Once children have mastered the mechanics of reading and can read independently what comes next? In this new series on reading in the middle years, specialists in the field explore the critical and reflective reading that is so important to young readers at this age in relation to the reading of novels, poetry, non-fiction and visual texts. The problems of reluctant and inexperienced readers will also be addressed as will the impact of the new technologies. In the first article of the series Alison Kelly explores ways to ensure that enthusiasm and interest in reading is maintained.
Malik is in Year 6. The children in his class have been asked to construct reading profiles. Their starting point is to draw themselves reading a book in their favourite reading spot and then to surround this with thoughts about their reading. Here is Malik’s reading profile:
Other thought bubbles, which we do not see in the graphic, say: ‘My favourite classic is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson’, ‘I like reading Russian folk tales’, ‘I read in two other languages beside English… Hebrew and Arabic’, and ‘I read to put me to sleep and to stop me getting bored’.
What do we learn from the comments of this experienced, articulate reader? Look first at the range of reading he is engaged with – from the popular ‘Point Horror’ stories, through to classic novels. He has a clear idea of the varied purposes for reading: to kindle his imagination, find out more about his faith and to relax. Most importantly, identity – his language and culture – is intimately tied up with his view of himself as a reader.
Malik’s mature understandings of the joys and purposes of reading typify just the kind of reader we would all hope to find at the end of primary school. Sadly though, his profile is not characteristic of the national picture. An international study into reading (Twist et al, 2003) found that, although ten-year-olds in Britain compared favourably with their peers in their reading skills, the same was not true of their attitudes towards reading. They were not so motivated to read as children in other countries and read less frequently for pleasure. It would seem then, that in this country, the trajectory from learning the skills of reading through to becoming a motivated, enthusiastic and discerning reader is a fragile one and this is confirmed by other studies (e.g. Sainsbury, 2004; MORI, 2003) and OFSTED who reported that:
Although some schools were successfully raising reading attainment and were teaching pupils the skills they needed to read with accuracy and understanding, few were successfully engaging the interest of those who, though competent readers, did not read for pleasure. (2004: 4)
Most recently, Michael Lockwood’s survey of 1500 Year 5 pupils found that, despite declaring their enjoyment of reading, the children’s ‘responses also indicated that reading as a leisure activity still has something of an image problem’ (Lockwood, 2007: 46).
All of this makes for uncomfortable reading. So much has been written and debated about the early years of teaching reading in the last few months that it would be all too easy to ignore what is happening in the latter years of primary schooling. This article is written just as the renewed Primary National Strategy Framework (DfES, 2006) is being implemented and this document includes a welcome strand of learning objectives related to ‘Engaging with and responding to texts’ (strand 8) that is highly relevant to the needs of these older children. This all-important set of expectations includes children reading extensively and widely and reflecting on this; interrogating texts and making comparisons between genres, authors and books set in different eras; understanding authorship through contact with authors; and engaging in different active techniques that bring texts alive. Alongside this, strand 7 holds objectives for understanding and interpreting texts highlighting the skills needed for reading a wide range of texts across the curriculum. It is the need to bring these expectations to life, in order to nourish children’s reading, that underpins this series of articles focusing on readers of nine to eleven years old. Children of this age are at a critical point on the reading journey. For most of them (and we will be considering the needs of those who are not confident, motivated or experienced in a later article) the mechanics of reading are already mastered and it is keeping the children on board that matters, both through sustaining momentum as well as enriching and deepening their engagement with all kinds of reading.
‘I read not only fiction and non-fiction but the Qur’an and music’: a range of reading
The need for all children to be reading from a wide range of text types has been enshrined in government documentation since the inception of the National Curriculum some 20 years ago. But consider how that range has diversified and widened since then: not only have wonderful new writers opened up new and exciting secondary worlds for young readers and created ever richer opportunities for reading poetry, but also what we read and how we read have changed dramatically as technology advances, particularly when reading for information. Children are more visually skilled as they ‘read’ the many symbols, logos and representations around them and these skills are reflected in the sophisticated demands of book illustrations, whether the pictures dart around the pages of Lauren Child’s topsy-turvy, post-modern world or power the narrative of graphic novels. In the articles that follow, we will develop this theme of range as being central to holding on to these young readers.
When we consider how to offer children a range of reading, building on children’s interests should be a given surely? And yet David Bell, reporting on the OFSTED report Reading for Pleasure , comments that:
Many children read at home, either on the computer or in magazines and information books. However, they seldom pursue their personal reading interests at school. (DfES, 2004: 4)
He goes on to ask whether schools are doing enough to ‘capture children’s enthusiasm and to explore their own interests’. A project focusing on the 2006 World Cup (Safford et al, 2007) offered wide-ranging reading possibilities including headlines, match reports, poetry and fiction, fanzines, online profiles of the players and WAGs. An online blog, set up to record thoughts and opinions as the football matches progressed, gave children who were normally reluctant readers and writers a new voice and authority. Their written contributions showed clear evidence of their reading of newspaper commentaries on matches as this blog entry by one such reluctant writer and reader shows:
I think that if England are winning comfortably then I would put on Theo so he can get past the tired defenders. But if England were chasing the game then I wouldn’t put him on because it puts a lot of pressure on him and he’ll get frustrated and lose the ball. (Safford et al, 2007: 13)
However, having the best books and texts in the world does not guarantee that the children will engage with them and it is to the mediation of the books that we now turn.
