‘I’m already thinking what’s going to happen in the new Harry Potter’: Novels in the Middle Years
Previously in this series, Alison Kelly and Prue Goodwin explored the range of reading material that children meet in the middle years. The focus of this article is on the importance of novels, read both privately and in school. Fiona Collins discusses.
It is hoped that, for the majority of children between nine and eleven, the reading of novels will form a significant part of their reading diet. Reading novels can lead young readers into more sophisticated engagement with narrative and offers them the possibility of entering other worlds and situations where their cultural and emotional values and beliefs may be challenged and developed. However, Key Stage 2 children bring different degrees of experience and confidence to their reading and this presents a challenge for publishers, authors and teachers. In order to tackle these longer texts, which often involve more complex plots and multifaceted characters than children have met before, it is necessary to build up their reading stamina.
Children as Readers
Helping children to develop this stamina and to navigate their way through the maze of novels on offer to them is all important. Young readers need support and stability in their reading and for this reason newly fluent readers often enjoy the security offered by series books. There are many books in series available to young readers today covering a range of genres but books in series have been popular since before World War Two. Enid Blyton’s formulaic school and adventure series made many children into readers and the same can be said of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket and the Robert Muchamore Cherub series, not to mention the seven Harry Potter books. The NCRCL survey (Maynard et al, 2007) found that 28.7% of Key Stage 2 (KS2) respondents read books in series ‘often/very often’ while 52.7% read them ‘sometimes’. Children read these books because they are entering familiar territory, they know the characters, they relate to the setting and they like the genre. As a Year 6 girl said to me ‘I read the next one because I want to know what happens next’. As an experienced reader, she was also aware of the techniques used by authors to encourage this reading on, commenting that, ‘Series books leave you on a cliff-hanger’.
Not only do children read books in series once, but they reread them again and again because they constantly want to re-enter these safe, secondary worlds. Rereading gives them a chance to understand plot details that they may have missed on the first reading. An avid 11-year-old boy reader said, ‘I usually read novels over and over again’. While waiting for the seventh Harry Potter book to be published he had reread the whole series so that he was ready for the latest edition and totally up-to-date with the fine details of the plots. He also said, ‘I’m already thinking what’s going to happen in the new Harry Potter’. This total immersion in the stories encouraged him to predict his own imaginative Harry Potter scenarios. This was a boy who enjoyed reading immensely and his reading choices included books aimed at younger children through to The Doomspell Trilogy (Cliff McNish) and Bernard Cornwell books read by his father.
For voracious readers such as this, reading is part of their lives along with television, computers, sport and playing with friends. It is not an ‘either / or’ situation but a pastime that they enjoy. Such readers can become totally involved in the narrative and lose themselves in it, as this Year 6 girl described when discussing her reading of Ingo by Helen Dunmore: ‘I am halfway through and I’m really into it. I sit on the bus on the way to school and I go past the bus stop as I am reading it’. As a Year 4 reader eloquently said about this type of experience, ‘Some writers wrap you up in the story and transport you, so it’s real’.
Children get information about what to read from a range of people and places. Some children will say they just pick a book from the bookshelf at home as if by magic; some will read books that their parents suggest; others are bought books by family and friends and some borrow books from the local library. For many children, the book covers are all important when making choices: ‘I always look at the front cover and then read the blurb’ one Year 6 girl told me. The NCRCL survey (Maynard et al, 2007) found that 21.6% of KS2 respondents chose books by the cover ‘often / very often’ while 64% said they did ‘sometimes’.
The survey also reported on the different roles played by parents in relation to their children’s reading choices. Maynard et al found that 48.7% of KS2 respondents said their mothers were significant in recommending books: ‘The importance of mothers in making book choices is very visible here… Fathers in this role are relatively less important to the respondents, although a higher proportion of the boys (23.3%) rely on their fathers than of the girls (16.1%)’ (2007: 26).
Reading in School
In primary schools books for KS2 readers are often organised according to difficulty. Novels may be colour-coded so that both children and teachers know which book is appropriate for the reader. Primary schools do not have vast amounts of money to spend on new books but a school which values books will have collections which contain novels by well known and established authors, such as Nina Bawden, Roald Dahl, Anne Fine, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson to name just a few.
