Dear Educational Publishers

Dear Educational Publishers,

Just recently you have really improved your provision of phonically decodable texts.  It is not easy to write a book that contains only the sounds /s/ /a/ /p/ /t/ /i/ /n/ but you have done a stirling job. This one can be used after week 5 of phase 2 of Letters and Sounds.  The quality of the resources is so much better.  The illustrations are rich and compliment the text well one example of this being the Traditional Tales from Oxford Owl.

I do however have one suggestion that would make all of our lives so much easier.  Please don’t put Book Band colours on your phonically decodable books.  They do not relate to each other.  If you can read words using sounds in phase 2 of Letters and Sounds, you can not read pink Book Band books.  You can learn the pattern of the book and use the images but you can’t use phonic strategies to read (decode) the words.  I am not arguing that we need only phonically decodable texts.  We don’t but Book Bands and phonic levels do not go hand in hand.  In fact they do not correlate at all!

This false use of Book Band colours on phonically decodable texts is confusing for all.  As professionals we need to decide which type of text  to use to teach children the next step in reading, phonically decodable texts or patterned texts (book banded books).  Sometimes it looks like children are going backwards when we move between the two types of text and this can be distressing for parents and for those children who have realised what the colours stand for.  In future please keep the two types of book separate with book bands used for patterned texts and phases only for phonically decodable texts.  It would make our job so much easier.

Here’s hoping.


Wordless picture book number 3

When Night Didn’t Come by Poly Bernatene is a wordless picture book which offers a considerable level of challenge to read as well as being a visual feast.

The story tells of a village when the sun goes down and the panic when the moon doesn’t rise.  There are wonderful pictures of the mechanics of making the moon rise with villagers pulling up large bags of stars and throwing them into the sky.

The colours used in the pictures are rich with glowing oranges set against darker blues, greens and purples giving a slightly theatrical, if not magical feel to the story.  It is this element that reminds me of Leon and The Place Between by Grahame Baker-Smith.  In fact it would be wonderful if children could tell the story of night not coming in the style of Leon and The Place Between.  The language in that book is rich in patterning with a magical air about it.

I think this book would be most suitable for Yr4 children, particularly the imaginary worlds/fanstasy unit of literacy.  Wonderful!


Wordless picture book number 2

Fans of wordless picture books will be familiar with Jeannie Baker’s work;  Window, Where the Forest Meets the Sea and Home.  The book of hers that I would most like to use in a literacy sequence is Mirror which I think fits very well with the Yr5 literacy unit stories from other cultures.

The book opens out to show two stories, one on either side of the cover.  Each book tells us the story of a child and their family, one living in Australia and one living in Morocco.    I think the book works best if you turn the pages of each story at the same time and read the two stories together comparing and contrasting what you can see and what you understand.

The images are created in Baker’s normal style, collage, and are packed full of detail that takes a while to observe fully.  The stories do cross when the Moroccan father travels into the market to sell a carpet and then the carpet is collected and placed in the Sydney home.  A way, I suppose, of asking us to consider where the things we buy come from and that we are linked in all sorts of ways.  It would be a great discussion with children to consider all the different ways that the title Mirror is reflected in the book.

There are several websites with teaching ideas for using this book.  Walker Books has a set of activities which are worth dipping into, particularly as they were drawn up with Jeannie Baker.  I would use the book to retell one of the stories but I would ask children to tell it in the style of The Day of Ahmed’s  Secret by Florence Perry Heide and Judith Heide Gillilan.  The writing in this book is rich with description and quite lyrical.  Whenever I have used this book with children they are always really surprised by the secret, it being such an every day act in their own lives.

A trio of christmas books

I have long enjoyed Carol Ann Duffy’s work, a fact which was brought home to me when I read her  poem Achillles about David Beckham.  I loved the way that she brought popular culture and laureate work together.  Something she has continued to do.  I hope that I am to receive her latest book The Bees for christmas.  I have dropped enough hints!

What I do have however, is copies of the little christmas books that she has written and I have collected over the last three years.

The first of the trio that I bought was Mrs Scrooge.  This is an uptodate version of the story with Mrs Scrooge googling information about the way that turkeys are reared for the christmas feast.  It also contains credit cards, protests and developers.

