There has been plenty of talk recently around what may have changed for good in terms of the use of technology in primary school teaching and learning. I use that phrase ‘changed for good’ in the sense of what we will keep in the longer term, beyond lockdowns and bubble closures. I might also say ‘changed for the better’. As difficult as the last year has been, what might we objectively say has been a change for the better in terms of existing practice? Our colleagues in the HfL Technology in Schools team have written a blog that looks at what has worked well, and may well secure a place in future practice. Within that blog, virtual parents’ evenings are offered for your consideration, together with the question: are these more efficient than running them the ‘old way’?
Along these lines, I just want to give a little more space to one aspect of our work that I think has benefitted from the shift towards greater use of online platforms. Delivering sessions to support parents or carers (hereafter referred to as parents) in supporting their children’s literacy development is one of my favourite pieces of work with schools. On so many occasions, correspondence indicates that parents feel better able or more confident to support their children to develop and strengthen their reading and/or writing. Occasionally, you will receive the best kind of feedback when someone writes to say that in the course of sharing in their child’s reading/writing, they themselves have discovered, or recovered a love of the printed word.
I want to keep this blog short and practical, particularly as its central message is as simple as this: online platforms can offer far greater access to parents when we deliver sessions to help them to support and encourage their children's literacy development.
It is a simple message but an important one. I’ve always found the face-to-face delivery of such support sessions immensely and immediately rewarding. I usually take along a collection of really rather good books. Time-pressed adults seem to appreciate the chance to browse through these in order to keep story times fresh and invigorating. I take books written for decoding practice, and discuss how to use these to develop independence and confidence. I also make sure that after a closing Q&A session for the entire audience, I hang back for those parents with very specific, sometimes private queries in mind. Together with the dynamics that stem from the reactions and interactions with the audience during the essential read-aloud session (more on that below), these all point towards face-to-face sessions being the best mode of delivery. They may well be. This year, though, I have come to appreciate the benefits of having a very safe distance between presenter and audience. It all comes down to access. Not all parents can make that time that has been set for a reading or writing support session. Frankly, and for different reasons, not all parents can face it. That may simply be down to the logistics and demands of their particular week. It may be due to reasons that are more complex, and that present a barrier to attending a session of this kind. As such, attendance of these events can vary from school to school and sometimes it can be a case of preaching to the long-converted. Delivering support sessions through your school’s chosen platform has two core advantages:
- sessions can be recorded and so can be watched at any time, whole or in digestible chunks
- sessions may feel safer to attend if you have any kind of reservations about attending an event relating to literacy, delivered in school
Fostering good relationships around reading
The benefits of fostering good relationships between school and home, in relation to literacy learning, are well documented. In their 2018 guidance report, Working with parents to support children’s learning, the EEF makes repeated, particular reference to reading development across several sections. For example, in an early summary of recommendations of practical strategies to support learning at home, they offer the following:
- for young children, promoting shared book reading should be a central component of any parental engagement approach. Home learning activities, such as playing with letters and numbers, are also linked to improved outcomes
- tips, support, and resources can make home activities more effective—for example, where they prompt longer and more frequent conversations during book reading
- book-gifting alone is unlikely to be effective, but carefully selected books plus advice and support can be beneficial for supporting reading
- consider initiatives to encourage summer reading; these have some promise but are not widely used at present
These recommendations are further elaborated on in sections 1 and 2 of the report. If you would like to read more deeply on the topic, an extensive list of references is provided. The studies listed here offer a range of starting points that you might wish to consider in further developing the ways by which home and school work together more effectively. Beyond that list, you will find a wide range of studies looking at effective home-school partnership working around aspects of literacy – from the pre-school development of print concepts or phonemic awareness, to the ways by which comprehension can be enhanced through strategic talk. It may be that you choose to select one or two of these aspects for development, and trial some home-school working initiatives.
Some helpful hints for parent/carer sessions
Collectively plan to be comprehensive
Reading fuels endless commentary – we know this from research, online discussions and more. It’s a complex, endlessly fascinating, and occasionally frustrating topic. A session of this kind needs to be succinct and provide clarity around, and confidence in the most important aspects of how the school teaches reading. Moreover, it needs to provide clarity on the ways by which parents can support their children’s reading journey. It is worth planning in time for the whole school to contribute to the design of the session so that all of the most important messages are incorporated, particularly if there are school-specific elements in its systems for reading instruction and practice.
