Could you envisage teaching the children in your setting to read without the help of Kipper, Biff and Chip? Phoebe Doyle knows of one school that made the leap from reading schemes to ‘real’ books and have never looked back.
How we teach children to read has changed fairly dramatically in the last decade or so. In Reception most schools now have regular, usually daily, phonics sessions, designed to explicitly teach children how to ‘sound out’ and ‘blend’ and fundamentally how to decode. Phonics teaching in this format has been largely considered a success, part of the initial Literacy Hour that’s stood the test of time when other aspects of it have faced harsh criticism. Yet alongside this relatively recent development in how we teach reading, the tradition of using reading schemes has remained. We may have moved from the 1980s favourite The Village of Three Corners to the now most popular Oxford Reading Tree but the principle of children progressing through levels and stages of books with the same characters (and often indistinguishable plots) remains.
Whilst reading schemes offer nurseries and schools an affordable and convenient way to manage children’s reading progression, not everyone’s a fan; “the great problem with reading schemes is that they're dull. Why are they dull? Because at the moment when someone is writing a reading scheme he or she is not interested in writing, they are only interested in it doing a teaching job”, says former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. He believes children’s authors should be writing to inspire; “writing for children is about conjuring up in one's mind a child and imagining what might interest, excite, intrigue, amaze, and surprise that child.” Michael is also concerned about the anxiety that the structure of reading schemes can provoke; “what is peculiar is that schools have become places where this whole effort has been supplanted by reading schemes and worksheets. This turns everyone - children, teachers and parents into anxiety-machines hovering over every letter, every word and every sentence hoping that the child reading it will cough out the right word. Small wonder that thousands of children find the whole exercise tedious and off-putting.”
One School Doing It Their Own Way
Set in the heart of a Nottinghamshire ex-mining community is Maun Infant and Nursery School. Headteacher Mary replaced schemes with ‘real’ books during her first few years there. “It was 17 years ago when I became a Headteacher and they were predominately using Through the Rainbow with some of the Breakthrough scheme added in”.
It was several years prior to her current headship that Mary had become interested and involved in the promotion of ‘real’ books. On courses she had heard speakers debate the issue; “during the 1980s there had been a lot of debate relating to schemes v’s ‘real’ books. Along with other colleagues I had attended many training courses and conferences linked to this subject.”
“I tried to listen with an open mind but felt that as more quality picture books became available there seemed less and less reason to continue rigidly with reading schemes”, Mary says. After a great deal of contemplation she felt the answer to what books young children should be experiencing was clear; “I think it dawned on me and others, that schemes were not always written by actual authors and did not offer children the opportunities that ‘real’ books could. There were even books that could be read backwards! I had been using at this time The Village with 3 Corners scheme which certainly wasn’t the worst and at least presented children with characters. I know though that many of the books were awash with stereotypes, and this is something I always felt uncomfortable with.”
“The other thing I began questioning was why did this ‘learning to read’ business have to be focused on moving up ladders and getting to the next stage? Shouldn’t there be time for consolidation, practicing and even enjoying the current book?”
In a previous school, when Mary was a class teacher, she had played a part in making the switch; “it was about 1987 and the nursery and infant school I was teaching in at that time was situated in the same coalfield area as my current school. The change was carefully discussed and planned for and parents were kept very much in the picture, which was crucial to the success. We certainly knew that presenting children with wonderful picture books would not mean they’d become confident readers by osmosis! This was before the literacy strategies and even before the National Curriculum so I suppose in hindsight there was more freedom, but this didn’t mean we left children to it, we had a lot to prove and we were desperate, for the children’s sake, to see hugely positive outcomes.”
When at Maun Mary made the change gradually at first; “I initially replaced Through the Rainbow with The Oxford Reading Tree and beautiful picture books used alongside, but it was the few remaining staff, together with new colleagues who made the decision that there was no need for the purchased scheme.”
Mary remembers some outcomes as instantaneous; “the most immediate result was excitement and enthusiasm from the children, this actually made us feel a little sad about what we had been doing, we felt like time had been wasted.
A more gradual result was the positive impact on independent writing and a gradual increase in general knowledge because, of course, so many facts can be learnt through fiction. “Children, from nursery upwards, quickly became critics too having opinions about story, information, authors and illustrations”, Mary recalls.
