Classroom practice - Oh help! Oh no! It's the reading plateau

If teachers need to help students relocate their love of books, who better to lead the search than Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson?
24th October 2014, 1:00am


Classroom practice - Oh help! Oh no! It's the reading plateau

Hidden somewhere in a deep, dark wood - guarded by a quick-witted mouse and a gullible creature with "terrible clawsAnd terrible teeth in his terrible jaws" - is the secret to getting young children reading for pleasure. Not just a few children: we're talking millions. And Julia Donaldson is going to tell you what it is.

The renowned author's readiness to divulge the secrets of reading engagement, as woven into her best-selling book The Gruffalo, is fortuitously timed.

Children have, apparently, fallen out of love with reading. The government is so worried that it felt the need to stipulate in the latest English programme of study that young children should be taught to develop "pleasure" in reading. However, it didn't state how this might be achieved. And that is where Donaldson comes in.

She is well placed to offer advice. For starters, The Gruffalo is one of the most successful children's books ever published. It has sold more than 13 million copies and spawned countless spin-offs, from films to phone apps. If there is a formula for getting kids to enjoy reading, it is in that book.

But The Gruffalo is not a one-off. Donaldson has repeated the trick with more than 100 other titles for young children. Indeed, she is so skilled at getting kids' noses in books that she was made Children's Laureate for 2011-13.

A simple trick with a kick

The good news for teachers is that Donaldson has a grounding in education. The former English teacher has given numerous talks in schools and completed a term as writer-in-residence in the Easterhouse area of Glasgow from 1998-2001, which took her back into the classroom to lead lessons on poetry.

She is in a unique position to advise, then, and she suggests that a key component of getting young people to enjoy reading is simpler than you might imagine: put rhyme at the heart of it.

"Children love rhyme and rhythm, it's a very natural thing," she says. "If they are lucky, a child has probably been brought up on nursery rhymes and chants. Even if they haven't, people tend to speak rhythmically to children, even if it's just: `Go to sleep, go to sleep.' "

As a result, Donaldson says, children have an affinity with rhyme that can be utilised in the classroom. "As they enjoy it, it will increase their overall enjoyment of reading and their love of and interest in language."

Rhyme is easier to remember than standard prose, she adds, and that breeds confidence in reading.

"I constantly have people telling me that rhyming books or poems tend to be more memorable for their children than non-rhyming ones," she explains.

"A child will be able to recite a rhyming book that is read to them before they can read it. And then, when they get older, they can suddenly decipher the words that they recognise the sound of from memory. That's very gratifying to a child and it helps with reading."

But it's not enough to get children reading rhyme, Donaldson says. You have to get them writing it, too, as this will spark a love of language and encourage reading for pleasure.

During her visits to schools in Easterhouse, the author found that the teaching of rhyme was not happening enough. Teachers would often ask her to cover poetry, as this was an area they felt less qualified to teach themselves, but rhyme was not on the agenda.

"It wasn't recommended to encourage children to write in verse in those days because it's such a rigid discipline," Donaldson says. "The concern was that children would make up silly rhymes that didn't communicate what they wanted to say."

Phonics and harmonics

Eventually, one teacher suggested that Donaldson ignore the recommendations and try giving a lesson on writing in verse.

It wasn't an easy task but, with the help of a few tricks from her own practice, she soon mastered it. And she says it could work just as well for other teachers.

"I make myself a little list of all the possible rhyme onsets," she says. "There are so many beginnings to words - not just the alphabet but sounds like "sh" and "th" - that it can be difficult to remember them. I started giving kids an onset list like the one I would use myself. I'd get them to think of a word and then come up with a rhyme for it by going down the list and trying each sound.

Rhyme can also be useful in teaching phonics, she says.

"For example, in my book Room on the Broom, you have the lines: `I am a dog, as keen as can be' and `I am a frog, as clean as can be'. That demonstrates different ways of spelling a vowel sound. Whether it is double e or ea, the sound is the same and the line still rhymes. That is important for kids to understand."

Another tactic Donaldson advocates is to model the first two lines of a simple verse such as Mary Had A Little Lamb and then encourage children to make up two further lines of their own.

But before turning them loose with pen and paper, she would always teach them the rhythm of the verse. "There is no point talking about rhyme without rhythm. When children write in rhyme, the scansion normally ends up being all over the place," she says.

"I try to get them to understand that verse works in iambs and teach them about syllables. You can get them to pat or beat out their names."

But writing coherently within a set rhythm is something that even experienced writers struggle with. When writing The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussy-cat - a sequel to Edward Lear's much-loved classic - Donaldson set out to emulate the structure of the original. She admits it was tough, but says the use of nonsense words helped.

"The Owl and the Pussy-cat has a rhyme scheme that is slightly more difficult to emulate," she explains. "It is written in dactyls - that six-eight time found in a lot of English nursery rhymes. It was a challenge, but if you allow yourself nonsense words then that can really help."

Getting silly, willy-nilly

Far from discouraging children from making up "silly rhymes", Donaldson believes that nonsense words can be excellent tools to help them write in verse. She says they can delight children when used in books, as Lear's popularity proves.

It is this fun element of reading that has perhaps been lost amid objective-obsessed teaching. Another area where this may be the case, Donaldson says, is that reading is often a silent task rather than a performance.

"A lot of things are written to be read aloud," she explains. "When I was Children's Laureate, one of my main things was encouraging children to recite and perform. I think that's terribly good for self-confidence."

She says that this confidence breeds enjoyment, which is then directed towards books and results in a thirst for reading.

Donaldson believes that an ideal way of getting children to perform in class is by using poems with different voices - she compiled an anthology called Poems to Perform for this very purpose.

"Some of them are conversation poems, but for others the whole class can chant the chorus and some children can speak the verses," she says.

Although she is not claiming that using rhyme or performance will automatically instil a love of reading in all students, Donaldson's use of these elements in books that have a proven track record in getting pupils reading suggests that teachers should at least give them a try.

After all, 13 million children can't be wrong, can they?

Julia Donaldson is author of more than 100 children's books, including The Gruffalo, which was published 15 years ago. Her latest book, The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussy-cat, is published by Puffin

What else?

Explore our full collection of resources for teaching poetry to primary pupils.

Teach your students how to discriminate between sounds.

Use this fun snap game to explore rhyme and phonics.

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