Reading aloud – yes, reading aloud to children in Key Stage 2 – is a critically important reading routine if we are to engage all readers. How else are the less experienced children, or those for whom English is an additional language, to be introduced to the works of Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo and other writers who speak so well to this age-range? Here is Daniel Pennac’s description of a teacher who read aloud to his class as one who ‘developed the photograph for his pupils as cleanly as possible… When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading as a gift’ (2006: 95, 121). Because teachers can read aloud texts that are more demanding than those children can read alone, the ‘gift’ as Pennac describes it, is a very special one: it shows children what lies ahead and anticipation – looking forward to the next ‘good read’ – has to be an important part of a mature reader’s repertoire.
Reading aloud is just one way of drawing children into the world of the book. Skilled questioning can accompany reading aloud and should be a feature of any guided reading session and there are many other strategies that can be used to actively draw children into literature; the Primary National Strategy ’s reiteration of these is to be welcomed. Using drama, drawing, visualisation techniques, recording characters’ feelings in journals, adding thought bubbles at crucial points, mapping stories: these are just some of the suggestions the PNS makes (DfES, 2005). So whether children are writing journal entries for Sophy, the protagonist in Frederick Lipp’s moving picture book, Running Shoes , set in Cambodia, or mapping out the extraordinary journey through 12th-century Korea that Min takes in A Single Shard (Linda Sue Park), they are being helped to engage with the lives of these characters. Such ways of working with texts provide creative entry points for the children who need to feel what it is like to live in other eras and places.
‘I enjoy reading because it helps your imagination’
Any discussion of children’s reading has to take account of their writing as well, not least because of the research by Barrs and Cork (2001) which shows how powerfully experiences of reading can feed into children’s writing. Their project with Year 5 pupils demonstrated the impact that a rich programme of reading aloud, discussion and drama had on the children’s narrative writing and it is with a piece of writing that I want to conclude this article. This is an extract from a story by nine-year-old, Joe, an avid reader who reads way beyond the expectations for his age-range. His current favourite author is Willard Price whose book Lion Adventure , inspired Joe’s story. Before the story begins, there is a blurb on the back of the book to be read:
A brave young adventurer, an unexplored jungle and a temple full of death! All these things come together in a story of one man’s quest to find lost treasure.
‘Excellent’ Morning Chronicle
‘Brilliant’ Evening Chronicle
The story begins:
CHAPTER 1 Base Camp
‘You ready to go yet Matt?’ asked Charlie.
The heat was intense as I sat, reflecting over the day’s activities. I had been driven out that morning from where I was staying in Brazil in a little village in the jungle. I was going on an expedition after some treasure and I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that it was a temple and I was going to find it with just a two-way radio and some supplies between me and the jungle.
The authority with which Joe assumes the authorial role is a direct result of his reading habit. Wide reading both powers and empowers writing and it is this kind of confident ‘readerly voice’ that we would hope to hear from many more pupils of this age. We hope that the articles that follow will highlight the kinds of texts and activities needed for such voices to flourish.
Alison Kelly is Senior Lecturer in English Education, Roehampton University.
DfES (2005b) Understanding Reading Comprehension (Flyers 1-3), London: DfES
DfES (2006) Primary National Strategy, Primary Framework for literacy and mathematics , London: DfES
Graham, J. and Kelly, A. (2007) Reading Under Control , London: David Fulton (first published 1997)
Lockwood, M. (2007) ‘Surveying the pleasures of reading’, NATE Classroom , Issue 01, 46-8
MORI (2003) ‘Young People’s Attitudes towards Reading’, Nestle Family Monitor 17
OFSTED (2004) Reading for Purpose and Pleasure. An Evaluation of the Teaching of Reading in Primary School , London: OFSTED
Pennac, D. (2006) The Rights of the Reader , London: Walker Books
Safford, K., Collins, F., Kelly, A. and Montgomerie, D. (2007) ‘Exploring the Field’, Primary English Magazine 12 (3), 11-14
Sainsbury, M. and I. Schagen (2004) ‘Attitudes to reading at ages nine and eleven’, Journal of Research in Reading 27 (4), 373-386
Twist, L., Sainsbury, M., Woodthorpe, A. and Whetton, C. (2003) Reading All Over the World: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study , Slough: NFER
Lipp, F. and Gaillard, J. (2006) Running Shoes , London: Zero to Ten
Price, W. (1967) Lion Adventure , London: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Sue Park, L. (2001) A Single Shard , Oxford: Oxford University Press
What is the role of visual texts in books and on screens for Middle Age Range readers? In the next instalment of ‘Reading in the Middle Years’ in BfK No. 166, Prue Goodwin will be asking what picture books offer and exploring the range of reading on screen that youngsters engage in.