Teacher Victoria Morris explores the impact of selecting the right reading materials to use with your class.
Reading is an extremely powerful tool that can be used in the classroom for a variety of different purposes (in addition to stories that are read for pleasure, which is of course valuable in itself). There are many reasons for choosing texts, and ways in which they can be used.
First, for what purpose are you going to use the text? Here are some possible reasons, although this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list:
To read for pleasure
To support progress in reading
To inspire writing
To provide additional exposures to key vocabulary to build children’s schema for a particular word
To enrich children’s learning of a particular topic
Depending on your purpose, different types of text and ways of sharing them may be the most appropriate way of achieving your main aim:
Novels read in story time – these are likely to be chosen based on children’s interests to read for pleasure, or to introduce children to authors and texts they may not choose for themselves or be able to read independently yet.
Novels to use in English lessons – likely to involve complex themes and vocabulary to explore in more depth, and/or have the potential to inspire a variety of forms of writing.
Short stories or picture books to study in English – as above, may involve complex themes and vocabulary to explore in depth, have the potential to inspire writing, and/or provide a good model for children to imitate.
One-off short stories or picture books read in story time – likely to be the best choice if you want to pre-teach a particular word or concept (eg. Francesca Sanna’s The Journey for the concept of seeking refuge), or add context to a particular topic (eg. The Pebble In My Pocket when teaching rocks in science). The one or two short sessions spent reading and discussing these books can add a lot of value to children’s learning and vocabulary development across the curriculum.
This depends on the novel, and the reason(s) for the choice. Is it important enough that you would choose it even if you were not teaching that particular historical period? What does it add to the children’s progress in English? It’s important to be sure that the text is of a high enough quality to be chosen over the many other excellent children’s books that are available, but that may not be set in a particular period in history, rather than choosing solely based on the link.
Additionally, consider the timing in relation to your teaching – if the story is highly dependent on historical context, read it in the term following your teaching of that historical period, so that the children have a fuller understanding of the context prior to starting the novel. (eg. Who Let The Gods Out – knowledge of the various Greek gods and settings is essential to be able to properly follow the story. It’s a fantastic book and a valuable read in lots of ways, but maybe best after learning about the Greeks, rather than alongside)
Or if it’s introducing children to worlds and concepts that will help them access the academic content, maybe it could be read beforehand? (eg. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe provides a brief introduction to evacuation, but an in depth knowledge of WWII is not key to understanding the story, so it could be read prior to learning about WWII in history)
If you’re teaching a geography topic such as mountains, how much does a novel set in mountains really enhance the geography teaching? Might two or three well-chosen picture books do the same job just as well, allowing you to read another novel instead?
There’s no reason why children shouldn’t read historical novels or those with mountain/river/rainforest settings. But if this is always the basis for selecting the text, are the children being exposed to a sufficiently broad range of challenging texts? Why would we exclude the huge range of brilliant books that don’t necessarily link to a particular topic?
If you’re looking for ways of enriching children’s knowledge of a historical period through world-building, start with stories from that period. For example, reading a wide range of myths – do your children know a variety of Egyptian, Roman, Greek and Norse myths? When learning about ancient civilisations, The Epic of Gilgamesh is valuable as the first ever written story (and the Gilgamesh Trilogy picture books by Ludmila Zeman are excellent stories for children to explore and to inspire writing). Stories of real and legendary figures provide children with great insights into what was important to people in a particular period, for example Viking sagas, or the legend of King Arthur.
You may also want to consider reading stories that develop children’s understanding of key historical concepts, but are not actually set in the periods you are studying. For example, The Legend of Podkin One Ear provides a great opportunity to further explore the concepts of monarchy and inheritance, despite being set in another world.
Again, myths can really enrich learning about a particular country or region. Reading myths from as many countries as possible exposes children to a wide variety of story structures, and often unusual vocabulary and ideas which they may not come across in their own reading. As they are short, many more of these could be read, potentially adding far more value than a novel set in the rainforest.
Picture books can be really effective for pre-teaching vocabulary. There are so many high quality non-fiction texts, that it may be more valuable to spend time reading a wider selection of these to enhance a geography topic.
For a start, there are many excellent books that don’t link to any of the commonly taught geography and history topics. It’s important to ensure that children read books with a wide range of themes, by a diverse range of authors, and that every child has a chance to see themselves represented in the books they read across the primary phase.
There’s a lot of emphasis on reading a wide variety of fairytales, traditional stories, myths & legends in the National Curriculum. If text choices were only made based on links to a topic, it would be easy for fairytales and traditional stories to be marginalised in the English curriculum.
Think first about which texts will best promote children’s progress in English, taking into account the requirements of the National Curriculum. Select texts based on how well they build children’s vocabulary and understanding of key themes, as well as increasing complexity as they progress through school. Once these have been selected, if there are links across the curriculum they can be made, but the links are not limiting the curriculum by driving all the choices of text.
EEF blog: Working with schemas and why it matters to teachers. See this excellent explanation of developing schemata by @hydeh_rose.
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