That phrase, rather than the more conventional ‘Read to me’, is the essence of Liz Waterland approach to teaching reading. Here she describes how she organises her day for what she calls learning by apprenticeship
If we wish to help children to learn by apprenticeship we need to consider three elements of experience: the parents’, the child’s, and the teacher’s role. How is this to be organised? This is the general pattern of my day within which we can be flexible. It works for me but other teachers will find their own answers; nothing here is prescriptive or definitive.
When children begin arriving, mothers and fathers stay to read a story, or admire a picture until register time. The children put their book bags – named plastic bags for taking the books home – in the box for attention later. We talk. Then the business of the day begins: a quota of work for each group, individual or group maths, sentence maker, painting or cutting out, tracing, handwriting practice. Each day a selection of `formal’ work to be done when a child wishes; the rest of the morning is the child’s own, to write, to read, to talk. Every day a group has direct teaching, depending on what is needed by them. The book corner in the morning is often in the hands of a parent helper; she reads to, with and alongside any child who wishes, just as she does with her own child at home. She also keeps a helping eye available for those who want to read to themselves or to friends.
By lunch time the children have completed their quota and anything else that needs doing.
The afternoon is my book corner time. A parent often helps to supervise the rest of the class; they may do anything that does not require direct teaching; in other words, anything that the children can do by themselves or with only a little help that any friendly adult can give.
I am based in the book corner. ‘Today is red group’s reading day.’ Each child comes to choose a book, published or home-made. ‘Shall I read or shall you?’
We talk about it, predict, look at the words and take our time. I watch, assess, plan and encourage each step the child takes. I can just manage ten minutes or so each.
This reading with me is the core of the approach and its greatest pleasure. ‘Come and read with me’; that single word change, from the conventional ‘Read to me’, encapsulates the ‘feel’ of what we are doing. As a colleague said, ‘Once I started saying that, I felt the whole atmosphere lighten and improve.’ Even more delightful is to hear the children saying it to me and to each other.
The little children sit on my lap when they read with me so that they are offered literally physical support, are relaxed and comfortable and can see and follow all the text. They are allowed to bring any book they choose, however ‘easy’ or ‘hard’, and at first I read it all to them. Later, with some books the children read a little, and later yet a child may read it all. But still, throughout the years, the book and the support are one unit. There is no control other than the child’s wishes as to how much or how little is read; if someone wants to read the same book with me every day for a week (and many do), I grin and bear it, for here is a book that is speaking to that child. Later, I ask children ‘Will you read, or shall I?’ and respect their decision even when it disappoints me. Who is this reading for anyway, the teacher or the child?
The final job of the day is for those children who wish to change their book-bag book to take home. Sometimes they choose to take home a book we have read together, sometimes a new one. The choice is theirs.
Other reading activities are frequently child-instigated: the free use of my big sentence maker by the children; the very frequent use of the book corner by individuals or groups to read to themselves or their friends, to rest, to browse, to potter; the public reading session, when one or two children volunteer to read a story to the class. Sometimes they read from a published text, sometimes from their sentence-maker or other home-made books, which – once they are finished and ‘bound’ with tackyback – are added to the bookshelves along with the published books. Children enjoy reading each other’s work, and it is great motivation for the writers. ‘It’s good being an author – everyone likes books.’
Another popular activity is group reading. Five or six children take turns reading books. They dramatize, discuss, share jokes and argue about the plot. They help each other, suggest possible interpretations and share the reading, perhaps a page each. For older children this approach allows each child to share a longer text, before they have the stamina to tackle it alone.
I also deliberately instigate two or three fifteen-minute ‘quiet reading sessions’ during the week, when we all read (or ‘read’) together, to ourselves, a book we are interested in. These periods have several advantages: they throw the children on their own resources and encourage them to puzzle out text without an adult; they also show reading as something that can and does give private pleasure. Probably because the books are worthwhile, and because the children assume that they are readers and know how to behave like readers, even a group of reception infants can sustain ‘private reading’ with great confidence. In many ways it is here were the adult is not encouraging and supporting that the success of this approach is demonstrated; in the truest sense there are no non-readers; no child fails to show interaction with a book.
