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A healthy curiosity

Books have to fight hard for children's attention these days. Janet Murray reports on how skateboarding and a plastic shark can help with Year 6 reading

Who's reading out of class? The usual answer to that one is "girls". The question of encouraging boys to read continually preoccupies educationalists. Despite all the government initiatives, boys still lag behind in reading and literacy. But it's not just boys we need to worry about. Targeted by an increasingly well-marketed leisure industry, many children of both sexes think of reading as something just for school. An innovative project in Surrey may have hit on a solution.

Pupils at three primary schools have been creating their own "curiosity kits" -book bags containing fiction and non-fiction books, artefacts and toys, magazines, games and puzzles, based on particular themes. The kits are intended to be shared with adults at home.

Year 6 pupils at Riverview C of E Primary School, Epsom Primary and Merland Rise Community Primary have been making curiosity kits in their literacy lessons since October. With the help of education authority funds, each school has designed and created five different kits and made copies to share with other schools.

Developing reading skills is high on the agenda at Riverview C of E primary school. "Most children are very enthusiastic when they start learning to read, but then it starts to wane," says headteacher Sue Potter. "People tend to have this image of Surrey as a leafy suburb, but there are areas of deprivation. We have a mixed intake and some of our students don't have a lot of contact with books at home."

Before starting the project, pupils at Riverview filled in questionnaires on subjects that interested them. Year 6 teacher Doe Price allocated research topics, including skateboarding, music, sharks, dinosaurs and fashion, to small groups of students. Working to a budget of pound;50, each group had to select books, magazines and artefacts for their curiosity kit and devise fun activities related to their theme.

A peek inside the huge sports bag containing the sharkcuriosity kit reveals books on sharks, dolphins, whales, a joke book, a whale and dolphin calendar, an activity booklet and a two-foot long plastic shark!

"We were really keen to motivate reluctant readers by making and sharing the kits," says Doe Price. "As a result of the project, two of our most reluctant readers are now hooked on their topic - dinosaurs. They're talking about the books and artefacts, recounting what they've read, which is helping develop their speaking and listening skills too."

As well as helping with reading skills, the project has enabled pupils to develop research skills and understanding of different audiences. One of the most valuable experiences was a visit from the library service, bringing books into school.

"They were not only searching for relevant books," explains Doe Price.

"They were also appraising them, deciding which ones would be most suitable for their topic and audiences, then seeing if they were available to buy over the internet. The children got so involved, they were really frustrated if one of the books they wanted was out of print."

There were also budgetary matters to consider. Deciding what to spend their pound;50 on was, as parent Anne Monaghan puts it, "a taste of what it's like in the real world". Her son Harry enjoys adventure stories, but isn't always motivated to read at home. "He kept talking about the project," she says. "What was great was that he was reading without thinking. I'm all for anything that makes him read voluntarily."

Without exception, the most impressive feature of the kits has to be the activity booklets, devised and produced by pupils. Professionally presented and laminated, the quizzes, word searches, web links and activities demonstrate excellent understanding of the subject matter and reflect a high level of competency in ICT.

From the pupils' point of view, the most enjoyable part of the project was the opportunity to explore an unfamiliar subject. "When I first found out my kit was about music, I wasn't very interested," admits Year 6 pupil, Zoe. "But I learned a lot about different styles of music from looking at different books and websites."

"I usually just read fiction, like Jacqueline Wilson," adds Kerrianne, who also worked on the music kit. "I found it interesting to find out things from non-fiction books."

Her comments highlight one of the surprise findings of the project - it works for girls, too. As Sue Potter explains: "Girls are more likely to share books and tend to have favourite fiction authors, whereas boys tend to like 'dipping in' to factual books and love finding out information.

This project is great, as it's getting boys reading and encouraging girls to read more widely."

The curiosity kits are now available for loan to Year 6 children. There are 15 sets, so half the class can take one home each week, as well as the reading that is normally done at home.

A reading record is included in the kit for parents and teachers to track progress. Year 6 pupil Harry is looking forward to trying out the different kits. He says: "We had to think a lot about what parents and children would like to read. The kits are good because you have to read the books to find things out. It definitely makes you think more."

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