If you’re wanting a tad waffle-esque blog post on how we reignited a love for reading (and tripled our KS2 Reading Results in two years), you’ve come to the right place!
2017 was an interesting year for our RI junior school. In the Spring, we were visited by Ofsted for the dreaded two-day inspection following various HMI visits and less than stellar 2016 SATs results (thank you, Martine and your bewildered warthogs).
A lot changed in the following months. After being given the honorary badge of ‘Special Measures’, we were soon academised, our acting head became permanent, finding staff to cover maternities was a struggle and the branding of SM had some parents pull their children out of our school.
We’d hit rock bottom, it would seem. But we hadn’t.
The biggest change (or rather the most noticeable change after the report) was the freedom the staff felt – the freedom to try new strategies, to reflect and adapt without the dreaded ‘O’ visit looming over us; to explore and implement without LA advisors tugging us in one direction or another.
Okay, we thought. We’re Special Measures. What now? Where could we go from here and what could we do?
In the autumn term, on the very first day of the year, our new Academy Trust spoke to us and said “Have you considered Whole Class Guided Reading?”(something I had been reluctant to try simply due to its ‘newness’ and how can we all study the same text if we’re all at different levels? etc.) I had also just got my head around reciprocal reading (a buy-in from the LA) and the thought of adopting something new, in every class across the whole school, was a tadnerve-wracking.
Whole Class Guided Reading was a trust-wide approach to reading (they’d trialled it the year before), but instead of giving us a strict pro forma or definite approach, we were told “we do it for forty minutes every morning/try it out/see what works for you”.
And so we opted for ‘Book Club’. No more ‘guided reading’. The name changed our (and the children’s) perception of reading and how it can be taught.
Our whole staff went away, discussed how to approach this ‘new’ style of reading and with the freedom to buy whole-group sets of texts, you could visibly see teachers’ excitement grow. As a Y6 teacher, I automatically chose Holes– a book I had read when in Year 8 and one I felt confident that the children would love. I scrapped my Matilda planning and ‘Book Club’ was born.
This whole-school approach has enabled us to teach reading consistently in every classroom:
- a forty minute slot every morning
- an age and level-appropriate book for every child (children being given their own book was a big win at the start of this journey – it sparked excitement )
- children sorted into ‘level’ appropriate groups with the aim of progressing and ‘moving through’ groups and back to age appropriate groups
- exploration into new authors and more recent texts (avoiding trends and overuse of Rowling, Walliams and Dahl)*
- comprehension questions in disguise
*Important to note here that I am a huge fan of JK Rowling and other popular authors but, more often that not, children have already been exposed to them throughout their school/home life. We wanted to give them something new, something exciting and so we strayed away from the more popular texts.
Every morning, from 9.05-9.45, we move around school to our groups and dive into our texts. Our first twenty minutes is spent reading: in pairs, in groups, silently, around the table or on our stomachs in the reading corner. One of my favourite approaches to this is asking children to each read a sentence as we go around – it eases the pressure off children who don’t like to read aloud (a sentence vs. a paragraph or page), encourages children to follow more closely and you can easily identify the ‘flow’ of the sentence structure (this has also helped our readers become better writers but that’s another blog post for another day). Some days I also just read to the children and they follow along (especially good if you get to a cliffhanger or certain part of the book where fluid reading is better than disjointed sentences/paragraphs said aloud).
Vocabulary has been at the heart of our Book Club approach. One of my most memorable teaching moments was a Year 6 child asking me what a ‘beach’ and ‘cafe’ was. Not exactly the most complex or foreign of words, but if they didn’t know what a beach was how could I expect them to understand ‘parched’ or ‘milling around in bewilderment’?
Because of this, the book we were studying (Holes by Louis Sachar) took us an entire term – from September to December – to read and explore. We left no word unturned – discussed its etymology, how would the meaning of the sentence change if we used a synonym? Why has the author chosen this word and not that? Dictionaries became our new best friend and paired with our previous inference training, our children’s vocabulary improved rapidly.
Children also became more confident in asking questions to better their understanding – in a group of their peers, with similar reading levels, no question was a wrong question. Children now openly ask for an adult to clarify a word or, if we’re silently reading, they’ll grab a dictionary.
Our most successful approach to Book Club has been comprehension in disguise. Some of my most successful and favourite comprehension activities have involved not answering a single ‘question’ at all. Instead, we opted for activities (ideas influenced by a fab Isabella Wallace inset) based on individual reading skills: decoding, retrieval, author choice, inference and explanation.
