Secrets of better literacy lie hidden in the heart of Royal Berkshire

14th November 2008 at 00:00

"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." So wrote Richard Steele in the Tatler magazine back in 1710. And with these words ringing in our ears, my school launched headlong into the workout for the mind that is the National Year of Reading.

Since it was launched in April, I have been keeping a diary of our events to track what we have done for each of the monthly themes. Now, as we approach the end of this important government-sponsored initiative, it is time to pull it all together in true plenary style. Here are some of my highlights from this truly remarkable year.

April: Read all about it

We kicked off the year with a month centred on geography, using Reading as our contrasting locality. The children found out that Reading is the county town of Royal Berkshire and has a vibrant university. They made scale models of the town, including the ruined abbey and key features of the rivers Kennet and Thames.

May: mind and body

With Reading being famous for its annual beer and cider festival in May, the children were keen to contribute to discussions about the misuse of alcohol and the effects this might have on Mrs Stevens' ability to drive the minibus to swimming lessons on Wednesdays. The posters to support the Campaign for Real Ale can be seen displayed in the entrance hall.

June: Reading escapes

This was an ideal opportunity to focus on maths and ICT. The children discovered that Reading FC made an amazing escape from relegation in 1996, beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-0 on the last day of the season to remain in Division One. We charted data from the run-up to this event, graphed it and put into Excel spreadsheets.

As an extension activity, some of our gifted and talented children also examined probability and managed to fleece the deputy head on a five-race accumulator bet at Reading dog track.

July: Rhythm and rhyme

During assemblies this month, we sang Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" with full backing on xylophones, bongos and maracas. A recording of this is now available as a downloadable podcast from our school website.

We also linked the theme to our literacy work on persuasive writing, with the Year 6 boys composing a very persuasive piece about why you should visit Reading town centre. Once the lyrics had been toned down, we were able to send "The Reading C. Rap" to the town's tourist board so it could consider using the piece.

August: Read the game

During this month, we encouraged families to spend their summer holiday helping to prepare Reading's bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

September: You are what you read

Through keen-eyed research, the children uncovered Reading's greatest literary giant - Michael Bond, author of the Paddington books. Michael's inspiration came after a memorable train journey from Reading to Paddington. Moved by this local story, the school council decided to organise a Paddington Day, with staff and pupils coming to school in Wellingtons and smearing themselves in marmalade.

October: Word of mouth

The focus here was in PSHE, where the children played Chinese whispers, having first brainstormed what they thought about Reading. During the game, what started as "Reading is a vibrant and attractive university town" ended up as "Reading is a bit grim and has terrible traffic during the festival season". It was a lesson that has stayed with us all year.

November: Screen reads

It is heart-warming to know that a global company such as Working Title Films is so in tune with the national focus in our schools. To launch the new Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading, at this time of year was a master stroke. The story, inspired by top secret disks from the Department for Children, Schools and Families going missing at Reading's sport and leisure centre has inspired some top-quality review writing in literacy.

Pupils have also been writing their own screenplay, Four Readings and a Funeral, an apocalyptic horror flick in which Reading begins to expand beyond the ring road and engulfs nearby towns and villages. A stage adaptation will be our Christmas production. It is sure to be a sell-out.

December: Writing the future

To end the year with a bang, the children will take part in a design and technology project, drawing up visionary plans for a Reading of the future. In particular, we will focus on the recent scrapping of the controversial one-way system to be installed in the town. We have also already booked Reading as the location for our residential school journey next year.

If any school out there hasn't fully grasped the possibilities of the National Year of Reading, it's not too late. It's everyone's responsibility to promote Reading - not just this year, but every year. Go for it. Play your part. Head for the M4 - junctions 10 to 12.

Colin Dowland, Headteacher of a north London junior school.

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