Creating a community of readers: some practical ideas
by Ian Eagleton
When I read A.F Harrold’s article in TeachPrimary entitled ‘I met books and I met books and I met books…’ I was encouraged to reflect upon my own reading journey. As a child, I hated reading. That should probably read…HATED reading. Reading for me involved sitting with a parent helper, in a gloomy room outside the classroom. I remember Roger Red Hat and Jennifer Yellow Hat. I don’t remember talking about books or characters or storylines. I certainly don’t remember laughing at a book. I was asked to sound out words. I remember an old tobacco tin in which I had a collection of words to read aloud and practise every night. I was actually a very fluent reader but I hated reading. It led to me sitting next to the parent helper (poor woman), folding my arms and refusing to read. If I heard one more story about Jennifer Yellow Hat out in the sunshine, out in town or out in the dark I would scream. If this was reading, then I’d rather not bother, thank you very much!
It wasn’t until Year 6 that I finally picked up a book and enjoyed reading. I had a wonderful teacher – a lady called Mrs Perry who loved art and drama and reading and creative writing. I don’t even know how she got me to read. I know she read to us lots. Through her, I was transported to some amazing places and met some wonderful characters. I remember thinking, maybe I should try this…. As I didn’t particularly like reading I would often sit at a listening station, earphones plugged in, listening to a magical tale (about a horse I think), read by a silky, smooth voiced narrator. Mrs Perry encouraged me to write my own children’s story (I’ve no idea what everyone else was doing while I was doing it) and I recall the excitement I felt when I finally saw it in print – especially as back in those days it took a whole day to print something out! I know there were books everywhere in 5/6P and I know one day I picked up ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl. I was off! Then I read every book in the ‘Super Gran’ series by Forrest Wilson. Afterwards, I read some more Roald Dahl.
The brilliant writer Robin Stevens (@redbreastedbird) recently wrote about her surprise and disappointment when she heard from a young fan who told her she had been told she shouldn’t read her books – they were too immature. I was very lucky when I was 11 that Mrs Perry didn’t say anything about my reading habits. She did not make me feel bad or ‘less than’ for wanting to read the same type of book. In fact, she guided me and suggested other Roald Dahl books I might like. By Year 7, after a year of reading ‘Super Gran’, I was finally ready to tentatively try some new books. The Phantom Tollbooth led to Animal Farm. Animal Farm led to Jude the Obscure. That in turn led to The Tempest, which led to Translations by Brian Friel.
Fast forward twenty two years and imagine my panic at the beginning of this academic year when I realised that a lot of the children in my class seemed to have the same attitude that I had had to reading. They huffed and moaned when I asked them to choose a book for quiet reading time or to take home. They looked annoyed and shrugged when I asked why they hadn’t read at home. They flicked through books aimlessly, closed them and sat staring into space. How would I ever get them to read, and not just read, but enjoy reading?
Choice and advice
It all started when a parent brought in a box of Minecraft, Star Wars and Top Gear books, along with a huge bag of Horrible Science magazines. Her children had finished reading them and had grown out of them. Would my class like them? I fought down my inner reluctance (and yes, misplaced snobbery) and took the books. I reasoned with myself. There were lots of children who had been talking about Minecraft and Star Wars recently. Maybe I’d put them out in the class library…just for a bit…
I did and the response was amazing! The children grabbed them with a furious excitement. They giggled over them, shared and swapped them. They started bringing in their own books from home, confident now that reading any book was fine with me. I told them that if they had really tried to get ‘into’ a book, but just couldn’t, it was fine to put it back and try another as long as thought carefully about what it was that they didn’t like. I started adding other books to the class library – magazines, Disney books bought from a seller on Facebook, picture books, instructional manuals, playscripts, poems, a huge non-fiction book about Dinosaurs. I approached our hard-working PTA and asked them about the possibility of expanding our class libraries and we worked alongside the brilliant staff at JustImagine (@imaginecentre) to choose a range of beautiful, engaging topic books and book band packs that would inspire our children. The whole school now has a subscription to The Week Junior and my class love reading these too. To help them access the news stories in the magazine, I play them CBBC’s Newsround every day and encourage them to write their own newspaper articles on what they’ve watched.
One boy is currently reading the books in the ‘Beast Quest’ series. Previously I might have scoffed at his choice. However, last week he made an insightful comparison between his ‘Beast Quest’ book and the Greek myths we were exploring. His Greek myth is shaping up to be an exciting, rollicking read, full of action and drama. I’ve learned a lesson there.