Mary is keen to address the somewhat ill-conceived idea that schemes are for teaching children to read and ‘real’ books are not; “reading requires a range of skills; use of phonics, picking up on context and graphic cues and understanding inference and levels within story. The wonderful writers like John Burningham and Julia Donaldson all have a range of tricks needed to get children interested.”
Julie Westbury is a Teaching Assistant at Maun and, like all the staff there, she’s fully on board, she says; “real books enable children not only to engage in exciting stories, but they furthermore encourage them to think about what they are listening to and what will happen next in the story, which in turn enriches language!”
Parents as Partners
At Maun, right from the initial meeting with the child, which is on the ‘home visit’, they are committed to sharing their belief in the importance of literature with both the child and the parent, Julie explains; “children are introduced to ‘real books’ straight away as early as when the nursery staff go into the child’s home before entering nursery (they usually start shortly after their 3rd birthday). They are given a zippy bag and storybook and the staff discuss with parents the importance of reading with the child, they offer suggestions for getting into a routine with this, and provide tips for getting the most out of books.”
Once at Maun the school/home communication is hugely important; children are encouraged to take any book home that they would enjoy reading or having an adult share with them. And parents are given the opportunity to both read what the staff say about their child’s progression as well as adding their own comment, Mary explains; “Like at many nurseries and school we have reading message books for each child that are frequently written in by adults, parents, TAs etc. Each child does guided reading each week, after which the teacher gives very clear information relating to the reading session in the message book, with clear objectives to share with the parents. Over the years we have made sticky labels with the relevant objectives to stick in, as writing out each time would take far too long!”
Money, Money, Money
One concern many nurseries and schools have over making the switch is finance. ‘Real’ books unarguably cost more, but as Mary explains, in the end it’s about prioritising; “books are the resource we have spent the most money on other than ICT and building. We have in the past raised money for books and we hold regular book fairs with the bonus of free books based on our sales. We have a close relationship with a local bookshop that gives us a good discount, so they should, we are their best customer! We also visit book companies as a staff for a ‘big choose’. It’s a fun staff meeting or in-service!”
Leveling The Books
Schemes provide teachers with clear levels and at Maun they’ve spent time assessing which level each ‘real’ book is, Mary explains how they do it; “books for guided reading are hung in packs of 6 in a central library area and are leveled W, low L1, Middle L1 etc up to high 3. They are also divided into fiction and non-fiction with other genre information on the pack e.g. “repetitive rhyming text”.
“At our school we know books and authors well and that, together with our knowledge of pupils reading needs, makes the system manageable.”
“A wide range of books are available in foundation areas and KS1 classes and these are used to take home. They are divided into 2 groups; 1 for those suitable for readers working up to 2c and the other for readers working beyond 2c.”
Proof and Pudding
At Maun you meet teachers proud and passionate about the way they encourage reading, children who devour books of all genres and parents who are involved in their children’s literacy development. They officially make leaps and bounds with reading skills, as Mary says; “ the children our school serves are acknowledged by Ofsted to begin school below national expectations in communication language and literacy. At the end of KS1 they are generally at or above national average attainment levels.”
Some Final Thoughts
Although reading schemes offer one way to teach a child to read, the staff, teachers and children at Maun Infant and Nursery School have proved it is far from the only way. Michael Rosen has some positive words for those at Maun; “I'm delighted to hear of a school that is looking hard at what books they can give to teachers, children and parents so that all three sides of the learning-to-read equation can enjoy the process. That way lies success and a real start on the road to turning us all into thoughtful, discerning readers.”
Surely, as with all aspects of education, it’s our role as practitioners to continuously question our methods and review our practise. Specific to reading we need to ask; is this the best way? Are the children inspired? Are we encouraging a love of literature to take through life? If you were a child, what would you like in your book bag?
· Most UK nurseries and schools use reading schemes
· ‘Real’ books can help enthuse children to become readers
· Getting parents on board is hugely important in teaching children to read
· ‘Real’ books can be levelled
Maun’s strategies for encouraging reading at home
· A reading trophy is awarded during assembly to a child who’s done some fantastic reading at home that week
· Each child has a reading chart sent home with a specific objective on, e.g. to discuss the book cover
· Parents are encouraged to choose with the child a book to take home
· Teachers register the children at the local library
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