Group reading - soon to be introduced into English schools via the National Literacy Strategy - is a way out of this dispiriting state of affairs. Sharing books with peers, under the teacher's direction, can improve children's reading on two levels. First, it provides opportunities to refine those basic skills of word-attack and fluency which make reading come "naturally"; second, it's a vehicle for the development of the higher-order reading skills which allow children to move on to more demanding material.
The social element of the group - opportunities to learn from each other, and share discoveries - is an impetus to progress, as is the chance to spend uninterrupted time with the teacher. Twenty minutes is probably the optimum for a group reading session, and six to eight children (the usual junior group size) means plenty of opportunities for talk. The older and more able the readers, the larger your groups can be, although once into double figures the returns diminish.
The National Literacy Strategy will leave schools in no doubt about what to teach (exhaustive targets for each term should be arriving next month on headteachers' desks) - which means teachers will be free at last to concentrate on the how. A dedicated daily literacy hour, of which approximately a third should be spent on group reading, will provide plenty of opportunities to put that what and how into practice. And a National Year of Reading starting in September, promoting the advantages of literacy should provide a suitable background for a school reading drive.
Individual silent reading still has a place - perhaps as part of a "language assignment" which keeps the class busy while you work with a group - but it is class and group teaching which will ensure that each individual is enabled and motivated to read. The teacher's role, as mediator between pupil and text, is crucial.
DO use part of your group time for hearing children read aloud (various strategies were described last week). As well as "unseen" reading, try asking pairs of children to prepare the reading of a piece of dialogue, or to devise a presentation of a poem or short text.
DON'T get stuck on hearing reading - use the sessions also for "tutorial" work. If you run two groups on alternate days, set one group to read silently while you're working with the other. They can prepare an agreed amount of reading, ready for discussion the next day.
DO read a variety of material, not just fiction. Collect group sets of information books, poems, plays, magazine and newspaper articles, pamphlets and brochures. Use group sessions also for developing on-screen reading skills - share the expertise of group-members in using reference materials such as the CD-Rom encyclopedia Encarta, or searching the World Wide Web for information.
DON'T rely on inspiration for tutorial discussion. With so many things on your mind, you need help to focus on the right types of discussion. Here are two excellent ideas devised by language co-ordinators to help staff:
* Jane Hogan of Queen's School in Richmond has produced aide-mmoires for each member of staff to keep with them during shared and group reading. These are laminated A4 cards containing lists of the sorts of things on which to focus. The suggestions, based on the National Literacy Project framework, could be used in this way.
* Linda Whish of Redhills School, Exeter, sticks a large label saying "Teacher's Copy" on one book in every group set. She then makes a brief note in its margins of ideas and starting points for discussion. Other teachers add to these when they use the book, creating an ever-growing bank of ideas.
DO keep tabs on the books, especially if children take them home to prepare reading. At Pinkie School in Musselburgh, Scotland, teachers number each copy in the set. When books are first issued to a group, the teacher registers each child's name by the number of the book taken. It's that child's responsibil ity to ensure that the numbered book is well-looked after and returned at the end.
DON'T worry if children read on when they're preparing work. Teachers sometimes go spare when children read more than the prescribed amount and "know what's going to happen". You could try making bookmarks saying "This is a group reading book - please read the stated amount and no further". However, as children can't resist the thrill of the forbidden, it will probably just make them worse. Better to be laid back about it and, indeed,see it as a compliment. If your group reading sessions inspire children to read more than you set, things are obviously going well.
Sue Palmer is general editor of the Longman Book Project, which was devised specifically for group reading. For details of her INSET presentations, Send SAE to Language Live, 11 St George's Road, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3JE