Novel approach to reading pays dividends all round

24th April 2009 at 01:00
'Boring' traditional class books and accompanying question sheets have been relegated to the bin to make room for more active integrated novel study in North Lanarkshire

Active literacy in North Lanarkshire means throwing away reading schemes and worksheets.

Teachers have been "bored rigid" by teaching literacy with reading schemes, according to Tricia Wilson, the architect of the authority's active literacy programme. Now, they and their pupils are motivated about reading.

For the middle and upper primary (P4-7), that means focusing on "integrated novel study" - a list of 22 children's books suitable for reading levels B to E - instead of traditional class reading books and accompanying question sheets.

Sacred Heart Primary was one of the first schools to pilot integrated novels three years ago with its P7 class, but now uses them from P5-7 with huge success.

The programme, led by Ms Wilson, one of North Lanarkshire's quality improvement officers with responsibility for literacy, is based on educational research and matches the aspirations of A Curriculum for Excellence very closely, she believes. All primary schools in the authority are using the programme, but some are further ahead than others.

In simple terms, the novel is used as a starting point for various literacy exercises using active teaching methodologies. Thus Carrie's War, by Nina Bawden, provokes research on war; DarkIsle, by DA Nelson, links with a study of Scottish islands.

The authority has bought in supplementary teachers' notes on the books, but it is the teachers and advisory staff who have developed most of the activities. These have an emphasis on pupil co-operation through partner work, peer assessment in reading and writing, paired reading, and the creation of a "dictionary of praise" to support pupils as they encourage their partner's endeavours.

Ms Wilson says: "All tasks are active for the children and require deep thinking; they work well with co-operative learning approaches."

She believes that reading schemes have never been particularly successful, even when she was a headteacher, but these days, children have become more disengaged from reading.

"They don't have the time, motivation or interest to read. I wonder if it's because they feel they can't do it. Once they feel they can do it, they are motivated," she says.

That is why she has created the integrated novel study scheme - to give reading more relevance to children. It is paying dividends - improved reading attainment, not to mention better discipline and concentration. Some children who received support for learning are now reading real books when, before, that would have been unthinkable, she says.

"This is about enabling and empowering children and having texts for children at their own level, books that engage them."

At Sacred Heart, the programme starts with the teacher modelling the reading of part of chapter one, followed by a pupil and his or her partner completing chapters one and two together. Pupils are expected to read two chapters a week which, headteacher Mary Glen acknowledges, is quite testing for some.

Those who struggle to complete the reading at home are allocated reading time on a Tuesday morning with a classroom assistant, so that they do not fall behind. Activities vary but usually include a character study, chapter summaries, comic strips, diaries or journals, personal stories and debates.

Today, principal teacher Catherine Poutney has her P5 class divided into three groups for literacy. Pupils in the most advanced group are writing their own story, inspired by The Invisible Boy. They have a plan which they discuss in pairs (when, where, characters, main events, what happened, and ending); then they write their own story. David and Nathan's invisible characters break into a "manshion", "steel" a PS3, Xbox 360 and a number of DSs and make a "clean getaway".

A second group of children is designing a cover and writing a blurb and rating for The Best Dog in the World, while a third group of four boys who find reading particularly challenging, never wanted to read or write in the past but now work together well, "have a go at it".

"Before, you would get the bare minimum, now they show a lot more enthusiasm," says Mrs Poutney of the class in general, attributing the change in large part to partner-work.

They get excited by the novels and love the idea of novel study. She uses the ideas for environmental studies, not just for language-themed work.

"If I had done it the old-fashioned way, I would probably have limited their creativity," she admits.

Partner-work necessitates talking: "You have to accept there is a buzz - that's one of the hardest things of the approach, but if you take a step back, you realise you're getting a really good piece of work."

At Kildrum Primary in Cumbernauld, the target is to devote five weeks to each book - two novels per term, followed by a non-fiction book. The two P7 teachers, Mandy Killin and Heather Stewart, agree that metacognition has gone through the roof since their pupils started on the integrated novel study.

Ms Killin asked her class to devise their own tasks linked to their novel, a strategy which brought a lot more to the task. Ms Stewart's P7 class tried a different strategy - working with a different partner every week. The discipline of working with someone who wasn't necessarily a good friend has been beneficial to social interaction and concentration, both she and the pupils believe.

The P7s also do peer assessment with the P6s - the pupils say they are "more honest" because they don't know them as well.

The children particularly like the fact that their teacher reads the novel at the same rate as them. It means that when the pupils have to write a "prediction" - what they think will happen next - their teacher has no more idea than they have.

Kildrum P7 pupils also use their novels for paired spelling tests, picking out "challenging" words they think will test their partner. The strategy is called "fancy spelling" and is, say the pupils, much better than everyone being tested on the same words on a Friday.

Another technique has been to use A4-size jotters for story-writing - that way, the pupils write more. At the end of a novel, the class produces a big "evidence book", containing a sample of good work from every pupil. Teachers, classroom assistants and parents also leave their comments.

Novels chosen to encourage more reading

A sample of North Lanarkshire's list of integrated novels: many are selected because of Scottish connections or they are part of a sequel, to encourage further reading.

- The Highwayman's Footsteps, Nicola Morgan

- Dragonfire, Anne Forbes

- DarkIsle, DA Nelson

- Why the Whales Came, Michael Morpurgo

- The Invisible Boy, Sally Gardner

- Carrie's War, Nina Bawden

- Tilly and the Badgers, Joan Lingard

- Jammy Dodgers Get Filthy Rich, Bowering Sivers

- The Demon Headmaster, Gillian Cross

- Inkheart, Cornelia Funke

What the children say

"I sometimes sneak a book into bed to read on school nights." - Daniele Healy, Sacred Heart P7

"I can't get to sleep until I read at night. I'm reading three books at one time." - Megan Craig, Sacred Heart P7

"I have a computer at home which I just use for games. Then I have to read to get my mind off computer games." - Dylan Burt, Sacred Heart P7

"It's made us more confident that we can now give an honest opinion when we talk about what we have read." - Stuart Bryce, Kildrum Primary P7

"Before, I would not have read big books - I would just have given up. Now I'm inspired to read." - Misha Davidson, Kildrum Primary P7

"My mum said: 'I think it's made you talk more proper'. I've never been a confident person, but now I have got something to be proud of." - Louise Martin, Kildrum Primary P7

"I used to not like literacy; I used to dread it, but now I can't wait. Before, it was just answering the questions. Now, I wake up in the morning and I feel happy because it's reading and writing." - Tegan Marmar, Kildrum Primary P7

What HMIE said about Sacred Heart's English language work in 2008:

"Pupils at the upper stages were using the study of novels very effectively to develop their knowledge of listening, talking, reading and writing in a progressive and motivating way. Pupils from P1 were encouraged to write independently for a variety of purposes. At all stages they planned and produced high-quality written work. The standards of pupils' punctuation, sentence structure and spelling were consistently good."

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