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Reading is all about contact

Encouraging children to read is not just about getting them to pull a book off a shelf and read the words.

It is about helping them to make sense of the world within that book, encouraging them to challenge stereotypes and to realise the text has been created by an author who has his or her own viewpoint and prejudices.

This may all seem like quite a challenge but if teachers hope to encourage a lifelong relationship with reading as a way of gaining insight into the world and the way we live, then a focus on critical reading from the start is crucial.

The best way of starting is to use talk activities to engage children in thinking about the characters, events and settings they encounter in their reading. Most children's language comprehension will be in advance of their reading comprehension, especially in the early years of being a reader, so it makes sense to develop their reading comprehension initially through talk.

By engaging in talk activities before, during and after reading we can develop children's understanding of a text. We can get them to ask questions about character motivation and how events affect the characters in a book in ways that are highly sophisticated. We can turn reading into a problem-solving activity that goes beyond decoding the words and the literal interpretation of events.

One effective approach is to use a well-known story or nursery rhyme and invite the children to ask questions about a particular character. For instance, why did the old woman in the shoe beat her children?

When children generate their own questions, the teacher is given a great insight into their level of understanding.

This approach is a fantastic opportunity for the teacher to answer these questions in the role of the character. So, become the old woman by donning a scarf and answer their questions in an imaginative way to give children the opportunity to challenge the rhyme and wonder why it was written in the way it was. Rewriting the rhyme together using the new information is a chance to demonstrate clearly that authors write from particular viewpoints.

The wondering why is something we want all children to do as it leads us into thinking about our lives and the lives of others. It also helps us to tap into and value our own experiences and knowledge.

Talking about our own experiences and thinking about our knowledge of a topic before we read can also help children to begin to question or extend the information within a book. A before and after chart used with the whole class before a shared reading of a big book about snakes, for example, can heighten the children's anticipation but also encourage a focused and critical reading. If the children already know what they want to find out about, such as where the most dangerous snakes are found, then they will be able to begin to assess the quality of an information book by whether the details were easy to find out or whether the information was to be found at all.

This can then lead to discussion about how the information book could have been better organised and, perhaps, the creation of their own class-made information book about snakes.

These are just some of the many different talk activities that can be used to help children develop their reading comprehension. It is a longer process to build talk into teaching but worthwhile and fun.

Sue Dean, manager of Steps Professional Development, talks about Reading Comprehension Through Talk at 10.30am on November 14

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