How do I choose the right books for my pupils?
Diane McGuiness’s book, ‘Why Our Children Can’t Read – And What We Can Do About It’ has been my compass for over 20 years of teaching reading and spelling. When I first started, linguistic phonics was still at the embryonic stage and in the early 2000s there were very, very few teaching resources and materials available.
Around this time I was working at a mainstream high school in the learning support department spending all my days teaching reading and spelling to Y7s and 8s. My aim for my pupils was for them to become successful and confident readers and spellers who could access the secondary curriculum independently. They came with experience a range of multi-cueing and whole word strategies from primary school (this was the pre-phonics era), all of which had been unsuccessful – after all they were sitting in front of me. It was not surprising therefore that many of them did not consider that reading could be ever a pleasure and avoided books at all costs.
I ended every lesson with reading a book.
In linguistic phonics we teach pupils to decode by blending, using their knowledge of the sound spellings (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes) to read a word. When they encounter a word that is difficult for them we (teacher, teaching assistant, parent/carer) quickly work out where the problem is and provide only the very smallest bit of information they need to enable them to blend and read the word themselves. This strategy requires the pupil to do the bulk of the work when reading ALL the words in a book and as a result they experience real success and satisfaction. I can’t tell you how many pupils have said to me, “That’s the first book I’VE read!” on finishing the first one.
For this to be a pleasurable experience as well as an instructive one, it is important that pupils are not constantly stopping to slowly decode words and be supported by our error correction. Not only is this utterly disheartening, it also makes it more difficult for pupils to follow the meaning of the text and so understand what they have read. My rule of thumb is that a book is well matched to a pupil if they can read with some fluency and may need support with 1 in 12-15 words (less for very beginner readers who are reading books with a small number of words); any more than that and the book needs to be changed.
Twenty years ago, finding books that were suitable and appropriate was quite frankly, a nightmare. Not only were there absolutely no decodable books on the market, the choice of books that were available was limited to books aimed at beginner readers who were much younger. The books generally contained cutesy pictures to accompany stories about fluffy animals. On top of all this there were limits to the department’s budget which added an extra layer of jeopardy when thinking about what books to acquire.
How on earth did we manage?
I recall trawling through many, many books to find stories and non-fiction texts that were appropriate for my 12 year old city kids who didn’t want their mates to think they were reading ‘baby books’. I analysed the text in each and estimated where in the teaching sequence they best fitted according to the prevalence of certain focus sounds within the text. It was an inexact science. Many books were rejected but I did find some real gems. The Bangers and Mash series by Paul Groves was very popular, mostly because the stories were about the somewhat anarchic behaviour of the two main characters (gorillas wearing kipper ties). The books actually accompanied a TV cartoon series but bucked the trend by loosely following a phonics approach. Some aspects of the books haven’t stood the test of time (Gran is fond of corporal punishment) and they are now out of print.
When the first decodables arrived on the market there was dancing in the streets, well in our department. Books that actually matched our pupils in terms of their level of phonic knowledge and skills… AND that were written with older learners in mind… our joy knew no bounds! No more fruitless searches for appropriate books, we could just go straight to them and know exactly what we were getting. We were liberated and our pupils enjoyed great books!
Since then decodables have come a long way. Recently the DfE announced its updated validation scheme for systematic, synthetic phonics programmes in England (April 2021). The process requires programmes to ‘provide resources to enable teachers to deliver the programme effectively including sufficient decodable reading material to ensure that, as children move through the early stages of acquiring phonic knowledge and skills, they can practise by reading texts closely matched to their level of phonic attainment, that do not require them to use alternative strategies to read unknown words.’
It is gratifying to see that decodables, be they books or texts, are now considered crucial to an effective SSP. As well as decoding accuracy and fluency, as they read the pupil develops prosody and reading comprehension and explores vocabulary and language structure. Their success with these books is a great motivator and does the magic thing… stimulates an interest in and a love of reading.
Without a doubt, decodables are an important part of reading instruction but there comes a point when we need our pupils to be confident reading general books and texts. There is still a discussion to be had about ‘when’ our pupils are ready to make the shift and this is an developing debate on Twitter.
In fact, we need to ensure that teachers are aware of how to use a range of texts and books in their teaching. As we have seen, carefully chosen books and texts are used during reading instruction to reinforce what the pupil is learning and enable them to apply their knowledge and skills. Different texts and books are useful for practising reading, perhaps with parents. Other books and texts read by an adult enables pupils to experience stories and poems that they otherwise would not be able to read themselves. And of course, pupils read to learn; reading books and texts to access the curriculum, finding out facts and theories.
With this in mind Debbie Hepplewhite and I have produced an infographic on ‘Reading Purpose and Choice of Texts for Beginning and Developing Readers’ which looks at these four strands of reading experience that pupils should experience simultaneously. In this we consider how to choose the most appropriate materials for your pupils in the context of the Simple View of Reading. We have also created a parent/carer version that you can use to support them to understand how to use texts and books to best effect with their child.
You can download these from my TES page: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/reading-purpose-and-choice-of-texts-for-beginning-and-developing-readers-teacher-and-parent-versions-12480835