Would you Bee-lieve it!

    Published: 03 June 2019

    Can you recommend (another!) good book about the Romans: Part 2

    In Part 1 of this blog series, I outlined my belief that the texts selected for study in the English lessons should be chosen primarily for their ability to meet the aims of the English curriculum, rather than the aims of another subject’s programme of study. My stance was that there are simply too many stupendously brilliant books available to us – and too little time to read them – that to have text choice influenced by anything other than a book’s ability to ‘open up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds’ (quote taken from Curriculum 2014) would be folly. To this end, selecting books because they may – or may not, as is often the case - support learning in another curriculum area should be done with careful consideration. Put simply, if it is true that children will have the opportunity to study as few as 40-50 books in their school years (as suggested by Doug Lemov in Reading Reconsidered), then we had better make them good ones.

    My last blog pertained predominantly to fiction text selection. In Part 2 of this blog series, I turn my attention to non-fiction text selection, and its relevance to the English curriculum. Conveniently, on this matter, my advice remains the same: that is, that the selection of material for use within the English lessons should be chosen purposefully for its ability to meet the aims set out in the English curriculum, rather than to link contextually with learning in other subject areas.

    My first reason for this stance is that, once again, the need to select quality texts is paramount. Quality and readability trump all other factors when deciding on an appropriate non-fiction text to use in our classes. At each stage, we must seek out texts that present a suitable level of reading challenge for our class, and that contain features (*) that will develop our young children as confident readers of non-fiction. Be this a text aimed at younger readers with multiple single-word sub-headings that break the information into discrete chunks, or a text for older readers that contains less-overt cohesive and organisation devices, the decision about which text to use must align with the reading skills that require development for the children in our classes. When this is taken into account, the limited numbers of texts that you may have available to support learning about the Mayan civilisation, for example, might just not fit the bill. The language/organisation/semantic structure may be too hard, or too easy, or may not be capable of introducing the children to the specific features of non-fiction writing that would help them to tackle other non-fiction texts at this time. Or, the text just might not be very good. In this scenario, the rationale for not using a curriculum related non-fiction text in the English lesson is relatively clear and uncontroversial.

    There may be some cases, however, where there is a range of good quality non-fiction texts available that do link well with the learning that is taking place elsewhere in the curriculum, and that could be used to develop non-fiction reading skills. Once again – and more controversially on this occasion – I would urge teachers to reflect carefully on their rationale for choosing a text from this selection.

    It would seem an obvious good use of teaching time for teachers to select a good quality text for use in the English lessons that relates to the topic being covered in another subject. We can imagine that the opportunity to read yet more information about the topic in focus, from a good quality text, would be advantageous for both subject aims. Indeed, it may well be. Even so, I would question this route of text selection. Why, if the text is of such high quality, and pertains so closely to the knowledge base outlined in a particular curriculum area, is that text not being used within the specified subject as a teaching tool?

    The curriculum and new Ofsted framework state that reading is of the utmost importance. It should be done well and often; it should not be constrained to the confines of the English lessons. Reading, and lots of it, should take place in all subjects. When better then to make use of this text than in the lesson to which it pertains? This is a perfect example of application in action. In the English lessons, we will have taught the children how to read non-fiction e.g. how the headings and sub-headings can guide us to predict and understand the content of the following paragraphs; how the index can be used to direct us towards very specific information; how diagrams often present complicated information in more accessible ways that complement and enhance the information presented elsewhere; how the language differs and in what ways from narrative prose.  In the history/geog/science/PE lesson, the children enact these skills, thus allowing them to explore and navigate the text in hand that will shed greater light on the topic in question.

    But, my argument goes further: if we are signed up to the notion proposed by D. Willingham that reading tests are actually general knowledge tests in disguise, then we may hit upon a rationale to broaden the range of general knowledge that our children have access to on a daily and weekly basis. Bear with me while I exemplify my point.  In recent months, I have enjoyed reading non-fiction books covering topics as wide-ranging as Bees (The Book of Bees by Piotr Socha) Cars (The Story of the Car by Giles Chapman), Wolves (The Ways of the Wolf by Smriti Prasadam-Halls), Suffragettes (Suffragette: the battle for equality by David Roberts) and the history of the silk roads (The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan). At various points during my reading I have been shocked, fascinated, intrigued and, on occasion, disgusted. What’s for sure though, is that I have learnt a great deal. By no means have I mastered any of these topics, but I have dabbled on the periphery of some enthralling topics, and I have learnt some fascinating titbits along the way.