Some of these activities included writing summary tweets (140 characters or less) to summarise the story or chapter so far; writing Amazon reviews; making our own graphic novels or designing t-shirts; writing Trip Advisor reviews for places in the text where characters had been. We made companion dictionaries for texts where we identified ‘new’ language and phrases that we’d magpied. We made trailers using our iPads for book to film adaptations. We watched the film versions of popular texts we’d studied (Holes, Wonder, Fantastic Beasts, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to name a few) to compare and in each case the children decided they had preferred the book – a win for any teacher of reading!
This isn’t to say that we did no ‘formal’ comprehension at all – we would slot questions in periodically and complete comprehension sheets in other lessons such as Science or Topic. Questions could also feature as our ‘opener’ to the lesson – posted on the whiteboard for us to think about and discuss. We’d verbally model our responses, write them on whiteboards or post-it notes. Amazingly, to our children, answering Qs on post-its didn’t feel the same as sitting down to answer a reading comprehension: it made it more ‘fun’ if they had to get out of their seat and stick their response to the whiteboard.
By the time the 2018 Reading Paper came around, as a Year 6 teacher I felt ready – we’d done everything we could, the paper seemed fair (even with its inclusion of a poem) and we could only hope for the best. By results day, our reading results had shot up to 76%.
Great! We thought. A vast improvement but still there were children not quite there (off by five marks or less) and areas where we had fallen short. Pace was an issue with many children not completing the third text.
After a through gap analysis, reflection on the texts we’d taught that year, we adapted our approach for the following year. Having inherited children who had already had a year’s worth of Book Club, we increased the pace of our lessons and moved through a text per half-term. We kept vocabulary and enjoyment of reading at the heart of the approach, completed each of the previous SATs papers (2016-2018) as a mock throughout the year (more gap analysis and trend spotting) and when SATs week came this year, not only did the teaching staff feel ready, but so did the children.
It is important to note, however, that revision for SATs has also formed part of our Book Club in the world of Year 6.
As the SATs tests approached, after the Easter Holidays we swapped our regular Book Club for revision and deep-diving into past papers. We modelled answers, repeated my favourite phrases (“If it says find and copy ONE word, write one!”) and were open in sharing past mark schemes with the children. We talked about how silly mistakes can lose them marks, how they can use bullet points in longer responses to identify their point and evidence etc.
By the end of those lessons, it became a bit of an in-joke with the children. In the actual 2019 reading text, children would look up and grin as they found the ‘find and copy one word’ question types. Because of this, the SATs papers were no longer ‘scary’. The children knew what to expect, what question types they’d have to answer and have a good estimation of how much time to spend on each section. It helped them gain confidence and approach SATs week with new determination. As long as they tried their best, we couldn’t ask for anything more.
SATs Week 2019 came and went. Our general school consensus from the children was that they loved the first text (language and characters that felt relatable), the second went on forever (but with a new found appreciation of our black and yellow buzzy friends) and the final text was ‘a bit boring’. They went out to break and that was that.
As teachers, we thought the test was fair – no harder than last year’s apart from the increased word count (and my personal opinion that the Bees section seems to go on forever).
When this year’s SATs results were released, we couldn’t believe it. We had expected to do well (our mock-SATs results indicated a slight increase on last year’s) but what we didn’t expect was that 40 out of our 43 Year 6 children would achieve EXS. Our raw scores ranged from 28 (the pass mark) to 43/50 (with some children just scraping a pass). But even more amazingly, our 2019 GDS % (if you’re classing that as a SS of 110 or more) was higher than our initial 2017 EXS %.
We went into Book Club with the approach and mindset that every child is a reader and that every child can and should achieve – a mindset I’m sure that is echoed in schools across the country.
We’ve been led by trial and error – some texts children have loved, some not so much. Finding the balance of reading and responding has been a journey – some days we simply read for forty minutes because when you’ve got a group of children hooked and wanting just that little bit more, when they’re enraptured by what they’re reading and visualising the words come to life in their head, why stop?
Upon reflection of the last two years and how our approach to reading has drastically changed, there is a lot to be proud of. This blog isn’t intended as guide to improving SATs results but to share our story of how one junior school turned Special Measures has had the freedom to explore and experiment. I’m a firm believer that all teachers should have good knowledge of children’s literature and through reading whole texts alongside the children, it’s reignited both teacher and children’s love of reading. Our excitement for books has been transparent and this in turn has created a culture of reading and reading for pleasure.
As both KS2 Phase Lead and Y6 teacher for my school, I recognise there are still areas for improvement in this approach and in our results. Non-fiction, for example is not often explored in our Book Club lessons. Poetry, too. These are our next steps for the academic year ahead. In September, when I sit down to a further gap analysis of the 2019 SATs, there will be further areas to explore and improve.
I would be really interested to know if anyone else has had great success with whole class reading and or any other schemes! Additionally, any recommendations for implementing teaching of poetry to great effect would be fab!