I still have to bite my tongue every day when one boy picks up the same Star Wars book. Every. Day. Why isn’t he reading one of our lovely new books? Isn’t he bored of it by now? Why the same book every day? He’s not interested in any of my suggestions! He’s never going to progress! But then I remind myself that I was like him once. Mrs Perry didn’t say anything to me about my ‘Super Gran’ fixation. Besides, I’m currently reading every book in the Agatha Raisin detective series! Perhaps this young boy doesn’t have the confidence to try anything else just yet. Perhaps he’s just really enjoying the Star Wars book. Perhaps he’s thinking about writing his own Star Wars book! I do hope one day soon he will pick up a different book but if he doesn’t, that’s fine. In the mean time I keep quiet. He’s nine. He’s reading. He’s enjoying reading. That’s brilliant.
Discussion and sharing
I continue to watch and monitor the books my children are freely choosing. This allows me to make suggestions about what they might like to read next and I’ve learned not to force my opinions on them too much. Because I now read children’s books voraciously (as part of my consultancy work and for enjoyment) I am better placed to make suggestions and offer advice. I have read many of the new books in our classroom and so can discuss them with the children. What did they think when…happened? How did they feel when….? Did they enjoy it?
They seem to love the fact that I’m enthusiastic about what they’re reading and that I don’t frown on their choices or think, as an adult, that their books are beneath me. If a child is reading a book I haven’t heard of and tells me about it, I ask if I can borrow it after them. Yes, as a teacher I am here to support and guide them, but ultimately every child needs to navigate their own reading journey. If Mrs Perry had told me I HAD to read a certain book, she would have lost me.
I had a panic the other day when I found my copy of ‘The Secret of Platform 13’ by Eva Ibbotson had gone missing. I later found out that my LSA had taken the book home to read! We were using the book in Guided Reading sessions and she wanted to be able to discuss and share her thoughts on it with our children.
When I am modelling a text or genre to the class in a shared write, I now always refer to books I’ve read. The other day, when we were planning our Greek myth, I told them about my favourite crime thriller and how it ends on a shocking twist – the police officer was the murderer all along and the wrong man has been jailed. Even worse, no one finds out and the books just ends. They gasped, looked at each other in shock and one child excitedly screeched, “Oooohhhhhhhhhh! That’s terrible!” We then began to talk about how they could end their Greek myths to engage their reader. They suggested having the hero prematurely celebrating after defeating the evil monster and then, as the story finishes, having their mythical beast open one eye… One girl decided her cliff-hanger would be that the monster was in fact the hero’s brother – he had been transformed by the gods into a terrifying creature as a punishment. She hasn’t decided yet how to resolve this issue but I’m excited to explore this idea with her.
As adults, we love sharing books and recommending our favourite reads. We should encourage our children to share the books they are reading and encourage them to use the language, plot devices and ideas in their own writing.
At the beginning of every topic, I ask my children to design ideas for our Reading Corner. This term they’ve asked for temple pillars and if they can paint pictures of Greek gods to hang from the ceiling. Last term, we had vines, leaves and animals decorating the Reading Corner, to reflect our topic on the rainforest.
We are also in the process of re-designing all of our class book corners across the school. Our PTA have agreed to fund new furniture for every class! I began this project by asking teachers to ask their children what they would like in their book corners. To design their ideal, perfect reading space. The children worked individually or in groups, during an English lesson, and drew and labelled what this reading space would look like. All of the children said it needed to be: cosy, warm, inviting, quiet, enclosed, clean and relaxing. They liked the idea of fairy lights twinkling and having slippers and dressing gowns they could slip into before they settled down to read. Interestingly, many said they didn’t like it when they were searching for a new book to read and couldn’t see the front cover of the books on display and so have requested new shelving. Some asked for a smoothie machine, a TV and a fireplace – unfortunately the budget can’t stretch to those items! However, I have passed all these ideas onto our PTA, along with every child’s book corner design, and the PTA are busy sourcing furniture, material, blankets, bean bags, slippers and canopies. We are really excited about the outcome of this project.
