When books are real for parent and child

The debate on "real books" versus "reading schemes" continues, sometimes in extreme terms. Most teachers would agree that it is important to develop in young readers an enthusiasm for reading whatever books are used. It is also important to make reading enjoyable and purposeful, building on the range of understandings and experiences of print children bring to school. Literacy should have a high priority with pupils given access to a variety of quality texts and taught a range of strategies for reading. As part of this, the role of supportive adults, both teachers and parents, is crucial.

Several years ago, as part of a study of approaches to the teaching of reading in three schools, Wardie primary in Edinburgh provided an interesting case study of a school that did not have a reading scheme in the early stages but only used high-quality fiction. The programme was well planned and highly structured, the children were enthusiastic about reading and standards were high.

Many early-stages teachers have expressed interest in a "real books" approach but are concerned about possible difficulties. Recently a staff development package has been produced on the Wardie approach. A video showing it in action in primary 1 and primary 2 is supported by a booklet which explains the rationale, gives examples of some of the materials and outlines how the school tackled skills development, assessment and record keeping.

Wardie's headteacher explained the approach: "Reading is at the heart of children's learning and as such is central to their development. It therefore follows that reading will have a very high profile in the school's curriculum. " Teachers made use of a wide repertoire of strategies, and children were engaged in activities such as sharing their chosen books with a teacher or parent helpers, enjoying books on their own during ERIC time (Everyone Reading in Class), taking part in regular paired reading sessions with primary 6 and primary 7 children and playing group phonic games.

Environmental print was also important and one teacher pointed out that her pupils even stop what they are doing to try to read the cornflakes packets when making models at the gluing table.

The role of parents was seen as crucial. The head commented: "We share the delivery of our teaching with the parents and the teaching of reading, particularly in the early stages, can assist in that policy of involving them in the life of the school." Several parent booklets were produced on starting reading together, choosing books, helping children to work out text and strategies to help when they get "stuck".

Parents were involved through reading workshops, library newsletters and in the classroom as helpers. One said that the primary 1 workshop was very informative, as well as fun, and helped her realise the complementary role of parents in helping their children become readers. Teachers in the early stages commented that the "real books" approach needed a great deal of staff commitment. A primary 1 teacher stressed how time consuming the approach was in beginning reading but she valued the quality time of working with children individually. In primary 2, a teacher emphasised the opportunities that "real" books provided for children sharing them in a group and pooling ideas and information about a story.

The books used in the early stages were chosen with great care. The staff looked for quality texts which the children found meaningful, interesting and challenging. Books with the following features were particularly useful: natural language patterns with frequent repetitive phrases; strong rhythms for reading aloud; stories provoking an emotional response or encouraging prediction; good illustrations; and a link with the child's experience. Over time, a number of favourite texts emerged and the book stock was constantly reviewed and added to.

Recently, the policy has been reviewed and developed to take account of recent research findings. The school continues to believe in the importance of real books and of children becoming readers who not only use a variety of text-solving strategies but want to read and enjoy. But as part of its evolving reading policy, Wardie has added to the programme other more structured materials and approaches to ensure the effective development of a wide range of reading skills.

Jim Allan, Anne McGregor and Ronnie Mackay are in the primary education department at the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University. The video and booklet pack Reading at Wardie is available from the department.

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