Up the echoing stairs to slippers, simple supper, candles, cocoa, cat, went Mrs Scrooge: not scared, but oddly comforted at glimpsing Scrooge’s knockered face.

The language rolls and trips off the tongue, rich with alliteration and assonance.  Christmas past, present and future arrive to show Mrs Scrooge the life she has had, has and will have with a happy ending of family near by and developers thwarted.

Posy Simmonds provides the illustrations and they mirror the warmth, detail and emotion.

Another Night Before Christmas is illustrated by Rob Ryan: he of the wonderful paper cutting.   This is the story of a little girl trying to stay awake to see if Santa is real.

The hushed street was in darkness.  Snow duveted the cars – a stray cat had embroidered each roof with its paws.

An owl on an aerial had planets for eyes.  The child at the window stared up at the sky.

I an not quite sure how you pronounce ‘duveted’ but I do love the way that christmas is described; the flirting of the tree in flickers of green and crimson, the reindeer whose breath chiffoned out into the cold and the aeroplanes that sped to the east and the west like a pulled cracker. There are again references to contemporary life with the droning motorways, people in blankets with nowhere to go, cashpoints glowing like icons of light and the satellite filming famine and greed.  The story is however timeless.

The Christmas Truce tells the story of the football match on the 25th December 1914 when war was suspended and Christmas spread.

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself and offer the day like a gift for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz….. with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

The illustrations by David Roberts are so evocative showing a  devastated waste land of spiky shapes and  red cold noses and cheeks.

These books would make fantastic stocking filler.  Let’s hope there will be many more.

Happy Christmas!


Grace by Morris Gleitzman

I have long been a fan of Morris Gleitzman and his way of dealing with serious issues.  My favourites are Two Weeks with the Queen, BumFace and Once (hear the first chapter of each book by clicking on the link).

Recently one of the school library centre managers passed me a copy of Grace and asked me to read it to see if it was suitable for KS2.

graceI left the book for a long time and it made its way down to the bottom of my reading pile and it is only because I had read absolutely everything else that I started it.  So what put me off?  Well, it’s the eyes of the girl on the front.  They reminded me of the way in which evil is portrayed in films when it inhabits children and I don’t like that sort of film.  And I also didn’t like the idea of sins when a child says that they have become a sinner.  The first line of chapter 2 says it all.

At first I didn’t know I was a sinner.

It’s a great example of foreshadowing as we just know that the book is going to detail how Grace becomes a sinner. Anyway, having nothing else to read and wanting to give Wendy an answer, I read it and I loved every single moment of it.

The story tells of  Grace, the only child of two parents who belong to a strict fundamentalist christian group who believe that only they will get to Heaven, and who don’t have much to do with the world outside their church.  Grace and her family are the only ones in the church that live amongst non-believers, or unsaved sinners, and are therefore considered suspect.  What really sets them apart however, is Grace’s parents raising of Grace to think independently and to value thinking for yourself.  Their favourite activity is asking questions and thinking about answers.  The story revolves around Grace’s father being excluded from the church , and all this entails,  for his thinking and questioning and how Grace asks God to help her find her father and bring him back to the family.  When you get to this part you will understand the lion on the front cover and the role it plays in the story.  During the process Grace starts to develop her own understanding of God.

The language that Gleitzman uses is biblical in a way that children will recognise it.

But it came to pass that I started doing sins.  And Lo, that’s when all our problems began……

So is this book suitable for KS2 children?  Only Year 6s I would say and not all of them.  There are some groups who would be very offended by this book and so care would be needed.  But then I thought that about Two weeks with the Queen, a book that focuses on Aids, and I have seen it in a couple of schools.

Religious fundamentalism has been a theme of my reading this week because I  work ed with a teacher on planning using  Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden as a core text.  It is a long time since I last read it and I enjoyed it so much.  The fundamentalism reminding me of Mr Evans the brother of the woman who took Carrie and Nick in when they were evacuated from London.   Carrie’s relationship with Mr Evans is slightly more complex than Nick’s as she has more sympathy for him and starts to understand why he might be like he is.  There are great contrasts between the Evan’s household and Hepzibah’s where the children find comfort and friendship, although not everything is cosy. The book has a strong thread of separation running through it which would be worth exploring with children.

