When the headteacher started a recent staff meeting brandishing a letter from the Department for Education, you could feel the collective sense of dread fill the staffroom: what were they throwing at us this time?
But we needn’t have been so sceptical, for this letter was not another change to the curriculum or the introduction of another test. Rather, it was a letter of congratulations to praise us for our excellent results in reading.
It informed us that our 100 per cent achievement of the key stage 2 standards put us in the top 1 per cent of primary schools in the country. It was a lovely way to start a staff meeting, and a nice recognition of what we do. But without wanting to sound arrogant, it didn’t really come as a surprise.
We’ve had consistently strong results in reading for more years than I want to own up to having been teaching for – and I often hear anecdotal comments from local high schools about what good readers the children who leave our school are.
None of this is achieved through extra classes after school or in the Easter holidays, or by dropping PE, music or art from the timetable. It doesn’t come about through children answering questions from excerpts of texts that they will never read in full. We don’t stop our pupils reading for enjoyment.
'Reading is at the centre of our school ethos'
Instead, it’s our whole-school ethos which puts reading – and particularly reading for pleasure – at the heart of what we do that has contributed to our consistently high Sats results.
We are what many would deem to be a middle-class school in a leafy part of the country. Other teachers often assume that makes it easy for us to achieve what we do (or that our children come to us almost ready to read full-length novels). However, literacy skills on entry are no better than average, and many of our children come from cash-rich, time-poor families who haven’t invested in reading bedtime stories, singing nursery rhymes together or weekly visits to the library – activities that would put their children at an advantage in the early years.
There are certainly many schools with similar intakes that don’t achieve the results that we do.
How we created our reading culture
It is a challenge to pick out exactly what makes our system work. However, there are some key approaches that we believe could be applied in other schools, too.
First, we make sure the parents understand the importance of daily reading with their children. The way in which we approach reading and the priority it has are explained to them at an induction evening before their child starts in Reception.
We have strong expectations that parents will hear their child read (or, as their child gets older, discuss with them what they have read) every single day. We make sure there is the time in school every day to change children’s reading books, so that they receive a new one as soon as they are ready for it. This helps to develop (and maintain) reading momentum.
Reading is a big priority for us, not because we want good Sats results, but because we all want children to become lifelong readers for pleasure. As such, we give over large parts of the timetable to reading.
Every child in school has a half hour session for reading every morning – either independently, to an adult, or as part of a guided group. In addition, every class shares a book read by the teacher for at least 15 minutes at the end of each day. These aren’t read as part of the curriculum or to carry out assessments, but purely for pleasure.
Another of our priorities lies in ensuring that the children study a broad curriculum using a cross-curricular approach. This includes linking English lessons and age-appropriate texts to the topics studied, and enables children to develop their knowledge of the subject while also boosting their comprehension.
We invested in the Accelerated Reader program three years ago, and while it was a big initial outlay in terms of time and cost, we have found that children who were sometimes difficult to motivate to read are now reading more. After each book, the software gives children from Year 2 upwards an online quiz which assesses their comprehension and understanding of new vocabulary. Half-termly vocabulary and comprehension tests assess their reading age and assign a “reading zone” to them from within which they can choose their books.
Quality reading materials
We also have additional reading materials which children are encouraged to read regularly, and which are used in guided reading sessions. These include a number of high-quality magazines and newspapers including The Week, First News and Aquila. This gives children the chance to understand the different structures and vocabulary used within different genres of texts.
We ensure quality texts and text analysis form part of every English unit, with time built into units for children to read the texts and discuss what their thoughts are towards them. This is before they move on to applying skills of analysis, retrieval and inference to what they have read.
Short writing activities which enable children to respond to the texts occur throughout units so that children can write in-role, ask questions of characters or explore vocabulary or inference, which provides them with opportunities to improve their comprehension skills with a text that they exploring in depth.
Phonics is taught rigorously in differentiated groupings throughout key stage 1, and for children who are not on track to reach year group expectations, we provide intervention using structured programmes such as additional phonics sessions, resources provided by the Special Needs Information Press (SNIP) and Toe By Toe.
Our approach is not born out of a desire to chase league table positions, but to do the best for the children who pass through our school. We are proud of the recent success we have achieved, not for ourselves, but because it proves that what we are doing is making a difference to the children and their competency in this vital life skill.
Rachel Lopiccolo is a Year 5 teacher and English and history subject leader at Waddington and West Bradford CE Primary School, Lancashire.