by Charlotte Hacking
Schools remaining open for children of key workers, as well as remote teaching the majority of children has meant a steep learning curve for schools, teachers, parents and children as we all work out how to continue learning effectively throughout this unprecedented year.
The language of ‘catch up’ looms over us all. There’s a new Education Recovery Commissioner, and as research about the effect of the disruption and school closures begins to be published, we are seeing evidence of a ‘COVID gap’ and of children ‘falling behind’. Our own research*, where we asked more than 1000 teachers about their experience of teaching reading during the pandemic, shows us how worried the profession is about children’s access to books and how difficult it has been to deliver a broad and balanced English curriculum.
However, that same research has shown us how many schools are finding ways to make the purpose and pleasure of reading sit at the centre of all they do. Teachers are endlessly inventive in ensuring children have the resources, knowledge, skills and attitudes that will allow them to be successful, regardless of the circumstances in which they are learning and in finding ways to ensure parents and families feel part of the reading process.
Despite the pressures, uncertainty and upheaval, many schools are focussing their learning programmes on what is and always has been, good practice and provision in reading.
But what does this mean, and what does it look like in practice?
Quality children’s literature and a range of experiences to engage with texts:
At the centre of everything should be the texts that both inspire children to read and that allow them to strive to do this for themselves. Schools need a core collection of high quality texts to use for different reading experiences and adults around them who know how to choose and use these texts to support children’s developing engagement, fluency and independence as readers. Children need access to these texts, both in school as part of curriculum experiences, in independent reading and at home to continue their learning and engagement beyond the classroom.
This is a particular challenge in the current climate. A quarter of teachers are worried about children’s access to books and 40% of children have been unable to take books home during the pandemic. Lending of books from both schools and libraries to support home learning is a significantly challenging task. Many schools have set up sophisticated quarantine schemes but the level of resource, time and management this needs cannot be underestimated. Combine this with depleted resources and book stock and this just isn’t possible in every school.
Providing access to texts and stories for all pupils – ideas from schools about how to make it work:
Look for inventive ways to boost book stock. Apply to local or national funding schemes, or look to local business sponsors or parent teacher associations, who may be able to support with a specific donation for books. Charity shops can offer a treasure trove of book gems, and cheaper than buying new. Parents may also be able to donate books that children don’t read at home any more.
The key is to look for quality as well as quantity of books. CLPE’s Corebooks is a good starting place to see what a quality collection that meets the needs of all kinds of readers looks like.
Know which children don’t have access to books and texts beyond the school experience. Consider how to effectively ensure access to these pupils through lending, signposting to digital texts available for free from libraries or posted on publisher video channels. You could also identify key children for book gifting programmes, such as those provided by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library or simply by gifting copies of key books met in school to children who you know have less access to books at home. This is an excellent way of targeting pupil premium funding. The Children's Book Project may also be able to provide donations of books for children in need.
Share the importance and value of the reading that happens in all kinds of interactions at home; following a recipe to make a meal, discussing a newspaper or magazine article together, talking together about a film or TV programme you’ve watched together or the functional reading that comes through playing video games. The lockdown sensation Animal Crossing is an excellent example of this; there’s a huge amount of functional reading that needs to be done to learn more about characters, develop a setting, follow the storyline of the island development and to travel to other places, expanding the world of the story.
The importance of Reading Aloud:
We need to ensure we continue to read to children every single day. We know that reading to children is one of the most important things we do as teachers and it should be a frequent and regular part of every school day. This might be a class text, studied in an English session, but it could also be a poem, story, picturebook, non-fiction text or article dropped into any part of the school day. This is an accessible and bonding experience to support home learning that will reap rewards when children return to the classroom.
The majority of teachers (82%) are finding ways to read aloud to their classes at least weekly; amazingly the majority are still reading daily (58%). The most popular way of doing this is by a pre-recorded video but there were also many examples of live storytimes where families could join in, assembly type story times led by senior leaders and one to one or small group remote stories.
This isn’t just good for children’s reading, it’s a social and community building experience, just what our children need now while remote learning and will need when they do eventually return to school. Continuing to build this shared experience of a shared story is embedding the habit of reading for pleasure. This closes gaps far beyond academic tests. It closes socio-economic gaps and impacts positively on mental health and well-being.
