A search for early paths into literature

Reva Klein on a pilot project in Hertfordshire devised to make reading a classroom activity in its own right. While the teaching of reading is of a high standard nationally for children at key stage 1, the same cannot be said about the latter end of the primary age range, once children have become independent readers.

Surveys from the Assessment of Performance Unit and HMI reports show that the more sophisticated reading skills, such as scanning, prediction, understanding textual organisation and author intention and devleoping a critical response are not as well taught or successfully learned as the basic decoding skills.

Reports also show poor organisation of reading in schools, leading to children having difficulties in choosing appropriate books and knowing what to do with them, beyond straightforward decoding. Given the problematic picture of reading at key stage 2, it is no wonder that assessing children, especially those who don't use reading schemes and therefore lack an inbuilt structure, can be such a complex matter for teachers.

When the results of Hertfordshire's 1991 inspection of reading in primary schools concurred with the national picture, the English advisory service decided to set up a pilot project to develop reading at key stage 2. In 1993, with the help of a curriculum development grant of nearly Pounds 14,000, two teachers from each of 10 county primary schools were funded to do in service training, then plan reading activities in the same way that they would do science or maths and write up an evaluation afterwards. Each school involved was given Pounds 100 to spend on its own choice of materials as well as resources worth Pounds 250 bought by the LEA. The pilot set out, in the words of English adviser Terry Reynolds, "to make reading a focus of classroom activity". Teachers were shown the value of dividing children into smaller groups in which they could either read aloud to each other or read independently and then discuss afterwards. Within those groups, they could be encouraged to participate in prediction exercises and other activities that would concentrate the children on the process of reading and emphasise the advantages of collaboration. Reading was presented to the teachers as an activity in its own right, worthy of planning and consideration, rather than as simply a passive means to an end. It is as much to do with discussions and displays, social and collaborative elements, as with the actual process of sitting down in a one to one relationship with a book.

Teachers went away with these recommendations, having adapted them for use in their individual classrooms. Their response, and those of the children, was enthusiastic. "The able children made progress but so, too, did the children who weren't good independent readers," says Terry Reynolds. "It clearly supported children not just across the ability range but across the gender divide as well." At Greenway school in Royston, Cheryl Bowyer and her colleague used a variety of different activities to support activities that would complement their ongoing work, introducing more structure and, as she puts it, "to enthuse the children in their reading". This involved buying six copies of each of the nine new texts they chose, to enable small reading groups. Some of the groups read silently and then discussed what they'd read, others read to each other. Methods such as the teacher and children together working out questions to ask at the end of each chapter led, in her words, to "the children really beginning to interrogate the text, question the plot, look more closely at characterisation. Their enthusiasm and motivation has had a knock-on effect as well. It may be that the activities have given them confidence, a structure to what they're reading. It may also be to do with the texts that we chose, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, easier and more difficult. Evaluation and assessment has been easier, too, because as they're reading and having conversations, which makes it much less formal".

As a result of the pilot, the school has adopted a group reading project for all year 5 and 6 pupils for a six week period. Built into this is liaison with the Year 7 teachers which, since it is a 9 to 13 middle school, is relatively easy to do. "This way, the group reading project can be continued and developed in different ways, making it relevant to the English syllabus".

Mary Robins, deputy head at Harwood Hill school in Welwyn Garden City, was one of two teachers to develop the reading project. They chose a number of ways of "looking for pathways into literature". They chose books in order to look in depth at one particular author as well as choosing some on the basis of subject matter. Working in small groups, their activities focused on character analysis, looking for bias in the text, examining newspaper and magazine reports in an exercise on different writing styles and examining how authors engage readers' interest.

"We tried to make their reading progressive," says Ms Robins, "building on what they had already achieved. It's interesting to observe that it doesn't matter that they read at different abilities - when the work is collaborative, they support each other. It stretches and challenges all children. And when they work together, it has meant that their enthusiasm keeps going" So impressive were the results of the pilot that here, too, the concepts and methodologies have been woven into mainstream classroom teaching. The two project teachers have led workshops with the rest of the staff and are now planning to develop reading skills and appreciation throughout the school.

"This is much more than about learning to read. It's getting into the finer skills and an appreciation of the wider range and different styles of text. " The spirit of the pilot clearly lives on and flourishes, developing and permutating according to the needs and outlooks of the schools involved. It is also growing. Twilight courses based on the project have been held in the past two years for over 200 teachers so far. The teachers take the ideas back to their schools and so it spreads, according to Terry Reynolds. The primary English adviser is currently running a project with a small group of schools on reading for information. And Mr Reynolds is running a series of inset sessions on boys and English at key stage 3, tying in with a project to be conducted next term.

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