a simple colour photocopy of the spine. Each book I finished was cut out and left with a different child to add to the pile.

The ‘book blether’, a phrase coined by the excellent Teresa Cremin, grew and grew. Children came to tell me about their recent choices; parents told me about new favourite authors at home.

Certain books became legendary and were read by a huge proportion of the class. I was hitting milestones – my knee, my belt – and was seemingly on schedule to reach the target.

In July I began to reflect on the year and it dawned on me, as I tried to cram in extra audiobooks during car journeys, that I had changed.

My reasons for book choices were almost mechanical, I was finding ways to bend the rules (however arbitrary), feeling overwhelmed, and cutting corners wherever possible.

I identified instantly with my pupils who flitted between books, or made a big show of choosing a title but rarely engaged with it. I wasn’t reading for pleasure any more. I wasn’t the role model for reading I’d hoped this display would turn me into.

This is not to say it was a negative experience. I came across some new favourite authors. I saw the value in reading not just 300-page novels recommended by others, but dipping in and out of beautiful non-fiction pieces I found in my library, and modelled this repeatedly to my class.

Having a mixed year group class meant that children knew that this wasn’t a flash in the pan either – their teacher is book-obsessed and that isn’t going to change. You may not be able to explicitly ‘teach’ a love of books, but you can certainly be the change that you want to see.

Adam Parkhouse was a silver winner at the 2017 Pearson Teaching Awards and is a senior teacher at Cantley Primary in Norfolk. Follow him on Twitter at @parky_teaches.

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