Bite-size texts lure young into reading

5th April 1996 at 01:00
To get children hooked on reading, feed them literature in rationed amounts and encourage talking between instalments. When an exercise to promote group discussion of novels was staged with seven to 12-year-olds in Scotland - where pupils are traditionally more reluctant to speak up in class than those south of the Border - their confidence and ability to contribute effectively in class increased as well as their enthusiasm for books.

These benefits were felt across the curriculum, said project co-ordinator Alan Hill, a lecturer in language studies at Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh. The group discussion work also changed the way children read, he said, "widening and deepening their awareness and understanding of the fullest meaning of the text".

Groups of between six and eight pupils in two primary schools and a middle school, mostly from the group below the top readers in their classes, took part in the Moray House pilot study last year.

Each group studied a series of novels together with children who had been asked to read an episode - and no more - before each session. Alan Hill realises that the strategy of deliberately limiting children's reading is controversial. "It has to be introduced very carefully - I tell them they're going to read a book in a way that they have never tried before.

"I believe that if children are already motivated to read a range of books, reading one book in this way will not stop them doing that, and if they are not keen on reading it will help.

"I've only met one or two children who read ahead of the group. Most of them enjoyed saving some of the book to look forward to." But to hold pupils' interest, he says, there should not be long gaps between chunks of reading. The exercise should be repeated at least three times a week - more often for younger children with shorter memories.

Despite the small groups, he said, discussion was slow to start. "They found it difficult to believe that I wanted to hear their opinions," Alan Hill said. "I had to be careful how I phrased questions, using 'Why do you think . . . ' rather than 'do you think ?' "The choice of book is very important. It has to be rich in human relations and values." A narrative structure with regular peaks of excitement helps too. Books used in the pilot project include CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Anna Holm's I am David. Moray House has produced a teacher's guide to accompany each book, with suggested questions to stimulate discussion and maintain interest during narrative troughs.

Alan Hill's sample questions about Charlotte's Web, the American classic novel by EB White about Wilbur the pig, range from the apparently diversionary ("Who sets the table for breakfast in your house? Would you like doughnuts for breakfast? What do you usually have for breakfast? What's your favourite?" and "Is Wilbur the most beautiful name you can think of? What names can you think of that would suit a small pig?") to the more profound ("What is injustice?" "Can you think of any examples of injustice?").

"In general the discussion tended to be not about events and characters in the book, but the children's understanding and experience," he said.

Geraldine Brennan

The group discussion of fiction in primary and middle schools: pilot evaluation study is available from Alan Hill, department of language studies, Moray House Institute of Education, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ.

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