Give Your Reading Curriculum a Backbone

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 
Albert Einstein

Imagine this. Your year 4 history curriculum content for the term is to study The Tudors. The children are to learn about The Wars of the Roses and how Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, about Henry VIII and his six wives, about the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, about Elizabeth’s troubles with Mary Queen of Scots and the Spanish Armada, about Francis Drake and his jaunt around the globe, and about Shakespearean actors strutting their stuff at The Globe.

Except that Mr. Sweedlepipe doesn’t really like The Tudors. It won’t engage the pupils. It’s not relevant to their lives. They won’t find it fun. They won’t be entertained. He’ll teach The Wild West instead. It has cowboys and gunfights, gold rushes and cattle rustling, The Alamo!

Hopefully, this doesn’t happen in your school. You have a curriculum plan. You took care over its design, the sequencing of one unit to another, the links you can make to previous history topics, the links to the wider curriculum. They studied the Normans last year and it builds upon that. They’ll study the Stuarts next year and it feeds into that.

But this kind of thing happens in the teaching of reading all too often. Mrs. Smidger loves Michael Morpurgo so she’ll read The Butterfly Lion, Mr. Swiveller’s boys (it’s always the boys) love something a little scary so he’ll read Room 13. The choice of text is too often left to the individual taste of the teacher or the perceived collective taste of the class. (They all happen to like pirates in Year 3 this year? Do they? Do they really?) .

Now, I’m not casting aspersions on the work of Michael Morpurgo or Robert Swindells – excellent authors both who have space on my bookshelf – but when it comes down to improving children’s understanding of the written word, we ought to be a little systematic. There ought to be a plan. There ought to be some backbone. There ought to be a reading spine.

So, what follows are four considerations you ought to have when selecting the texts for your reading comprehension curriculum.

It Ain’t ‘It Ain’t What You Read It’s The Way That You Read It’

You know about the Simple View of Reading, that there are two dimensions to reading: decoding and language comprehension.

You have a systematic, thorough phonics programme and the accuracy and fluency with which your children decode the words on the page is improving. Choosing what to read to improve children’s decoding is simple: you choose texts that are matched to their developing decoding ability, that include the grapheme-phoneme correspondences they have been taught, and not those that they haven’t, so that they can practice decoding and not guessing. The content of the texts you choose is somewhat irrelevant: whether your book is about bugs, baking or bridges, the pleasure and sense of achievement comes from being able to lift the words off the page.

If you believe that understanding text is largely the application of a set of reading skills (inferencing, visualising, predicting, finding the main idea), then it doesn’t really matter what children read when it comes to comprehension. We can practice finding inferences with any text and apply that skill to any other text. Except that this isn’t how comprehension works. As Daniel Willingham argues here, spending a lot of time on these kinds of reading strategies is a misplaced use of time, and what makes the greatest difference to understanding in the long term is the knowledge that a reader brings to bear on a text. As Willingham goes on to say:

‘Once kids are fluent decoders, much of the difference among readers is not due to whether you’re a “good reader” or “bad reader” (meaning you have good or bad reading skills). Much of the difference among readers is due to how wide a range of knowledge they have. If you hand me a reading test and the text is on a subject I happen to know a bit about, I’ll do better than if it happens to be on a subject I know nothing about.’

So what you choose to read really does matter. Your reading material will best develop children’s comprehension if teaches them something about the world – if it is rich in historical, geographical, scientific and cultural knowledge, knowledge that will help them read other knowledge-rich texts. As Willingham eloquently puts it: ‘teaching content is teaching reading’.

Together, We Are An Ocean

There are lots of reading spines on the internet, such as this one compiled by Pie Corbett. There are lots of great books in it. I have most sat on my bookshelf. And several of them I treasure – The Hobbit, Clockwork and Where The Wild Things Are will always have a special place in my heart.

But I wouldn’t use this – or any other readily available collection – if my aim was to improve children’s reading comprehension. (If you want a collection of books to simply read and enjoy, however, then Pie’s list is a great starting point.)

