Readers write in

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Ann Webley encourages seven to 11-year-olds to keep a journal of their responses to books

Literacy adviser and author Sue Palmer says teachers should "get out of the straitjacket, but not back into the woolly pully". Rigorous planning based on a clear progression of objectives has produced staggering results in many classrooms around the country. While looking more creatively at ways of teaching English and making links across subjects, teachers must not throw out the good practice which has led to improvement.

The Office for Standards in Education's Yes He Can report looked at schools which had succeeded in teaching boys to write well. These schools had all fostered an atmosphere that promoted reading enjoyment and the discussion of all aspects of books. Many schools had introduced reading journals in which children responded independently to what they read.

Children who are taught to do this thoughtfully have a head start when it comes to their own writing.

I believe all juniors should write in a reading journal at least once a week. When can this be done? Different schools will establish different routines. While a teacher is with a guided reading group, the other groups might write in their journals. Older juniors can also do this for homework.

The word "routine" in no way implies dull and boring activities.

Creative ideas lead to exciting journals which reflect children's enjoyment of what they read. At first, these might be structured around guided discussions so children are taught to think their way through a book. Role play, hot seating or interviewing can precede writing in order to understand the characters or extract information from a page of non-fiction.

Later, older juniors might select from a list of responses. Their reading should include both fiction and non-fiction. Quizzes and fact boxes based on non-fiction are as important as character studies or predictions about the story in novels and short stories. Examples might include: writing to a character in the style of an agony aunt; writing a person's thoughts at a crucial point in the story; drawing and labelling a picture of a setting from the written text.

Many schools encourage children to write book reviews. This could be done in a journal but the school should agree on what sort of progress is expected from one year to the next. A Year 3 pupil will not be commenting at the same level as a child in Year 6. Some schools have created writing frames to teach a structure. These are stuck inside the reading journal for reference. Since it is important to give children opportunities to write for real audiences, it is a good idea to publish a set of reviews in a class or year group book. This can be available during reading time to encourage others to read the books. A good review might hint at an ending, though without giving it away. A considered review of a non-fiction book would discuss layout and how that helps the reader.

It is really all about creating an atmosphere in which reading is important and in which responses to reading are celebrated. It may be part of a weekly routine, but it is worth making a fuss to establish. If children are used to reflecting on what they read from a young age, they will come to a text with open mind and imagination. They will start to see similarities and differences between texts. They will be able to express preferences and give reasons for their opinions. All this is done during class time. The reading journal gives the child the opportunity to take what has been learned and make it personal, to respond in an individual way to something that has been enjoyed.

Ann Webley is a freelance literacy consultant and former teacher

What to put in a journal

Ask pupils to:

* Pick a descriptive word from the text, write it down and, using a thesaurus, write down five synonyms and antonyms for that word.

* Write a description of the main character: their looks, the way they dress, the way they talk and their personality.

and label a character or a setting from a description in the book.

* Choose a descriptive passage and make a list of examples of vivid imagery - similes, metaphors, alliteration, noun phrases etc * List the words and phrases used to create an atmosphere, such as "scary" or "spookiness".

* Write about what a character might be thinking or feeling at any stage of the story. You could write it in the first person in a speech bubble.

* Predict what might happen when you are about half way through a book.

Write your prediction in the form of a story plan in boxes.

* Write questions to go with a book you have just read. Include different styles of questions.

* Write down some words you had difficulty reading and had not met before.

Find their meanings in a dictionary and write them down.

* Write about your favourite part of a book and why you liked it.

* Write five fascinating facts you learned from a non-fiction book.

* Write about how the non-fiction book is set out and why.

* Write some advice to a character in trouble in the style of a letter from an agony aunt.

* Write a diary entry that a character might write after an incident in the story.

* Write a short summary of a whole plot. Don't waste words.

* Write a blurb for the back cover.

* Change some information in a non-fiction book into a labelled drawing or a chart.

* Write an alternative ending.

* Write a newspaper report about an incident in a story or an issue in a non-fiction book.

* Write a quiz to go with a non-fiction book. Don't forget to hide your answers.


Year 4 - an alternative blurb

"There is a circus in town and the sleepover girls meet the ringmaster's little girl. She says they can have circus lessons. But will they make it to the performance?"

Year 3 - the trouble with mice, a prediction

"What has happened at the moment is that Chris and Mary's grandad has found a cage at the edge of the road. When Chris comes home and finds it he says: 'Now I can buy my mouse.' 'Oh no you won't,' says Chris's mum. My prediction is that Chris gets his mouse secretly and hides it in the garage."

Year 4 - answer to questions set at the end of a guided reading session "Yes I do think Emma went back in time because when she wakes up the street lamps are all turned off. I also think she went back in a time slip because when her foot touches the floor, the floor is icy cold. Another reason is her hand touched an iron bar at the end of the bed. I also think she went in a time slip because the light switch is different. A big reason for thinking she went in a time slip was because she meets a girl called Polly and later on she finds that her Grandma's name is Polly."(Obviously there are writing faults such as repetition here but this is a reading response.)

Year 5 - answer to question about which character is happier

"I think Kyokan is happier than Chan because Kyokan talks about looking poor but being rich but Chang moans about working and earning a living.

Kyokan thinks he has a privilege because he can see the whole village, the horizon and at night the moon and the stars. I think that Kyokah thinks he is luckier than anybody in the village."

Year 6 - from an interview with Harry Potter

"Interviewer: We are very lucky to have in the studio the boy everyone has been talking about. Please welcome - Harry Potter! (Applause. Harry sits.) Interviewer: Harry, you must be delighted by the way everything has worked out.

Harry: (looks embarrassed) Well, yes. But I didn't do it on my own.

Interviewer: Come now, Harry. You mustn't be modest. The whole wizarding world is talking about you. Take us through the events."

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