See picturebooks and poems read aloud by their creators on CLPE’s YouTube channel
Texts at the heart of the English Curriculum:
Children need a range of reading experiences that allow them to develop the essential knowledge and skills of reading as well as opportunities to hear fluent models of reading, engage in rich discussions around texts, and deepen their understanding of what they read through creative activities.
86% of teachers we asked told us that they were basing their English teaching around a quality text. This is important because it shows children how to use and apply key reading skills and strategies, such as phonics, grammar, inference and deduction at the point of reading. If children are taught to recognise this impact, learn the language to describe techniques and then to use these themselves in their own writing, they master greater depth reading skills like recognising authorial intent, and this advanced reading knowledge also supports their development as writers.
Time spent recognising the opportunities that quality texts offer for teaching skills, strategies and key reading knowledge and modelling and demonstrating these in practice is time well spent in class or remote learning. Effective questioning, deftly facilitated discussion, contextualised teaching of phonics, spelling and grammar and carefully planned activities around books to develop skills, strategies and key knowledge in reading and writing are key to this.
CLPE’s Power of Reading teaching sequences have all these elements at their heart, and are designed to help teachers deliver such a curriculum and to raise the engagement and attainment of pupils. Planned units for nearly 250 texts help to save teachers time in sourcing books, contextualising learning and planning key questions and activities to develop learning, but also leave space for them to adapt to pupils' individual needs and circumstances.
These can be delivered just as effectively in remote learning as they can in school, adapting sessions to work with the range of platforms and delivery methods teachers are using at this time. As Emily Hubert, English Lead and Y5 Teacher at Kings Cross Academy observes:
“The planning sequences that CLPE produce honestly make such a difference to literacy teaching both in AND out of school. Three days into online learning and the children are already so engaged in the text and the activities.”
An understanding of how to work with texts at home as well as in school:
Our Take 5 home learning resources, available to all our CLPE Member Schools, have been specifically developed to bridge the gap between learning at home and in school. Extracts from quality children’s books on the Power of Reading programme are provided to give all children access, alongside carefully planned activities that encourage parents, carers and children to:
All the activities revolve around talk, questioning, play and creative writing around texts shared, and aim to build conversations around texts and foster reading for pleasure in the home environment.
All these elements support best practice in reading as identified in the EEF’s 7 Top Tips for Reading at Home, a useful resource to share with school staff, parents and carers at this time.
Jamie Wraight, English Subject Leader and Y2 teacher at Westmeads Infant School, has been using the materials in practice:
“As a Year 2 teacher, the ‘Take 5’ resources have allowed me and my colleagues to ensure that the writing the children are doing at home is relevant and as similar as possible to what they would have had at school. The activities are sequential and, just like the Power of Reading teaching sequences, they can be tailored to children’s individual needs. Children and parents can pick the parts they enjoy the most and run with the interests of the children from the initial spark the sequence might ignite. It has also helped give our families an insight to how we teach the curriculum at Westmeads. It is also, during these unusual times, really useful that these resources are ‘ready to go’ and our teachers have been able to utilise their time to ensure the learning sent home is meaningful.”
What does all this mean moving forwards?
This can be a time for us all to take a step back, re-calibrate and look at what’s important. Both now, when we’re trying to deliver a blended approach to learning, and in the future when we’re bringing children back to full time learning in the classroom.
We need to be focussing on the things that make the most impact in the short and long term, both for children’s engagement and academic achievement in reading and for the wider benefits reading can bring to social and emotional well-being. Our Understanding the Reading Journey webinars have been carefully planned to take teachers through the steps most relevant for learners in their phase and highlight what the next steps look like in practice, using a range of high quality texts to exemplify how to plan to teach and develop specific reading skills and strategies.
We can see from our research and the feedback we are getting from teachers using our resources, following our text recommendations, and attending our virtual training sessions that great English teaching in primary schools at the moment is taking place. This boils down to making quality texts available to all our children and, in partnership with parents and carers, being the skilled and enabling adults who can choose and use texts to teach specific reading skills and strategies, as well as drawing children together as a community of readers. If we can continue to work in this way, we close more than a perceived two month gap, we create competent and confident readers who choose to read for purpose and pleasure with all of the benefits this brings.