In E.D. Hirsch’s Why Knowledge Matters (an essential read for all educators), he explains, that ‘language is surrounded by a cloud of taken-for-granted, unspoken knowledge without which the said cannot be understood.’ When reading The Odyssey, I know something of the Trojan War, something of Greek religious beliefs – of Poseidon and Zeus and Athena, something of Greece as a collection of city states, something of the supposed author, Homer. It’s the cloud of knowledge within which I read the epic tale and provides a context, makes sense of it, lends it a deeper, richer meaning.

And your school’s curriculum is a key part of this knowledge-cloud, especially for less-privileged children who may be relatively cloudless in their home lives. To make use of this wider curriculum learning, read texts that share and build upon the content being taught. Make your reading spine symbiotic with your wider curriculum. No off-the-shelf, grabbed-it-from-the-Internet reading spine is up that task.

I Am The Milkman Of Human Kindness

She was grinning like a Cheshire cat all morning.

Cake is my Achilles heel. I’ll just have one more slice.

I would ask  him if I could borrow a fiver, but he’s such a Scrooge.

The chances are, you understand these the literary allusions. You know that grinning like a Cheshire cat suggests a wide beaming smile and alludes to Alice in Wonderland, that an Achilles heel is a weakness despite otherwise great strength and refers to the Greek hero (whose mother held him by his heel as she dipped him into the River Styx which made him invulnerable), and that Scrooge refers to Dickens’ miserly protagonist in A Christmas Carol. You know them because these texts are widely read, and widely referred to.

And some stories more than others have become a part of our cultural furniture – the fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson; myths, legends and fables; stories from The Bible; the works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Kenneth Grahame and Lewis Carroll.

Pick up a paper, read a blog, dive into a novel, listen to a pop song or watch the television, and you’re likely to stumble across allusions from these sources (and many more). And allusions don’t often get explained to you. The writer assumes that you know what she knows. After all, this is what educated members in our society know; they don’t need it spelling out.

Except that if you don’t know because you haven’t read these texts (or seen the movies), then you don’t pick up the nuggets of meaning wrapped up in the allusions and you either miss out the subtlety of what’s being communicated, or simply don’t get it at all.

So read texts with children that have cultural capital, that are widely read and commonly alluded to: read The Odyssey, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Macbeth, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, Hansel and Gretel, The Wind in the Willows and many, many others.

A Smooth Sea Never Made A Skilful Sailor

Teachers are often encouraged to match text complexity to the reading ability of children, to work with texts at so called instructional level: that they could read with 95-98% accuracy and 75-90% understanding. But as Timothy Shanahan points out here and here, the whole idea holds as much water as Dear Henry’s bucket, and recent research suggests that reading complex texts at frustration level can lead to greater gains. The aim, therefore, shouldn’t be to start out with texts at instructional level, but to read complex texts that through effective instruction and scaffolding end up at instructional level.

Seek out texts that will add to your children’s existing vocabulary store. Seek out texts with complex sentence patterns that they won’t hear in everyday speech. Seek out texts that go beyond their experiences, that are full of shiny new knowledge for them to soak up. Embrace challenge, teach to the top.

Sure your stronger readers will be better able to navigate the choppy waters of unknown vocabulary, chart a course through the rough seas of sentence complexity, and avoid the jagged rocks of new knowledge, but (stretching the analogy to breaking point) with your hands on the rudder, your weaker readers will feel soon feel the wind in their sails.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

So, have a reading spine that sets out the books your children will read and study. Fill it with books that as a school you value, books that you think your children ought to have read. Choose books that go beyond children’s experience, that are rich in knowledge and teach them something about the world. Choose books that dovetail with your wider curriculum Choose books that have cultural capital, those books that are part of our cultural furniture, those books that educated members of our society tend to know and allude to. Choose books that will stretch and challenge, with unfamiliar vocabulary and elaborate sentence patterns.

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