The children, of course, are reading throughout the day; they may only have two planned sessions on my knee each week but reading (and its reflection, writing) goes on in many different forms. Once literacy becomes taken for granted it never has to be forced into use. The book corner is never empty.
What do the parents think of all this?
Not one parent fails to support us, or to read regularly with their children. They come into school to see the books and talk about the ones their child most loves. No one asks, ‘When will he get a reading book?’ or ‘Why can’t she read yet?’ Whether their child is mature or immature in her/his response, the parent sees and feels the confidence and pleasure in books the child feels. They are wiser than we think. But then they not only see their child’s progress, they create most of it. They enjoy taking part. ‘I love to read to her’, ‘We enjoy it very much’, ‘We fight over whose turn to read it is’, ‘Please let her bring The Elephant and the Bad Baby again. We enjoyed it so much’. ‘Please help him to find a different book – we can’t stand The Hungry Giant again!’ It all gives a new meaning to parental involvement.
The children all believe they are readers; reading is not something they will do ‘one day’ but something they do now – at whatever level. They all, however mature or immature, believe themselves to be readers and behave like readers. Helping them, reading to them first, does not make them lazy. It increases the drive to try for themselves because it increases their confidence and removes the fear of failure.
They love books too. Most experience over a hundred books in a year. Those who are reading, to whatever extent, independently made the step with one book that seemed to help them to break through to the next stage. These break-through books vary from child to child, but all have the same characteristics: the child cares enough about the text to be determined to make it his or her own. It does not matter about sentence length, size of print, typeface or any of the other details teachers’ manuals are so dogmatic about. All that matters is that the child wants to read the story. The drive is the child’s.
The role of the sentence maker, of their own language, is vital. Here in their own stories are the words children have absolute power over. They have learnt so much by using it: the relationship between speech and print, the word as a unit, the way sentences work; how to say what they want to say. Even more, the children feel in control of written language: it is their own, what shall they make it do?
Children do not fail to read back their text days, even weeks, after it has been composed. They read their books to me, to parents, to anyone who comes in. Many of the words they use with their sentence maker crop up in the published text too. It must help their response to books.
And how they respond to books!
Hannah, aged four, brought Fat Cat to me four days running, each day needing less help. ‘I’ll read it all tomorrow,’ she said. And did.
Daniel walks round clutching Spooky Old Tree (his break-through book, the one that he first read), reading it to all his friends and, when they tire, reading it to his old comforter, Snoopy.
Colin calls to David, ‘There’s a good bit here, listen,’ and reads the passage where the big red ball is kicked over the wall, `and that was the end of the big red ball’, and shutting the book with a satisfied smack. ‘It served him right.’
James knocks my hand away as we open In a Dark, Dark Wood. ‘No, me,’ he says. ‘I can.’
Heidi is listening to Good-Night, Owl! (she loves all the noises). Triumphantly, on every page she chants, ‘and owl tried to sleep’. Her finger charts the words, her voice mirrors Owl’s exasperation perfectly. I suppose I know that she is ‘only’ memorizing, but Heidi knows she’s reading: reading is the page coming alive, and it certainly does that for her.
No classroom using this approach to reading will ever be quite the same again. However the day is organized, whatever the age and ability of the children, if we reach out for the parents, the child and the books and bring them together, we are improving the quality of life – ours and theirs – as well as the quality of our teaching.
Liz Waterland is now deputy head of an infants school in Peterborough. She began developing the approach described here while teaching at Northborough School, also in Peterborough.
This article is an edited extract from an excellent Signal booklet in which Liz Waterland describes her growing dissatisfaction with the customary methods of teaching reading, outlines the theoretical basis for changes in her classroom practice and describes fully how she operates the new approach, including approaches to parents, record-keeping, organizing the day.
Adopting the same philosophy as Jill Bennett in her Signal Bookguide Learning to Read with Picture Books (third edition due soon), Liz Waterland believes in the importance of using real books with children who are ‘not just learning to read but becoming readers’.
Read with Me: an apprenticeship approach to reading
Signal, 0 903355 17 5, £2.35. Available from The Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, South Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ.