Many of the teachers at St Anthony’s Primary in Johnstone went back to university to study children’s literacy last year. Every two weeks for the duration of the year-long master’s-level course, the academics came to work with them at the school.
Now, they continue to keep up to date with the best of children’s books via a monthly book club, also based in the Renfrewshire school, which all 19 teachers and the headteacher attend. The book club is run by the academic Vivienne Smith, an expert in children’s literacy and literature.
Headteacher Jacqueline McBurnie is emphatic: it is her knowledgeable and dedicated staff that have turned the pupils into readers, with the result that the school has just become the first from Scotland to win the prestigious “literacy school” prize from the United Kingdom Literacy Agency (UKLA).
The school’s journey started back in 2015, when the Renfrewshire Literacy Approach got off the ground. The initiative is a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde and Renfrewshire Council. For it, the headteacher and one teacher from every local primary take part in professional development about the teaching of reading.
McBurnie says: “In school when you are teaching children to read, you go through a process that involves phonics and working your way through a scheme of books from level one to nine. But it had been a long time since I had thought about ‘What is the key that makes children want to read?’”
‘Make it exciting’
The teachers in the school looked at their own libraries, which they realised had become “disorganised, unattractive and unappealing”, says McBurnie. When computers were introduced to classrooms they needed space – and libraries were often the casualties, she believes.
Now the staff at St Anthony’s have revived their library corners, kitting them out with cushions, bean bags, fairy lights and throws, ensuring that books are clearly displayed with the covers on show, not the spines. “The illustrations are there to entice you,” says McBurnie.
She adds: “If we are serious about turning children into readers we need to make it exciting, because books are competing with iPads.” This also applies to families. The school tries to spread the love of books by opening late and running a library for parents and children every Wednesday from 3-5pm.
During school hours, staff realised that a visit to the class library was often an add-on, as opposed to an intrinsic part of the day: when children finished their work they would be asked to choose a book.
Now the children are read to every day. The teachers’ revived interest in children’s literature has led to an overhaul of the books they listen to – and the books they read.
The traditional book review has largely been scrapped, with children instead sharing the books they are reading with their friends over juice and cake during “reading café”. Systems are also in place so that children can recommend books to each other.
More recently, pupils have been printing off QR (quick response) codes – the little square patches now used for everything from cinema tickets to airport boarding passes – and sticking them inside books. When these codes are scanned by the next reader who comes along, they might link to a piece of writing about the book, to a photo, or to a short video review by a pupil.
Out with the old...
McBurnie adds that, after the children’s literature module, “we started reading authors and books we had never heard of. Before, we churned out the same old, same old. We did Roald Dahl because we had 30 copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or we did Goodnight Mister Tom because it ties in with the Second World War. But we had not really thought about ‘What children want to read?’ or ‘What should we be exposing children to?’
“Now we see reading as a treasure box. We show them the treasure. We show them all the books and where they can take you.”
Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis is one novel that makes it into the top 10 chosen by teachers at the school. It is the story of a single mother with mental health problems who is raising two children from different fathers, who are ultimately taken into foster care.
It is a journey some of the children at St Anthony’s will have been on, says McBurnie. The UKLA describes the school as serving a deprived area – around a third of its pupils are entitled to free meals.
For some pupils, therefore, it is far more likely that they will connect with a story like Scarlet Ibis than the romps of the Famous Five, says McBurnie.
Sue Ellis, professor of education at the University of Strathclyde, says that St Anthony’s success comes down to its “complete focus on creating readers”.
She adds: “The staffroom is full of people who are deeply knowledgeable about children’s literature. This headteacher and her staff are re-defining ‘the basics’ in teaching reading – and it is inspirational.”
UKLA meanwhile describes St Anthony’s as “a school where literacy thrives”.
UKLA president Tracy Parvin says: “This award recognises those schools which place literacy and literature right at the heart of children’s learning. It is more than a celebration of creative, enthusiastic and engaging teaching – it is a Kitemark for excellence.”
In 2015, Tes and the National Association for the Teaching of English ran a survey to find teachers’ top 100 fiction books all children should read before leaving primary school. See the results at bit.ly/BooksTop100