Similes all round

"Today we're going to focus on the characters' emotions," says Martin Finch, former acting head of Old Hall Junior School, Chesterfield, as he settles down with a Year 6 middle-ability group, three boys and three girls, for a session of guided reading.

The children recap on the main characters in Dick King-Smith's The Crowstarver, and try to sum up, on white boards, what they know so far about the relationship of Tom and his wife, Kathy - remembering to back this up with evidence from the story.

Then they read the next chapter, reading silently but taking it in turns to read a short section aloud to Martin Finch. This is his chance for some detailed one-to-one with each child on whatever arises in their reading, be it adverbs and similes, tricky vocabulary and ideas, or points of writing style and technique.

The chapter completed, the children have a thoughtful, even heated discussion about aspects of the story - about why Tom and Kathy do not mention to one another the apparent oddness of their adopted child, about why the author concludes the chapter with so short and puzzling a sentence.

They finish the session - all of this takes 20 minutes - really keen to read on and find out what happens.

"Sometimes, some of the writing is quite hard to understand, so in a group like this, you can know what it means," says Grace, aged 11.

"I like guided reading, because if you talk about it, you might find out bits you have missed," says Richard, also 11.

Always quietly in control, pushing the children towards greater precision and attending to them closely, Martin Finch makes guided reading look deceptively easy (see the National Literacy Strategy video for a demonstration of this). But his commitment to it grew not out of a lifelong passion for reading, but rather the opposite: "I hated reading in junior school. I know, from my own experience, that a child can sit there and read and take the minimum in. Guided reading is about taking in the maximum."

For teachers though, guided reading sessions can be hard to manage, he admits, and do not always sit easily within the literacy hour.

As a Year 6 teacher, he tried to hear three out of the five groups every week (often in silent reading after lunch), and parent helpers heard the remaining two.

But the effort pays off, he says. "The children's writing, and grammar, have improved immensely from looking at how writers do it.

"Guided reading sessions make the children feel more secure, and because they understand better, they enjoy the books more."

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