Many thanks to @TinyAcorns who mentioned that the book is part of an exhibition, Once Upon a War Time:  Classic War Stories for Children, at the Imperial War Museum.

What a great reading week.  What should I read next?

7 great series for emerging and consolidating readers

When children start to move away from reading schemes it is very important that they find books that are at just the right level that they will enjoy.  One of the best ways of doing this is to introduce children to books in series as this means that there is a good chance that if they like one, they will like some of the rest.  They provide a safety net for the newly fledged reader.  Below are some of my favourites which I have tried to put into some order of difficulty but it is very subjective.

Blue Bananas

This is a great series for young readers written by real authors.  The books are  quite small with only a few lines of text on each page with the pictures playing an important role in the stories.  Books  for Keeps has a great detailed review here.


I have long been a fan of these great little graphic novels. Each one features the life and adventures of BabyMouse and is aimed at girls, being very pink.  They are great stories, quite often with a moral tale to them about how life should be lived.  The most recent one I have bought is BabyMouse Cupcake Tycoon which I especially enjoyed because it was about generating money for the library and books.


This series is told through small amounts of text on each page spread between the text and comic like illustrations.  These are set out in a linear fashion so it is quite obvious what order to read things in, which can sometimes be a bit of a challenge in some series.  These books have short chapters.  One of my favourite  in this series is Stan and the Crafty Cats by Scoular Anderson. This is the story of Stan the dog and the two cats who come to stay.  Told from the dog’s point of view, I love the names that he gives to the humans and the title of each chapter, first helping, second helping, third helping etc.

Walker Books Starters

I particularly like the variety of ways in which these stories are told.  Some consist of text and comic like sections whilst my favourite, The Dragon Test by June Crebbin is told through letters from a princess to her father about becoming a dragon catcher.  There is not too much text on each page and once again, like the rockets there is a great deal of humour in the books.  Delightful.  (The Dragon Test is good enough to appear on our texts that teach list)

stormYellow Bananas

With books written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Anne Fine, Michael Morpurgo and Penelope Lively, who can complain that these are not real books written by real authors.  These books dmand more reading and stamina than the blue bananas, occasionally having only text on a page but they are not overwhelming and many pages have both images and text.  Some are divided into chapters.  My favourites are Storm by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Scaredy Cat by Anne Fine.


This series from Walker Books moves away from the comic style to just text although most pages do have an illustration on which breaks up the chunk of text.  The books are divided into chapters and are written by well–known authors; Michael Morpurgo, Jan Mark, Dick King-Smith and Anne Fine.  Favourites are Lady Long Legs and Taiking teh Cats Way Home both by Jan Mark.

Colour Young Puffins (scroll down the page to see the titles)

These are the next step for readers having slightly more and smaller text on each page than the sprinters.  Most pages do have an illustration to break the page of text up and divided into chapters.  The illustrations are however in colour rather than just line drawings.  Again written by well-known authors.

What are your favourite books in series for fledgling readers?

Inference – the Jam in the Doughnut: Reciprocal Reading – Part 1

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with reciprocal reading but it is a well-researched method of teaching reading comprehension.  The researchers Palincsar and Brown developed the idea and their work is very accessible on the internet, including long term studies.

Reciprocal reading focuses on four key strageies that are predicting, clarifying, questioning and summarising but which need to be taught within the context of a rich reading curriculum.

We use our  doughnut of reading to try and explain this.

jammy donutIn this diagram we acknowledge that whatever we do in  reading we must allow children time for personal response and time to develop their own reading habits.

The next layer is the dough and this is generally the knowledge or content that we teach in shared and guided reading when we focus on the elements of character, organisational features etc.

But we are still not quite at the jammy heart!  In fact we need to focus on some key skills or strategies and they are the ones that reciprocal reading identifies as being core skills: predicting, clarifying, questioning and summarising.  These can help direct us to the jam.

The next few posts will consider what we can do to teach these four key skills and how we can develop them in our teaching contexts.

For an overview of strategies that can be used to develop reciprocal reading see the blog post  Reading with Meaning

Have you tried reciprocal reading?  How do you organise it?

If you would like to experience reciprocal reading and find out more about the key skills come and join us on the 24th November.

What all teachers ought to know about the benefits of animation

class1a on animation from Matty Dawe on Vimeo.

