Critics' choice

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Michael Thorn found his pupils were much more interested in reading when they became reviewers

Children have strong opinions about their reading, but the formal structure of the literacy hour and the terminology used can sometimes be inhibiting. I recently asked a Year 6 boy, an avid reader, to say something about the mood or atmosphere of the book he had in his hand. This was a prelude to launching into the learning intention for the day - "analysing how messages, moods, feelings and attitudes are conveyed" in a poem by Charles Causley. The boy clammed up. Not because he didn't have an attitude towards his book, but because he was not at ease with thinking in terms of the "mood" of a piece of writing.

When it comes to responses to reading, many of the literacy framework's exhortations do not sit comfortably with the structure of an individual or even a series of literacy hours. By the end of Year 6, children are expected to "use a reading journal effectively to raise and refine personal responses". However, there is no earlier mention of maintaining a reading journal in the framework. If children are going to keep such a diary, they need to be given regular opportunities for making entries in it, and for sharing entries with one another. These opportunities will almost certainly need to arise outside the literacy hour. There may not be specific mention of reading journals in earlier year-groups, but there is plenty of encouragement towards a reflective approach to reading.

Attempting to embrace all this within the literacy hour is impossible without restricting children's responses to a tightly prescribed list of studied texts, the majority of which will be brief extracts. Many schools have moved guided reading outside the literacy hour. That can dramatically increase opportunities for children to exchange views about shared reading, especially if skilled voluntary help is available. We have a parent who has a talent (he is a retired college lecturer) for chairing round-table book discussions in a manner that encourages even young children to enter a debate about a book in an atmosphere akin to Newsnight Review. Oral recommendations give good practice in speaking and listening and are a good way of rounding up a session of quiet reading. Children listen closely to each other's views and act on them.

For some time, I had been adding my own card comments to key titles in the school library, along the lines used by bookshops. These evoked positive responses from visiting adults and did get some children borrowing books they might not otherwise have chosen. But the effect of using children's brief review comments on the books instead of mine has been positively cyclonic in comparison. No sooner has the librarian fixed the comment to the book and placed it on display, than it is being borrowed. Things will calm down once the scheme loses its novelty, but what will not be lost is the explicit marriage between review and recommendation. The framework is heavy on analysis and criticism. These are factors very much to the fore when I write as an adult reviewer of children's books. But in school I want the main purpose of children's reviews to be the encouragement of reading and the broadening of choice (see sentence-level support, opposite).

One of the distinctive features of children's comments is their exaggerated emphases. "The Illustrated Mum is a fantastic book. Jacqueline Wilson is a fantastic author." For me, this is a positive thing, a sign that enthusiasm overrides sober lessons learned about vocabulary choice.

Tim and Chris Cross, the boys who run the cool-reads website, are a little older than primary age, but their reviews are refreshingly free of affectation and in their own voices. It was immediately apparent, when they were invited to write a review for the Financial Times some while ago, that adult review-speak had been editorially infiltrated into the piece.

However, there is no denying the interplay between language structure and thought, and book reviews lend themselves admirably to scaffolding (see review extracts).

Children can readily identify the ingredients of a good book review.

Certainly the older classes I discussed this with could all explain why it is not a good idea to give too much of the plot away, why the review should indicate what genre of book is being described, why it should convey an opinion, in what circumstances it might be appropriate to refer to the book's cover, and so on.

They were particularly perceptive about the shorthand value of rating systems. Clearly, one of the reasons children like giving points out of 10 is because they enjoy playing teacher, awarding marks. But one girl also explained that they help her decide whether or not to read the review. "I'm only interested in reading reviews of good books, so if I see a book's only got two or three marks I won't bother." Moral: if you want your review to be read, make it an enthusiastic one.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hailsham Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

World Book day

Book Aid International has produced a double-sided classroom poster for World Book Day, March 6. It includes a global citizenship quiz and extracts from a Namibian poem, together with related activities. Children are also invited to take part in a nationwide poster competition. Book Aid International Tel: 020 7733 3577 A amp; C Black are inviting eight to 11-year-olds to contribute reviews and illustrations to a children's book guide to be published next year. The closing date is World Book Day this year, and selected entries will appear alongside contributions from Penelope Lively, Michael Morpurgo, Benjamin Zephaniah, Jamila Gavin and others. Email:


To facilitate Year 2 children's ability to recommend stories, poems and books they enjoy, provide a bank of related phrases (happy ending, amazing illustrations, believable characters, twist in the tail, end-of-chapter cliffhangers, funny situations, scary atmosphere).

To support Year 4's task of "comparing and contrasting" and reviewing their own reading, provide helpful sentence constructs:

"On the face of it these two books are very different, but they do have one thing in common..."

"My two favourite authors both... but they..."

"I read mainly.... because... but recently I..."


Allow children to write freely in their reading journals, but provide a variety of formats to aid individual title reviews.

Sometimes these review sheets might contain entries for vital information - title, author, book-type, star rating. At other times, they should include prompts for the identification of key characteristics.

A good example would be narrative voice. Is the narrative voice first person, third person, past, present, fixed point of view, shifting point of view?


Younger children can be delightfully specific in their recommendations.

Asked who else might enjoy the books they were reviewing, these were the comments of some children in Year 2:

"Someone who likes fairy stories, like my cousin Chloe." "My sister might, because she likes exciting stories." "Daniel, because he hasn't read it before."

By Years 56, recommendations will be targeted to particular readerships:

"If you're looking for a fairly quick read but a good diary, this book's perfect," says Francesca, about Do Not Read This Book by Pat Moon.

At other times, a reader's own satisfaction is all that matters: "I started to read the first one and I could not get my eyes off the pages. It is so amazing! Ever since the first one I have read up to the sixth one. I can't wait to read the seventh, The Vile Village," says Freddie of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

And Amy "was thrilled with excitement when reading The Phone Goes Dead by Anthony Horowitz. I reckon he is the best suspense writer as he always leaves me anxious when I put my book down."

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