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Encourage Children To Make Risky Reading Choices

Children often go for popular authors or book series, so it᾿s up to us to get them to take a chance and try something new

  • Encourage Children To Make Risky Reading Choices

There’s something of a buzz about reading in Jay Verma’s Year 5 class. There’s a neat and well-kept book corner where the titles populating the shelves are well-suited to the readers in the class. There are book posters on the walls and teachers’ recommendations are on full display alongside the children’s. Inventive use of soft furnishings and lighting have made the reading corner an inspirational, inviting space, and the pupils compete to be allowed special time to come here with a favourite book and read.

“Reading for pleasure has been a focus for our school for the past two years,” says Jay. “To begin with, it was all about getting the children into books, and you can see they enjoy it. But now that’s not enough.” I have to agree. If you scan the classroom, you notice that the children’s reading choices are limited. There’s an abundance of the most popular, high-profile authors, and the books used as class and guided readers are largely ones pupils would pick up and read for themselves.

We need to encourage the children to take more risks in their reading, to be more adventurous with their choices. And it’s crucial that we do this at a point where they are developing their reading identities. How can you know what kind of reader you are if there’s a whole world of reading to which you haven’t yet been exposed?

So, let’s start to hatch our ‘Risky Reading’ plan.

What᾿s our starting point?

All good plans start with intelligence gathering, and for this we have a three-pronged approach:
• We have pupil focus groups from each year (fuelled by biscuits and squash) where children are keen to talk to us about where their book knowledge comes from.

• We plan a staff meeting and immerse the teachers in books (and, again, supply edible treats). It’s a great way to learn what texts they᾿re familiar with, and to get a sense of what sparks their interest. Most teachers love good books, but given the limited time available it’s understandable that they often return to old favourites.

• We audit the existing provision in the library and the class collections. We particularly look to see what has been added in the past two years

What᾿s there for the children?

Our fact-finding mission reveals a lot about the reading behaviours in the school. Here are some of the relevant points:
• Reading support in the area are diminished. There is no school library service and no good bookshop in walking distance. Book provision at home is not common, so other than from media channels, school is the place where children are going to be introduced to life-changing books.

• Book shelves in classrooms are burgeoning, but there are lots of second-hand purchases made by thrifty teachers and cheap editions of complete sets by well-known authors bought from book packagers. It is perfectly correct that budgets should be spent wisely, but a broad and rich reading repertoire cannot be sourced entirely from cheap outlets. Book provision needs to be more strategic.

• Comparing the books available with a list of ‘100 must-have authors’ we devised, we’re surprised to discover that over half of them are absent from the collections. These missing persons tend to be the more ‘literary’ writers – the representation of poets is fairly dismal and non-fiction is relegated to being viewed merely as a source of information.

• The selection of texts for teaching reading (guided and whole-class) is a bit haphazard. There is no map to show what the reading experience might look like across the junior years.

With these points in mind, Jay is excited at the prospect of leading the school forward in the next stage of its development. We agree that there are several things to address: teacher knowledge of recently published children’s books, book provision and engagement, and ‘stamina’. This is often misunderstood to mean the ability to cope with long books, but really it should be used to describe a mindset for reading, and perseverance when things get challenging.

The plan


1 Risk assessment
We first held a series of staff meetings devised to give teachers time to discuss the idea of ‘risky reading’. In principle, teachers agreed that lessons should introduce children to authors and books they might not discover on their own, that book choices should include things such as challenging themes, language and strong narrative voices written from different perspectives.

Over the course of the year we aimed to introduce teachers to 100 exciting writers, illustrators and poets. Book boxes were provided at staff meetings, and one meeting each term was dedicated to book talk, with each teacher discussing a new text they had read with the potential to be a ‘risky read’.

2 Mapping the reading repertoire
Every teacher mapped out the main texts used to teach reading, which were shared with other year groups. We then identified any gaps and offered suggestions for plugging them, using prompts such as ‘How many poets are represented?’, ‘Have children been exposed to the significant writers you would want them to encounter in the junior years?’, ‘Are visual texts present in every year group?’, ‘Are texts from the literary heritage represented?’ and ‘What do the books we use say about inclusivity and diversity?’.

3 Moving forward
Looking back on the year, Jay reflects: “I feel that we have started the next step in our move to becoming a genuine reading school. The biggest difference is that we have started to see children’s tastes widen. Yes, they still like their old favourites, but we feel that we are offering greater guidance and presenting more possibilities. We no longer say that as long as children are reading it doesn’t matter what they read. It does matter, and we have a crucial role to play in helping inform their choices.”

LITERARY LEAPS


Take a risk with these adventurous reading choices for each year group

Year 3
Ben Morley – The Silence Seeker
Levi Pinfold – Greenling
Tony Mitton – Come Into this Poem

Year 4
Kate di Camillo – The Magician’s Elephant
Polly Ho Yen – The Boy in the Tower
Charles Causley – Collected Poems

Year 5
David Almond – Mouse Bird Snake Wolf
Horatio Clare – Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot
Christopher Edge – The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

Year 6
Gary Crew – Memorial
Ali Smith – Antigone
Oscar Wilde – The Happy Prince and Other Stories

Nikki Gamble is the founder and director of Just Imagine, and associate consultant at UCL. For further information contact nikki@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk.

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