KS2 children often ‘get stuck’ on one genre or author because it is easy and feels comfortable. Children need to be introduced to new and different authors so that their repertoire is broadened and they are challenged by new and varied genres and styles of writing. The role of the teacher is significant here. Reading books aloud to children acts as an advertisement for not only the text that is being read but also the author. Fortunately the new Primary National Strategy (2006) clearly signals the importance of reading aloud. As we have said earlier in the series, the power of this activity cannot be overstated. When teachers read aloud from powerful texts with expression and intonation, they lift the story from the page and place it clearly into the imagination of the children: ‘My teacher read The Devil and his Boy by Anthony Horowitz, it was really exciting’ (Year 4 boy). Reading aloud allows for a community of readers to develop within the classroom and this in turn encourages discussion, prediction and involvement in the story for everyone.
Hearing and reading quality novels read aloud not only increases children’s reading skills and vocabulary but also, as Alison Kelly mentioned in the first article, develops children’s own writing in relation to voice, style and structure. KS2 teachers can develop children’s involvement in texts through using a variety of active teaching strategies which encourage empathy, prediction and response. For instance when reading The Wreck of the Zanzibar by Michael Morpurgo a teacher might encourage children to role play the scene when Laura finds the turtle on the beach and saves his life through feeding him jellyfish. Such an activity would help them to understand her elation when the turtle starts to move slowly towards the sea. The story is written in the form of a diary and teachers may ask pupils to write their own diary, perhaps as a minor character in the story, or keep a journal of their responses as the story is being read to them. As the narrative is set in the Scilly Isles in 1907, it would be important for teachers to show a map of the islands’ location and, through discussion, make comparisons between Laura’s lifestyle a hundred years ago and those of the children today.
The teaching of reading is organised in a variety of ways and for different purposes at KS2. Opportunities for reading across the curriculum are plentiful and the routines of shared and guided reading are important contexts for developing children’s reading skills and engagement with texts. Using inference and deduction are key skills in becoming a critical reader and, for many children these skills need to be developed explicitly by the teacher. Guided reading is unique in that it is carried out with differentiated groups of children while shared reading is with the whole class. Like adults, children enjoy discussing books and at KS2 this is an important part of guided reading. The intricate nature of the plots and the characters’ dilemmas can be explored so that when children read independently they are able to become totally involved and think through the issues presented by the author for themselves. Multi-layered novels such as The Firework Maker’s Daughter and Skellig are just two popular books used in guided reading. Both are successful because their compelling plots and characters engage the reader and their themes and issues offer rich opportunities for discussion and teacher questioning.
Teachers need to know their books well if they are to make wise choices for reading aloud, shared and guided reading. But what is all important is that children meet a range of quality novels which are engaging, well written and, in the words of the Year 4 pupil, ‘wrap you up in the story and transport you, so it’s real’!
Fiona M Collins is Principal Lecturer in English Education, Roehampton University.
DfES (2006) Primary National Strategy, Primary Framework for literacy and mathematics, London: DfES
Maynard, S, S MacKay, F Smyth & K Reynolds (2007) Young People’s Reading in 2005: The Second Study of Young People’s Reading Habits, Loughborough & Roehampton: LISU & NCRCL
Almond, D (1998) Skellig, London: Hodder Children’s Books
Dunmore, H (2006) Ingo, London: HarperCollins
Horowitz, A (2004) The Devil and his Boy, London: Walker Books
Morpurgo, M (1995) The Wreck of the Zanzibar, London: Mammoth
Pullman, P (1996) The Firework Maker’s Daughter, London: Corgi Yearling
Books in Series
McNish, C (2005) The Doomspell Trilogy, London: Orion Children’s Books
Muchamore, R (2007) Cherub: The Fall, London: Hodder
Snicket, L (1999) A Series of Unfortunate Events, London: Egmont Books
In the next instalment of ‘Reading in the Middle Years’ in BfK No.168, Suzanne Maile will explore the challenges that reading non-fiction offers to readers of 9-11.