When I taught in KS1, my favourite time of the day was usually after lunch when I would sit with my class and we’d read a picture book. I now teach in KS2 and have done for a few years. At the beginning of this academic year two people from HfL (Kathy Roe and Martin Galway) made me realise that I had lost my way somewhat.
As one of a team of three English subject leaders our job is to review our English curriculum. Reading progress and attainment at our school was strong last year so we felt that our focus should be on reviewing our teaching sequence for writing. Kathy Roe visited our school in September to support us with this. I spoke to her about our aims to review our provision for writing and we decided to begin with an informal learning walk. One of the main things that Kathy picked up on fairly quickly was that there was scope for reading to be celebrated more fully in our school. We spoke to some children in KS2 about their reading and we heard some lovely responses about what they were reading, what authors they liked and what they were planning to read next. However, there were some children (albeit a minority) who clearly didn’t have that passion for reading. When asked what they were reading, they would pick up the book that they had on the desk in front of them but they couldn’t tell us much about it. They’d just shrug their shoulders and tell us something vague about the book that we could probably have gleaned by looking at the front cover. My heart sank. While we were fortunate enough that the vast majority of our children had naturally developed a passion for reading there were some children who were slipping through the net. Kathy used a phrase which really stuck in my head, ‘the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.’ Those pupils who can read and love reading are attaining and making progress but what are we doing about those who are not?
I thought about my class – what was I doing to promote a love of reading? We’re lucky enough to have a library in our school which I take my class to visit; we also have a well-stocked reading corner in the classroom. This is all great but I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t doing enough. Was I passing my passion for reading on to the children? I didn’t think so. Since being in KS2 I was devoting less and less time to what used to be my favourite time of the day - story time. I’d often have a class book on the go which we’d try to squeeze in at the end of the day but usually we’d have a million other things going on. Yes - we’d read and explore books as part of an English unit but our reading for pleasure time was getting lost. It seemed that I wasn’t alone. Other teachers (particularly in KS2) admitted to finding it hard to find time to read to their class. As Kathy Roe had pointed out during her visit, our school wasn’t championing reading as effectively as we could be.
Clearly something had to be done. I discussed the outcomes of Kathy Roe’s visit at an SLT meeting and thankfully the need to raise the status of reading at our school was appreciated and the English subject leader team were allocated a pot of money. I was also sent to a conference run by HfL called Literacy: The Gateway to Lifelong Learning. One of the sessions that I attended as part of the day was run by Martin Galway and it focused on selecting texts in and out of the classroom. I’d got myself to the room where the session was being held fairly early and thank goodness I did. Martin had laid out a vast spread of books. Mostly picture books. I headed straight to the spread of books and immediately began picking them up, flicking through the pages and admiring the beautiful art work.
When everybody had arrived, Martin began his session with a read-aloud of ‘How to be a Lion’ by Ed Vere. The book was beautiful and heart-warming but what really struck me was that Martin’s read-aloud of this picture book had completely captivated a room full of adults. Why had I stopped reading picture books for pleasure to my class when I left KS1? Why aren’t picture books being enjoyed in all classrooms from EYFS – Y6? I could feel my brain kick in to gear as that moment of inspiration became a tangible idea that I could take back to my school.
My idea was to curate a special selection of picture books which would be kept in a common area of the school. I wanted these books to feel really special so rather than store them on a shelf I decided to buy a treasure chest to house them. Pupils would be able to go and visit the treasure chest and select a book to take back to their class where it would be read aloud by their teacher. I also stuck a very simple review card to the inside cover. Classes could award the book a bronze, silver or gold star when they had finished it and this would also be a way of guiding children when they were sent to choose a book.
Now all I needed to do was choose which books to buy. I wanted them to be books that could be accessed and enjoyed on many levels so that pupils from EYFS to Year 6 would appreciate them. I contacted Martin Galway and asked if he could recommend any titles. He was so helpful. I could tell that he understood exactly what I was trying to achieve and his recommendations were spot on. I began buying the books which was an absolute joy. The artwork in them was rich and thought provoking and the stories had real depth to them. Soon the treasure chest was fully stocked and I couldn’t wait to reveal it. I just hoped that the rest of the school would be as excited about the books as I was.
We decided that we should launch the treasure chest in an assembly to maximise our opportunity to drum up excitement. At the end of that school day I chose a couple of pupils from my class to go and choose a book from our newly launched treasure chest. They came back with ‘The Red Prince’ by Charles Jubb and Tom Clohosy Cole. My first read-aloud of a treasure chest book could not have gone any better. My class were literally on the edge of their seats at certain points in the story. They were analysing the pictures at far greater depth than I had when I’d read it and they were constantly picking up on clues and making predictions about what would happen next. I was getting completely absorbed by their enthusiasm and found that I was really able to push their inference and comprehension skills. Most importantly my lower attaining readers who had little to no passion for reading were captivated. Their hands were shooting up because they were desperate to tell me something that they had noticed or guess what would happen next. Ever the teacher, I’d push them to justify their thoughts and they were giving me some of the most articulate responses that I’d heard from them all year. Not only did these picture books have the potential to ignite a passion for reading but they were a real opportunity to push comprehension.
My first treasure chest read-aloud had gone well but what was happening in other classrooms? I was particularly thinking about my fellow KS2 teachers. Would picture books be a hard sell to the older classes? Had they even managed to find the time to read one? My heart jumped for joy when I received the following email from one of the Year 5 teachers a few days after the treasure chest launch: “My class have been loving this picture book story time! We’ve already given a silver and gold star – which speaks volumes about the older children loving being immersed in them too!” My deputy head also spoke to me. She had been called to cover Year 4 for 15 minutes at the end of the day and had decided to take a book from the treasure chest with her. She read ‘The Bear and the Piano’ by David Litchfield. Towards the end of the book the bear returns to the forest and is unsure how he will be received; she said that “you could have heard a pin drop” as she turned that page. A teacher in Year 3 said that he had been really surprised by how his class had reacted to ‘The Promise’ by Nicola Davies Their understanding of the themes in the book had sparked quite a fiery debate in his class about right and wrong.
I was thrilled that the picture books were providing these magical moments in classrooms across our school. I have no doubt that not only are they a wonderful moment of escapism in the busy school day but they also help those pupils who have not yet discovered their passion for reading appreciate just how fantastic books can be. I am also convinced that they provide some of the most meaningful opportunities to ask higher order questions to improve comprehension.
Our ever supportive board of Governors decided to theme their yearly Governors’ Cup challenge around our treasure chest so this year they asked the children to create their own picture books with winning entries being added to our treasure chest. The entries from my class landed on my desk last week and I was utterly gobsmacked at the quality of the work that they had produced. Clearly they had been inspired and I’m sure that being exposed to such fine examples in our treasure chest had helped with this.
To me there is something special about reading a book for the sheer joy of reading it. Not because it has a link to your topic, or because it’s Roald Dahl day so you thought you’d pick up ‘The Twits’. I’m talking about that special time where you read to your class purely for the pleasure of getting lost in a story. I am pleased that our treasure chest is helping to protect this sacred time. Our next steps are to decorate our treasure chest to make it look even more special. Then next year we plan to fill it with a new selection of 39 picture books. This time, I’m hoping that I will be able to involve a wider group of staff and pupils to help select the books for the chest.
Guest blog by Kat Jackson, English Subject Lead at High Beeches Primary School, Harpenden.