This will stretch from the precursors of reading (as some parent will have children of pre-school age), through early reading development and decoding in particular, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and, of course, comprehension.
Ample time should be given to cover the rewards of reading, to get to the heart of why it matters so much, and why it is one of the most important things we have the privilege of nurturing in primary teaching.
Consult with parents and carers
One of the beauties of sessions delivered online this year has been that schools have been able to organise, and record events on the platform of their choice. Parents have been able to attend the session as it happens or watch – once again, wholesale or in chunks - at the most convenient time after the event. This is the clearest win in this scenario in that it massively increases accessibility. However, some participants will want the chance to ask questions. Using an online survey tool, you can canvass in relation to the preferred date and time of the session, and gather areas of particular interest that you may need to factor into the presentation.
Consult with teachers
It is important that the session not only communicates the essential information about the schools beliefs about the importance and rewards of reading, and the ways by which it develops skilled readers, but also provides a means by which to share helpful messages that reflect the various ages and stages of the primary phase. Sessions such as these provide a means of sharing helpful messages that reflect the shape of learning across the primary years. Year group specific messages, discussed with teaching staff, are reinforced by being situated within the whole-school approach to reading.
Read them a great book
By this, I don’t just mean read it to them, I mean really read it to them. If I am delivering a reading session to adults, I hope that they are able to tap into a time when they were read to as a child. Not everyone will remember this. Not everyone will feel confident doing this with their own children. We have to put our money where our mouth is, and offer a wholehearted model. I deliberately choose a book that, like hand sanitiser, works on 99.9% of all occasions. A book so utterly good, so utterly infectious that all but the most cold-hearted cynic is putty in the storyteller’s hands. In a live session, for me, this would usually be Mo Willem’s Don’t let The Pigeon Drive the Bus. If you know the book, you will know that the pigeon’s pleas build and build to a crescendo of frenzied bus-based desire. And you have to be that pigeon, full pelt, like nothing else in the world matters:
“JUST LET ME DRIVE THE BUS!!!!”
Then, when you are done, you can legitimately say to the audience:
”If I can do that in front of all of a room full of adults, you can do it in the privacy of your home with your children. They might act as though you have blown any attempts of ‘being cool’ out of the water, but they will love that you became that pigeon just for them, even if only secretly. Later they will remember it.”
Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat back also works nicely – I tend to adopt a gently melancholic persona for the moose when I am offering words of comfort to the despondent bear. At a critical juncture, there is a spread that essentially consists of a wordless moment of intense staring. Be sure to linger on it. It's a moment ripe for inference.
In online sessions, shouty moments do not translate quite so well, and in such cases Ed Vere’s How to Be A Lion has proven to be a solid-gold charmer on all outings so far. I first experienced that book when Sue McGonigle read it to me and my fellow students. I see my sharing of that book as my way of saying thank you to Sue for holding us all transfixed. A good read that needed to be paid forward. Sue’s website, Lovemybooks features in the closing section below.
One downside of holding reading support sessions online is that I can no longer cart my suitcases of books – non-fiction, picture-books, early reading scheme books, novels and novellas, poetry collections – and allow time for a good browsing session. Just as can be the case for some teachers, parents can find it difficult to keep abreast of newer books, of the options available, of how different books offer different things for different purposes. Given that I am currently unable to share my own collection, it's important to provide pointers to sites that provide great recommendations and guidance.
One that I routinely share is Books for keeps which is regularly refreshed in the shape of a free bi-monthly magazine, and which comes with a firm commitment to diversity in books. Another great site is Lovemybooks because of the expertise that sits behind it. That and its stated intention:
‘With Lovemybooks you will find out about wonderful books to read with your child. You will find many creative activities based on each book to make reading even more enjoyable and interactive.’
Here you can rest safe in the knowledge that the book choice is strong and there is plenty of guidance to support thought and talk around what has been read.
There is a case to be made for face-to-face and remote sessions. This is certainly an aspect of home-school dialogue where the messages we share matter far more than the medium. That said, it might just be the case that adapting to remote learning has provided us with a means by which to spread our reading messages on a wider basis, more efficiently, and with fewer barriers. We hope that the starting points offered here provide some support in exploring how the legacies of lockdowns might reap some unexpected benefits of the most important kind.