    Did you know for example, that bees work through a series of promotions throughout their short lives, beginning as cleaners, and then becoming feeders (essentially child-minders for the larvae) before being assigned a role with greater responsibility as they reach maturity?

    Or that, back in the 1930s, the general public were not so keen to be seen driving super-sleek cars. When Chrysler introduced their first rounded, aerodynamic design in 1935, sales were poor as the car looked so different to the cars people were used to.

    Already I have made some interesting connections…had I not read The Silk Roads, I would have not realised that the Belton Road initiative that my husband’s friend often refers to (he works in China setting up new pre-schools) was actually the Belt and Road Initiative (I had clearly been mis-hearing it!), and that this is a massive investment in infrastructure along new trade routes through China.

    Had I not had this opportunity for wide-range reading covering a range of topics, I may have never found out that I am actually quite interested in bees, or understood that my friend was involved in a monumental re-building of the silk roads. It saddens me to think that many children will not get to read these fascinating texts, due to the fact that cars, or bees, or wolves do not feature as topics in their wider curriculum offerings.

    This hits upon several reasons why I think that non-fiction reading in the English lessons should expose children to knowledge beyond that being studied in other curriculum areas. Firstly, by introducing children to texts that contain information about lesser-studied topics, or topics that the children have not and will not encounter, due to the fact that the school’s curriculum does not cover them, we may be able to introduce them to a whole new world of interest. How lovely that to think that a future bee-enthusiast will recall the moment his or her fascination with bees began as being during a Year 3 English lesson when his teacher shared the aforementioned text? I digress…

    Secondly, wide reading across varied topics has the capacity to create unexpected connections, those that we could not have predicted and that may have been missed if we had pursued a course of tightly linking curriculum content with English text selection. Although we might like to think that we hold the power of instigating meaningful and schema-building connections for our pupils, reading is a strange beast and the personal attributes and unique life experiences that we bring to reading material means that different texts – and snippets within them – resonate with each of us all in different ways. A connection that we consider to be quite obvious may be missed by the majority of the class leaving their knowledge of the topic quite one-dimensional – despite our best efforts. Yet, a text that appears to have little to offer in terms of cross-curricular links may indeed resonate and cause connections in ways that we never intended or anticipated (note my Belt and Road revelation above).

    Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in terms of improving reading skills, through my varied reading, I have learnt a lot. Moreover, I learnt a lot about a lot of different things. Chances are that following my reading of the text about bees, I could stretch myself a little and challenge myself to read a text that takes me even deeper into the world of bees – certainly the willingness is now there to try and access such a text. Bolstered by my newly acquired elementary knowledge, I would probably be able to access this more challenging text with greater confidence and ease. I may even be able to indulge in a rudimental conversation with a bee-keeper – you never know who you might meet at a party, after all! Slowly but surely, if I continue in this way, I may become what we might call a ‘fount of knowledge’ – one of those people who mesmerises us with their interest and knowledge about a dizzying range of different topics (or, to use the Google definition, someone who has a large aggregate of knowledge). My point is that my general knowledge has improved, and to return to my earlier reference, if reading tests are actually general knowledge tests in disguise then this can’t be a bad thing.

    It is true that you would have to go at quite a pace to cover all the general knowledge that children might require to access any text that life (or a SATs test!) might throw at them, but with that in mind, we had better take all the opportunities we can get. This could start with the time available in the English lesson.

    *To clarify this point: it is important to remember that we don’t teach children about non-fiction text features because they are important in their own right. They are not. They are important because they facilitate our acquisition of the information about the topic that we are studying. With this in mind, labelling features is redundant. Instead, recognising and evaluating how effective these features are in allowing us to access the information we seek is important. Likewise, knowing how these features support us in expressing our knowledge in writing is equally relevant.

    This autumn, on 25 October, Just Imagine and HfL will be joining forces to deliver a timely conference, aimed at celebrating those texts capable of imparting knowledge to young readers. Join us at either our Essex or Herts event and enjoy the celebration.

    Herts event to take place on 4th Feb 2020. Booking for this event will be available soon.

    More details to follow soon.  Initial enquiries should be directed to Just Imagine: assistant@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk.

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