Boredom, bedlam and balance
When I was 10, we read Treasure Island round the class. I still remember the sinking feeling when it was my turn to read. Mind you, there were 45 in the class, so the turn didn't come round that often. But there was also the suicidal boredom of listening to slow readers like Lester Coleman struggling through his three-quarters of a page.
Teaching has moved on since then, of course. A recent issue of Language and Learning describes a system which involves splitting the class into five groups to work on reading skills. For half-an-hour, Group 1 does individual silent reading; Group 2 splits into pairs to talk to a partner; Group 3 explores the reading box (full of exciting reading resources on a theme, which is refurbished each week); Group 4 reads a shared text; and Group 5 works with the teacher on activities carefully tailored to individual needs. The groups change each day so every child gets a shot at every activity every week.
I wonder what the children involved in that system will remember about learning to read. The carnage in the book corner when six or seven little bodies are left in close proximity with no adult supervision? The mutterings and gigglings of the paired readers as they gossip amiably about nothing in particular? The squabbles round the reading box over who gets which exciting resource? The spirited objections among the unsupervised group readers when Lester Coleman's turn comes round? The pain, anger and despair on the teacher's face, as she tries to deliver her carefully-prepared lesson to Group 5, while the classroom disintegrates around her?
There is no doubt that junior teachers must get to grips with the teaching of reading. Last year's School Curriculum and Assessment Authority report One Week In March: a survey of the literature pupils read made it clear yet again that specific teaching of reading skills seems to stop somewhere around Year 4. Many children do little more than a period of ERIC or USSR each day (Everyone Reading In Class or Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading).
The tradition of the teacher reading a novel to the class - valuable though that is in its own right - is no substitute for children's engagement with texts.
After those long hours in the doldrums on the Hispaniola, I would be the last to recommend a whole class approach to reading. But any methodology we suggest to teachers must be practicable. There are few points on which I feel in complete agreement with Chris Woodhead, but one is that many so-called group-teaching methods are wasteful of everybody's time and energy.To me, group teaching of reading involves a teacher working with continued on page 10 a group - so that teacher and pupils all have access to the same text. This might be a novel, play or collection of poems which can be read and discussed; a non-fiction book, which the teacher uses to develop pupils' non-fiction reading strategies; or occasionally other types of texts - perhaps an anthology including letters, newspaper and magazine cuttings, and bits of contentious pamphleteering - to develop the pupils' range of critical reading skills.
Obviously, the larger the group the less interaction between pupils and teacher, but at key stage 2, groups of 10 to 15 are usually manageable. This means that the average class can be covered in two or three groups.
Grouping by ability makes teaching easier, but it may not be possible with such large groups. However, even in a mixed-ability group, poorer readers can at least benefit from following text while it is read, and everyone can join in discussion. (Today's teachers would hopefully ensure that Lester Coleman did not read aloud unless he wished to do so, and then would arrange for him to prepare his reading in advance.) Most schools should be able to arrange a regular period three to five times a week when another adult (a classroom helper? the school secretary? the headteacher?) supervises ERIC with the rest of the class for half-an- hour while the teacher works with one large reading group in a quiet corner of the school. This sort of supervised group work provides opportunities actually to teach - to develop children's reading fluency, comprehension and critical and literary appreciation.
Reading aloud in a group need not mirror the Treasure Island experience. A novel with plenty of direct speech may be read like a play, with one child reading the narration while others read individual characters. Pairs of children may prepare the reading of a page or two (if you alternate two reading groups, trusted children could do their preparation in the broom cupboard during next day's ERIC). To hurry the story along, you could read a bit yourself while the group follows, or they could read a chapter during ERIC for discussion the next day.
These discussion sessions provide opportunities for comprehension work - extending vocabulary, investigating ideas, talking about language. As children's reading skills improve, the focus can move increasingly to the higher order skills of critical reading and literary appreciation. The teacher can set - and prepare with the children during their group session - follow-up written or spoken work, differentiated according to pupils' ability, for completion during whole class language sessions. This might sometimes involve presentations back to the group; the system provides opportunities to cover lots of the speaking and listening targets too.
The operative word seems to me to be "teaching". There was no teaching involved in the whole class reading of my youth: we just sat there and were bored. I imagine the poor teacher in the five-group model being too burdened down with preparation, organisation and supervision to be able to teach very much.
The other important ingredient is, of course, books. Many headteachers may balk at the thought of buying sets of 15 novels, non-fiction books or anthologies. But how do you teach reading without shared experience of the text? Cosmetic solutions involving "boxes of exciting reading resources" aren't enough: children need teachers and they need books. The development of reading skills results from a chemical process which only those two essential components can provide.
Sue Palmer is a former primary teacher who now offers language presentations for pupils and teachers. Details from the Language LIVE Roadshow, 11 St George's Road, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3JE (01872 41776). She is general editor of the Longman Book Project Keep it simple when teaching reading to groups at key stage 2: skills result from a chemical process which only a blend of teachers and books provide, says Sue Palmer