Changing DEAR For The Better: Reflecting On This Term’s Reading.

This is a grass-roots account of how, in one term, two teachers have taken one class’s reading in school beyond the confines of DEAR and have transformed it into a central, natural and wholly pleasurable part of the life of a classroom.

Why We Felt The Need For Change?

As the new teachers of this class wanting to establish a ‘reading classroom’, we felt we needed to find more time in the school day for private reading than is allowed by the usual daily fifteen to twenty minutes for DEAR. Thus, when children in our class arrive in the morning, they are not now immediately faced with a ‘starter’ activity, but begin the day in a quiet, humane, stress-free way with fifteen minutes of personal reading of a book they are enjoying. They have a second, thirty-minute session of reading (including time for browsing) at the beginning of every afternoon. They know, too, that when they have finished their set tasks, they can either ‘free-write’ or continue reading. They do both, happily, in equal measure. This means each child is reading a minimum of 3 hours and 45 minutes a week. For children that do their 30 minutes of home reading, this equates to over 7 hours of reading a week! 

Dispensing With ‘Title – Page Number’ Replaced With ‘Book-Letters’.

We think it is important and totally justifiable to set aside this amount of time for reading in school because, in our experience, you cannot assume that all children are reading much at home, given the legitimate pressures of outside activities and the attractions of technology. We have, however, devised ways of monitoring  the extent of their home reading. We have dispensed with the daily ‘title and page number’ entry in their home-school reading record book, which was often a pointless exercise; usually filled in the same rushed handwriting and pen colour the morning it was due in! Now, over the weekend, children write a short ‘book-letter’ addressed to us in their reading record book, to which we write a brief reply.

Tracking Reading

To keep track of reading, we spend ten minutes a couple of times a week during DEAR time collecting this information from each child and putting it on a spread-sheet. We also ask each child to make a quick comment on how the reading is going and to rate any book they’ve read or abandoned out of 10. Children are also allowed to give a book a STAR rating. The spread-sheet  enables us to see at a glance how much reading is going on, and gives us valuable information about the range of books chosen by each child and how they are developing personal tastes and preferences. 

spread

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE SPREADSHEET

We enter the titles of books children have abandoned (the rule being that you must read at least twenty pages before giving it up), and this alerts us to the need to support some children with book choice. We also record our own reading of children’s books on the system. 

Bringing One Book To & From School Everyday

Very early on, we made a change to the status quo. It seemed that many children were reading one book at school and one at home, which  we felt could result in lack of continuity and loss of motivation.  We asked the children to read one book at a time, taking it home every night and bringing it to school the next day. Through encouragement and reminders, the children generally do this. If they do forget to bring their book in in the morning, they know that, rather than beginning a new chapter book, they will choose from non-fiction, poetry or picture books. Our tracking system ensures that we know who has what, and the children know that they must be responsible for not mislaying books at home. To date, no books have been lost!

Creating A Genuine Class Library – Children Recommending & Donating Books!

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There was a pressing need to provide a varied collection of good-quality fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What happens in many classes in many schools is that children draw largely on the central school library, and books don’t generally feature much in classrooms. Children visit the school library on an individual basis to change books when necessary. All books are colour-coded, and children are allocated a colour on the basis of a reading test. We felt we needed a different kind of organisation.

We now have our own class library, which is one of the focal points in the classroom. It is stocked with books from our our own personal collections, the school library, the local community library, books loaned or donated by the children themselves (this has taken off in a big way), and good-quality texts which we purchase from second-hand shops.

We both like children’s books,and try to keep ourselves informed for the purposes of stocking the class library through publishers’ catalogues, children’s recommendations, the internet, booklists compiled by, for example, CLPE. and The Federation of Children’s Bookgroups, review magazines such as Carousel, bookshops and reference books, as well as our own recollections of good reads from our childhoods.

The stock develops and changes; we ‘drip-feed’ new books at regular intervals to stimulate and maintain interest.The fiction collection is broadly organised into quick, longer and challenging reads, and children are free to sample any book without the restriction of colour-coding which seems unnecessary in a small, readily accessible library like this. Our children also learn the skills of discriminating and choosing wisely through having a free hand to browse, try out, keep, reject, try again.  

