Much more than Phonics.

Contentious title ahoy!

You’re here now. I’ve at least got you to click the link.  The plan was to get people looking in and then extoll on the virtues of picture books and why they are an under-used and misunderstood medium, that in the rush to decode and read,  we miss as a key tool in developing understanding.

Firstly let’s get the viewpoint stuff out-of-the-way. Children need to develop a toolkit which gives them access to reading. Phonics is a vital part of that, the sooner children can decode the sooner they can access the joy of reading.  It is however,  just that a tool for developing Reading. Having had a son who can’t do phonics (still can’t, even though I have been told on twitter that is impossible) I am also dubious of it being seen as a panacea for all ills, but that is an argument for another day. What I am sure of though is that Reading is much more than phonics. The joy of discovery on turning a page. The sitting on the edge of your seat as your nerves rattle at the unforeseen twist. The discovery of the unknown that makes you look at things in a different way. That is Reading!

The big issue I see with reading currently is the move from decoding to higher level reading. I have come across countless children who through good phonics teaching can  decode almost everything they come across, but they cannot use that ability to access meaning. Equally in the past I have been guilty of the arms race that happens sometimes in primary reading. The bigger, fatter book is given as it is more challenging, regardless of whether the child can access meaning. Parents have exacerbated this with, “this book is too easy.” Unfortunately this didn’t and still doesn’t lead to real readers, but to surface skimmers who want to change their book every day. Not children who want to read and explore, these will be the first to put the book down when nobody is encouraging them to read. Without meaning reading is a pointless exercise.

Mrs Cole The book that made me see it differently in 1997

In Primary we have to create readers, real readers, readers who can’t put a book down. I was guilty of failing pupils. I was creating pupils that could answer and pass a reading test in a surface fashion, but actually didn’t care for Reading.  Then I had my epiphany, the scales fell from my eyes so to speak. I was team-teaching with another teacher and they were using “I’ll take you to Mrs Cole” by Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman. Their understanding not just of the text, but the illustration, the use of colour, the breaking up of the narrative, was frankly astounding. I challenge anyone to read the opening lines of the text to children (make sure they don’t see the cover)

‘When my mum came in from work and I hadn’t got the table laid, she said,

“If you can’t do what you’re told I’ll take you to Mrs Cole.’

and then get them to describe her and not be amazed at what their children come up with. That teacher’s knowledge of the text allowed those pupils to dig deeper and deeper into the text, by text I mean the combined impact of illustration and writing. I also discovered there was way more to picture books than I had ever realised up to that point. I had read text and used the pictures a bit to illustrate the story. Not really realising in many cases the pictures were the story.

So began, a now almost 20 year obsession with children’s picture books. Wonderful, amazing, creative, challenging, funny, heart-breaking, tragic, unbelievable,  fabulous picture books. They are not just a vital stepping stone into higher level reading. They are the missing link. They can develop in all Learners the ability to explore, notice, question, predict, summarise, theorise and analyse.

This brings me to a bugbear. Picture book are often dismissed as being for younger children. They’re not! They are written off as easy. They’re not! There are some stunning picture books out there. Many offer us more than first appears. Unfortunately some are hard to find, they don’t often appear in WHSmith’s or  Waterstones. Even if they do, they are often snaffled up immediately by picture-book obsessives like me.

IMG_0169 Many challenge issues. Just look at  The Arrival by Shaun Tan (not a word in sight), The Journey by Francesca Sanna and The Island by Armin Greder . All tackle the issue of immigration, outsiders, and human rights. All are amazing and thought-provoking.  All allow the reader to explore and interpret at a higher level. All are powerful, and uncompromising in delivering their message. I would use all in Upper KS2, or with the Island KS3.

On  twitter I have been posting book recommendations, I am up-to 47.  The aim is to blog them time allowing,  with ideas on how to use them and themes, this is a work in progress, but there are already some fantastic book bloggers out there who share reviews and ideas.

This does all point to a key issue for schools with regards to the development of Reading in schools and that is to truly develop higher level reading we need teachers who know, and understand the books they are using. Passion for the the material also helps. Using a book you love, really rubs off on pupils. Using amazing books in our classrooms is vital. Passionate readers, inspire readers.

A few weeks ago I was in a lesson where a class were exploring “Snow” by Ted Hughes. The understanding and expertise of the teacher, led to astounding progress in understanding for the pupils in that class. The skill of the questioning and development of understanding could only be done due to the in-depth knowledge and understanding of the text that was held by the teacher. That is not to say that interpretation was imposed,  the pupils very much explored the meaning and the questioning challenged the understanding. It was phenomenal teaching. I have equally seen poor reading sessions mainly due to lack of teacher text knowledge has led surface questioning and skimming.
Talk about books is equally key. We have to talk about them, challenge thinking, explore themes and ideas, see the bigger picture. This is key for higher level reading, for learners to develop critical thinking around texts. We have to discuss, passive reading will not develop  readers abilities to comprehend a text, neither will throwing down some comprehension questions. We have to teach children to be readers.  Silent reading while nice, in my experience in school, is often a chance for pupils to switch off, especially if they have not got that love of reading. Every second truly does count.

This means a number of things for schools. We need teachers to teach understanding. To do that they have to know the text expertly. To truly dig deep with learners, teachers have to truly understand the text they are using.  This takes time, something which for all  teachers is a rarity.  Picture books are a way in. High quality picture books allow us to explore deeply relatively quickly.

To develop higher level reading schools must make it a priority, and give staff the time and abilities to be experts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s