Jill Bennett, a pioneer of teaching reading without a formal scheme, assesses the latest contributions to the `real’ books approach.
1989 gave us little cause for celebration in education, what with the finalisation of a number of National Curriculum subject documents including English Key Stage 1. For no matter what the content – and we can debate that endlessly – it still seems to me an insult to caring, thinking teachers (like those writing in the books under review) that the Government feels the need to impose something from above.
In the light of this it’s enormously refreshing to see no less than three new publications all written by teachers who seek to further the cause of real books and the apprenticeship approach to reading. It’s a cause that for some fifteen plus years has been very dear to my heart.
This Book’s Brilliant: teaching reading without a reading scheme is a 28-page booklet written by a group of twelve East Sussex teachers which arose out of a part-time inset course at Brighton Polytechnic. Essentially this adopts a straightforward pragmatic approach dealing with the subject through a series of questions and answers, interspersed with line drawings by young children. The questions asked cover the main areas of concern: why real books?, the teacher’s role, assessing progress, involving parents, making it work.
Being a group enterprise, the booklet has no distinctive voice. It comes across as a rather dispassionate piece of writing that’s unlikely to persuade anyone unfamiliar with the real books movement and the philosophy behind it. However, I can’t fault the wealth of practical advice and book-related information on offer and anyone considering starting out should find it invaluable.
Building a House of Fiction: children becoming real readers, a 42-page booklet, was written by a group of Nottinghamshire teachers who’ve met regularly for three years to support one another in the development of ‘real reading’.
There’s an introductory piece from David Allen, a member of the Advisory Service, validating the approach and making it clear that there are strong education arguments for using real books rather than schemes. The contributions from teachers are all written from their own experience. There are case studies from different kinds of schools: an urban EPA infant and nursery school, an inner-city infant school, a suburban nursery/infant school and a rural primary school. Questions most, frequently asked by visiting teachers about books and the role of the teacher are answered by a headteacher; the application of the approach with second language learners is also discussed, as are ‘what is meant by real reading?’ and book selection. The piece about parental involvement includes examples of comments written by parents and highlights the vital importance of good two-way communication and co-operation. What’s clear is that there are bound to be some difficulties: you cannot convince every parent any more than you can convince every teacher. But the subsequent questions and strategies show how one could further the cause of real parental involvement, and Jack Ousbey’s final piece sets out what cognizant parents (and grandparents) can do to help children’s learning.
I found Pauline Davies’ piece, in which we’re given a detailed glimpse of a primary teacher working with a class of reception and middle infants, probably the most telling. Both the enthusiasm and commitment of the teacher and the children’s delight shine through. Here is someone who so clearly has trusted the children and, of course, the books. I suspect that anyone seriously contemplating using real books would be persuaded to take the plunge having read this totally honest account.
Apprenticeship in Action is a more substantial volume comprising contributions from some forty teachers around the country, interspersed with comments by Liz Waterland who, in Read With Me, invited a sharing of ‘experiences, concerns and successes in apprenticeship reading development’. Here she collects and orders a selection of responses under five main headings: schools approaches, parents, keeping records, special needs and county initiatives, and a summary.
These snapshots of schools’ practice show the variety of ways teachers have responded to the challenge of apprenticeship, but the editor has placed herself in something of a dilemma for, as she admits, not all the pieces included truly further the cause. This leads to a certain lack of cohesiveness. Still, it’s very evident that many children are being enabled to become readers through the real books/apprenticeship approach.
I found the record-keeping section particularly interesting with its extensive extracts from the ‘comments booklets’ used by the Waterbeach Community School where parents’ and children’s reactions to the books were vividly documented. I also like the way the common roots and interdependence of reading and writing are illustrated by the literacy flowers used by Caroline Matusiak, then at Braeburn Infants School. But the piece I feel does most for the apprenticeship cause is the final letter, some three-and-a-half pages, written by an anonymous headteacher: ‘Learning About Learning to Read’, the account of her journey from apprentice to journeyman. It’s a road none of us will ever really complete.
This Book’s Brilliant: teaching reading without a reading scheme, Brighton Polytechnic Literacy Centre (Falmer, Brighton BN1 9PH), £1.00 inc. postage
Building a House of Fiction: children becoming real readers, Nottinghamshire County Education Service (available from Janet van der Colff, 11 Mount Pleasant, Keyworth, Notts. NG12 5EP), £3.50 inc. postage
Apprenticeship in Action: teachers write about Read With Me, edited by Liz Waterland, Thimble Press (Lockwood, Station Road, Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ), 0 903355 31 0, £4.75 inc. postage
Jill Bennett is Deputy Head of a junior school in Hounslow, Middlesex.