A project fundamental to the love of fiction

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Huw Thomas shares ways to move children on to chapter books

Ibet the children's section of your local bookshop has grown over the past decade. Not just in size, but also in quality. Titles such as Artemis Fowl and Inkheart, authors such as Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman are just at the tip of an iceberg of dazzling fiction.

In last week's TES, reading tsar, Jim Rose called for constant renewal of our literacy strategies. Yet at present key stage 2 reading ends in tragedy. We spend four years exploring plots, emotions and characters in stories, then fritter away the excitement by creating Year 6 pupils who read for 15 minutes and answer a 45-minute test. It's time we built better bridges between quality fiction and all our children.

My starting point is to share with children the truth that chapter-by-chapter reading is a challenge. As children move from the books they can read in one sitting to the titles that take time and require a bookmark, we need to let them know that this is a challenging step, and celebrate as they take it.

Bring back the class novel. A teacher serialising a title, imbuing it with suspense and sharing the pleasure, is a vital means of communicating a love of fiction. Yes, curriculum time is squeezed, but this sacrosanct activity is more important than foundation subjects. So let's find the time.

Prior to that step, let us encourage colleagues to read children's fiction.

My office has a shelf of novels that is regularly plundered by children who share my enthusiasm. Staff can foster children's interest in particular authors and titles, and relaxing with a good book is no bad use of PPA time.

As we explore fiction, we can seek out the bits we will share with children. Let's not just read one entire book at a time. An opening chapter, a scary incident or a witty dialogue can all provide quick reads we can share. Between now and Christmas, at three books a week, there is time to share nearly 25 books in this way. It could even give the class ideas for their Christmas list.

My pipe-dream would be the extension of a terrific project, which our school is engaged in: it is one of 223 schools in the UK involved in the Reading is Fundamental project, organised by the National Literacy Trust.

It gives children the chance to own books and funds activities that promote enthusiasm for reading them. Author visits, living history sessions, drumming and storytelling all stand alongside the central activity of supporting children as they select three books, which become theirs to read and keep.

With support, children choose their book - be it a picture book or a non-fiction text. One teacher told the trust: "The books the children chose are the most-loved books in school - read over and over again and swapped with friends".

The project also provides book bags, book plates, staff training and support. Viv Bird, acting director of the project, said it has had a big impact on children's reading. "Ninety-four per cent of our co-ordinators said their project improved children's attitudes to reading," she said.

The project costs pound;25 per child, per year. For a local business to provide the project in a primary, the price starts at just pound;750. This is called corporate social responsibility. It is about asking the local store that makes a mint out of selling school uniforms or the ambulance-chasing solicitors that prey on our litigious parents whether they are interested in putting something back into the community. A few grand would do.

Over the past decade, we have made substantial improvements in the teaching of literacy, but there are still more to be made. Wouldn't it be great to make a concerted effort to route those steps over the bridge to the novel?

www.rif.org. ukHuw Thomas is a headteacher in Sheffield and author of Understanding Texts (Scholastic pocket guides)

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