Class Librarians

We appoint two librarians every fortnight, who keep the stock tidy and make small regular book displays on any topic they like. The benefits of a class library are obvious. Books become a valued part of a small community. They are also always to hand during writing-time; to be sampled, handled, pored over, referred to and talked about.

Book Talks

Recommending, describing, discussing particular books, and talking about reading generally are becoming a natural part of our classroom. Enthusiasm is infectious. Some great conversations take place when two children are browsing together. We have regular ‘booktalk’ sessions which have quite quickly been taken over spontaneously and informally by the children, who often have the urge to tell everyone about this or that good read.

Class Reading Blog

There is also the class blog, which isn’t all about book reviews, but is often a series of peer-to-peer or teacher-peer conversations about anything of interest in the field of books and reading. Some children keep personal reading journal/notebooks, in which they might include ‘someday ‘ lists of books maybe to be read sometime in the future.  

What Next?

If there is an appetite from our readership, we will continue to let you know our progress. We would also like to hear of any recommendations from your classroom that we could incorporate into our reading pedagogy. Please let us know by commenting below.

By the way, you as the teacher don’t have to be an expert in the field, but your enthusiasm, interest and openness to learning from the children and from colleagues who may have some knowledge can be very important. We have found the following  reference books especially helpful, and a pleasure to read in themselves:

  • 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up : Julia Eccleshare(General Editor)
  • The Ultimate Book Guide (books for 8-12s): Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (Eds)
  • The Rough Guide to Children’s Books, 5-11: Nicholas Tucker
  • Tell Me: Children reading and talk: Aidan Chambers
  • Anything written by Michael Rosen on the subject of the reading classroom will be affirming.

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In Teaching Writing – How Important Is It That Teachers Be Writers Too?

In drafting for this blog post I wrote down the following bullet points:

  • Do and should teachers write and share their own exemplars of texts they expect children to go on and write?
  • Do teachers take part in the writing process when they write; if so, do they share their process with their children? For example do they show children pages from their notebook? Their plans, their drafts, their revisions, their edits and their final publications?
  • Do teachers share hints and tips from their own writing process with children?

‘The main requirements are easily stated. We, as teachers, must provide an environment in which a child will want to write and in which a child can learn about writing. The environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘there are things that can be done.’ (Frank Smith, 1982, p.201)

I think it is important that teachers try to write in certain genres for themselves; particularly the ones they are asking children to write in. Children – like adults – read stories, poems, information differently when they see these texts as things they themselves could produce. This not only helps the teacher understand the writing they are asking the children to do – and so provide them with real advice but it also helps children view their teacher as a real author, with real experience. So:

  • Show children finished writing in the genre you are asking them to write in. Sometimes also share your plans and drafts.
  • Share with them how you followed the typical features in a genre.
  • Show them some of your writing tricks.
  • Share with children some texts that aren’t quite working out for you – seek their advice.
  • Regularly and systematically provide opportunity for children to talk to you about their writing in pupil-conferencing. Talk about their writing in real-time as opposed to leaving it to ‘after-the-event’ written feedback – which often comes too late for children to act on the advice given.
  • When giving writing conferences to children – you will talk to them and advise them like a real writer – because you will have been there yourself when you wrote your piece.

For children to see themselves as writers, they need to collaborate with someone who is more experienced than them to learn from.

Children tend not to write well if they are not interested or see themselves as writers. That is why it is our responsibility, as teachers, to demonstrate to children that writing is interesting, possible, achieves something and is worthwhile. There is no way of helping children if the teacher themselves is a fraud – who doesn’t believe writing is interesting, possible, achieves something or worthwhile.

As Frank Smith (1988) puts it: ‘Teachers who are not themselves members of the club cannot admit children to it’.

Teachers must read like writers, they must collaborate with their children who are willingly engaged in the enterprise of writing. For most teachers this should be easy – write with their own students and offer them writing conferences whilst they are writing. Share your own expertise. When I write poetry with children, I begin to read poetry differently. I’m reading like a member of the club of poets. And if we can make children feel like they are members of the club too, they can learn this too.