Parent and Child Book Club
For the last four years, I have run a Parent and Child Book Club at my school, on a Monday from 3.30-4.30pm. Numbers have dwindled a little bit this year, but I still have a core group of children and parents who attend every week. This year we have been reading ‘Lob’ by Linda Newbery, a moving tale of grief, friendship and believing in what cannot be seen. We discuss the story, read it as a group, read it individually and very often the children and parents break away and sit huddled together sharing the book. Sometimes I set them quizzes, games and writing challenges linked to the book which they complete together and sometimes we take part in drama activities, but very often we just read together.
When I first set up the club, I manically ensured there was an activity or game every week– I was terrified the children and parents would find the whole notion of sitting around reading to be incredibly boring. Not true! The club was due to finish this year at Christmas, but two of the parents asked if I’d be willing to continue. At the end of the Spring Term, it was the children who begged for the club to continue – they wanted to know if Lob and Lucy would be reunited!
As the year and the club draw to an end, the children are now writing their own stories – some for their brothers and sisters and some for younger children in the school. We are using the delightful film ‘Whistleless’ directed by Siri Melchoir, which can be found on The Literacy Shed (@LiteracyShed). Next week, we will use a double bubble map to compare ‘Whistleless’ and ‘Lob’ and explore the journeys the two main characters take.
If there has been any deeper learning and progress during the Parent and Child Book Club, it has certainly come from sharing a story together, discussing it and enjoying it – making connections. Not the games and worksheets I produced to go alongside the book. I will always remember the moment when one of the mums broke down in tears whilst we were reading ‘Lob’. She told the group how it reminded her of losing her own father. It was a very poignant, special moment and just goes to show the power of children’s books to move and unite. The children love reading to their parents and the parents love joining in, reading aloud and seeing the progress their children are making. At the beginning of the session, we all share a Kit-Kat and orange squash (the staple of any primary school club!). The children tell their parents about their day and show them their work and the parents tell me about their new jobs and family. Then we read. We are a little community of readers. It’s perfect and one of my favourite parts of the week.
Improving our library
Inspired by the children’s author S.F Said’s passion for keeping local libraries open due to their transformative nature, I am currently in the process of improving and sorting our own school library. Once again, Ma Eagleton (“Is that your wife Mr. Eagleton? She’s very old!”) has been a life saver and has been coming in and helping to catalogue and sort the books. I’ve been to Ikea and bought rugs, mats, bean bags and furniture. We held a Roald Dahl event and the children’s artwork and writing are displayed proudly throughout the library. I’ve created an archway as you come into the library by hanging laminated posters. On these posters, every teacher in the school has written about their favourite book and why they’d recommend it. Parent volunteers have been sifting through the books, tidying and organising.
When we are ready, I will train up some willing and enthusiastic Year 4 and 5 children to become Librarians and create a timetable so every child in the school can visit the library and borrow books. It’s not exactly what I wanted – we can’t afford all the books or furniture I’d like – but we’re making do with what we have and being creative. The other day I was pleased to find three boys in the library, during lunch, writing their own Pokémon book. Yesterday, during break, there was a group of six girls sat around a table designing a PowerPoint for their assembly (our children are invited every Monday to plan and run their own assembly on a specific theme). Two boys were also huddled in the corner on the bean bags reading. Some older children were on stools using iPads to code and program. It’s not perfect, but over time, I have high hopes that our school library will continue to become an inviting, inclusive space where children can discover the joys of reading.
Finally, and this is something I’ve only done recently, I’ve created a Staff Library in our Staff Room. It is just a box, but it is full of wonderful, beautifully illustrated books. I’ve tried to include a range of different types of books and books that might not be particularly well-known but will offer scope in the classroom. I’ve invited teachers to take the books out, read and enjoy them and maybe use them in class or read them to their class. The original label for the book box said ‘Teachers’ Library’. However, as I sat in the Staff Room chatting to some of our lovely LSAs, I realised that I didn’t want other members of staff to feel like they couldn’t borrow or explore a book. Our LSAs are often the ones who read with the children on a 1:1 basis and so would benefit from being able to pore over gorgeous books and then maybe share them with the children they work closely with. I changed the label to ‘Staff Library’ – a small change but one that I hope will encourage every member of staff to pick up a book and experience the same excitement I get when I find a new author or story.
There are many more ways I’d like to encourage the school community to continue reading and develop the children’s passion for reading, including organising author visits and scheduling time for each class to visit our local library again.
However, when I looked up yesterday morning, and saw my class completely enthralled and engaged in the books they were reading, I knew that, whilst we still have a long way to go, we are slowly beginning to create a community of passionate, adventurous readers who are growing in confidence and I’m really excited about that.