What can you do for the less-able secondary-age child who is a poor reader and is intimidated by books? In the English Department of Romsey Community School, Hampshire, two teachers, disappointed with some of the material available for less-able pupils, decided to take a fresh look at the problem.
Margaret Lowman and Georghia Elinas-Lewis present their experiences as the account of one teacher.
At the beginning of the 1988-89 school year I was given a timetable which included a class of sixteen 4th year (14-year-old) pupils. I had heard of one or two of the pupils, usually in the context of some behaviour problem, but had actually taught only one of them before.
The class consisted of fourteen boys and two girls; one of the boys was statemented and all of the class had learning difficulties. The first few lessons with the group were used to gauge their level of abilities in reading, writing and understanding. In all cases the level was poor. As part of some research for a course I was attending I used the Gapadol test to assess their reading ages. Although I felt that this was not completely reliable, it did give results from 8.2 years to 12.6 years and this confirmed my sense of the group’s level. The mechanics of their writing were poor. All of them had spent some of their time in the past three years in the Special Needs Department.
One of the main problems I faced was that they seemed completely `switched off’ from reading. I realised that they could not sustain concentration for very long and certainly reading a book over a number of weeks would present difficulties as they would be unable to remember the plot from one lesson to the next. I had, at this stage, some success with Gregory’s Girl read as a play, and with some short stories, e.g. Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World. The class enjoyed being read to for short periods of time, but I wondered whether this was largely because they didn’t have to do anything.
Finding the Material
What I wanted was reading material which would stimulate their interest, be accessible and above all not seem patronising. They had been through years of repeated failure and now felt that books were not for them. It was unusual in the school to have so many poor readers concentrated together and it became imperative to find something attractive to them. The Special Needs Department had a few of the Spirals series in stock, but these were all of the same formula and had in some cases been rejected by the pupils.
I decided that these pupils needed to start from the beginning; to learn to appreciate books and hopefully see them not as a hard and futile academic exercise, but as an enjoyable pastime. I began by thinking of books my own children had enjoyed, books I had enjoyed reading to them and new books that I recognised as being accessible and yet still stretching.
From my own experience and through knowledge of current research, I understood the vital link between text and pictures. Instead of presenting children with books whose pages were crammed with text, I looked for illustrated books that subtly explored the relationship between the story told through words, and the other layers of meaning embodied in the pictures. If the pupils struggled over the words, they could rely on the pictures to help them understand the story. The pictures would reassure the anxious readers; they could talk about the pictures without hesitation and would be able to make constructive comments about the artist’s intentions. The story would be absorbed without struggle and in many cases without the pupils consciously recognising that they were `reading’.
Armed with a long list of titles and £100 I spent a wonderful afternoon mulling over the selection of picture books at Wessex Book Supplies in Winchester. I overspent my budget by £20 and came away with forty colourful, exciting and attractive books. I couldn’t wait to pore over them myself and try them out in the classroom.
Introducing the Books
When I first introduced the picture-book box to the fourth year, I selected Curtis, the Hip-Hop Cat by Gini Wade. I read it to the class holding the pictures to the front (the text was short and easy to read upside down). Although I made no comment, it was obvious to the class that I found it amusing. They were not sure what their reaction should be, so smiled as well. I then put the books out on the desks and invited them to take one to look at (not to read). One girl and two boys (the least confident) quickly picked up the Allan Ahlberg’s Happy Families books and said they had read them in the primary school. They took them off to a corner and read silently. The others milled around the books, but within ten minutes they had all settled and were reading silently – but not for long.
There was a shriek as someone found the more uninhibited pictures in Unlucky Wally, followed by many cries of `After you!’. Changing Places by Graham Oakley seemed to defy being looked at alone. The images created by the split pages just had to be shared and soon three boys had gathered round the books and were turning the pages very slowly and discussing the possibilities of the pictures.
I had planned to use the books for half-an-hour before going on to some other work, but the class asked if they could carry on reading and this they did. Most unusually, in that hour there was little chat which was not about the books. I had not realised how successful the books would be in engaging them, but they were enthusiastic and obviously did not think of their activity as `reading’, but as enjoyment. At the end of the lesson there was disappointment from some of the pupils because they had not been able to read the book which they had wanted; Unlucky Wally was at this stage the most popular book.
After the initial lesson I continued to use the books at intervals. Together we read The Piggy Book and The Visitors Who Came to Stay, both by Anthony Browne, and admired the illustrations. We found amusing details and there was a real sense of discovery when someone pointed out another joke. The pupils began unselfconsciously to talk about various books – why they had or had not enjoyed it, why the words didn’t tell the whole story and what made them laugh.
I tried the picture-book box with one pupil who has specific problems. He is a statemented child, is a partial spastic and in spite of tremendous determination and motivation has never conquered reading. In extra sessions after school he would read to me and I would try to build up his confidence. He struggled bravely with the books he had chosen from various libraries: school, public, special needs and my classroom library. Using the box was like opening up Aladdin’s cave to the boy. He began with the Happy Families series; he whipped through the several Anthony Browne books and swiftly moved through the remaining selection.
Books had become FUN. They were easy and no longer frightening. He had become a successful reader, not only in my eye but most importantly, in his. The confidence that he gained has encouraged him to write – something he dreaded in the past, because he was so weak at it. On the wall of his English classroom are now proudly displayed four A4 sheets of writing and drawings on his hobby – trains.
Picture Books with Abler Pupils
I was interested to find out the reactions of my very able 3rd years to the same books, and allowed them to relax with the book box at the end of a project. To my surprise they did not merely flick through the individual texts until the bell went, but clustered together to explore them. They laughed, talked, examined, compared, analysed and engaged with all aspects of the books. They did not feel patronised, but pampered. The picture-book box began to acquire a cachet value we had never anticipated. It became special and something pupils at all levels welcomed. Telling them to choose a book was the equivalent of letting them off homework.
Where do I go from here? I think we in the Department need to extend the range of books in the book box. We’d like to have several boxes, each of which would make different demands on the readers. Ultimately we’d like to see the pupils reading texts that are less dependent on pictures for meaning. For some, that is already happening; for others, however, it may be ‘a slower process or may never happen at all. What we are convinced about is the value of picture books. They have opened doors of reading for pupils who had previously thought they were locked and bolted out. And for all of us involved they have been FUN.