During an animation project that has spanned this year, I have been concentrating  on what progression in animamtion looks like.  Now that I have a little time I want to spend some time reflecting on what the animation did for literacy learning.  I want to think beyond the work that has already been undertaken about camera shot and the level of detail written,  the link between scenes and paragraphs etc.  These have all been well documented  as part of the bfi work.

Because the animation was linked to poetry three times during the year, the teachers involved in the project found that their choice of poetry changes as we moved through the year.  By the third animation they were quite clear about choosing poems with strong images that were accessible to children.  Not revelationary but in terms of the poems they would have normally chosen for literacy there was a difference.

So how did linking poetry and animation affect learning in literacy?

Creating images from words (reading)

  • Animation and poetry are both about images, amongst other things, and we know that good readers often visualise or create images from the words they are reading.  By linking the two together the children became much more expert at creating images that were suggested by the words in poem.  The animating ‘forced’ the children to think in terms of images.  This impact on their reading was quite pronounced as the children were expecting the poems to create images for them which had not been the case duirng the first animation.  If you have children who do not comprehend texts effectively, animation may be one tool that can support this development.

Creating words from images (writing)

  • For some of the children, creating  images and then creating  poetry from the animation allowed them to tap into ‘dormant’ vocabulary.  That is vocabulary whicc we have but don’t often use in our every day interactions.  The Anglo-Saxons called this our word-hoard.  We use approximately 5000 different words in our day to day communication yet we know so many more words.  For developing writers it is important that we show them how to tap into their word-hoard to bring words forward.  It is also important that we show them the process of seeing images and attaching words to them.  This is after all what many writers do and what Pie Corbett in Talk for Writing calls imaging.  Animating allows us to make these two invisible processes visible for children.

Storyboarding (planning)

  • It was interesting to see what the children did when storyboarding.  Writing is normally a task undertaken by an individual, although many schools do encourage children to write in pairs.  Many primary age children do not understand the concept of planning, writing too much in the plan and then writing out again for the actual text.  The primary purpose of storyboarding when animating was to create a shared visual understanding of what was to be made.  This demanded many skills of the children; the ability to articulate ideas, persuade and negotiate.  It was this process that meant that by the time the children had storyboarded they really had a clear idea of what they were about to make. The purpose of planning was clear to the children and had an impact on the planning that they did when writing supporting the understanding of the two processes – planning and then writing.

These ideas mean that animation is an ideal learning tool for use in literacy and not just once a year.  What else should teachers know about animation?

Other posts about animation

Tadpole’s Promise – A Tragedy

I have enjoyed watching teachers’ faces as they read Tadpole’s Promise by Tony Ross and Jeanne Willis. Usually they are shocked as the book lulls us into a false sense of security thinking that there is a happy ending. Even the bubbles on the front cover lead us this way.   But in a tragedy, of course, there isn’t a happy ending.

tadpole In this story Caterpillar and Tadpole meet and fall in love and promise never to change which of course sets up the whole story as all children know that both will.  It is these changes that lead to a tragedy for both but in different ways.

Christopher Booker’s description of  tragedy is:

  1. The hero looks for something.  He finds it and focuses his energy on it.
  2. He aims for this thing and all seems well.
  3. Things start to go wrong and may begin to behave darkly.
  4. Things start to slip out of control badly.
  5. The hero is destroyed.

One of the discussions the book can lead us to is that there is more than one story in here.  There is the story of the caterpillar and of the tadpole.  When using the blueprint it is important that you decide who the hero is.  This is not hero in the sense of having super powers and saving all – rather the main character that you want to follow.

Other blueprints:

Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, voyage and return and comedy.

Have you shared these patterns with children?

Reading with Meaning

We have been talking with teachers recently about teaching children how to make meaning from texts, often because there are children in the class who are finding it more challenging to infer when reading.

Good readers use a range of strategies and we need to model a wide range  such as activiating prior knowledge, generating own questions, making connections, visualising, knowing how words work, monitoring for sense, summarising and evaluating.  This site shows how these skills can be developed in the classroom with many thanks to @tombarrett for sharing .

Reciprocal reading is a well-researched programme that takes the four skills of predicting, clarifying, questioning and summarising and shows children how to use them when reading in order that they make the most meaning that they can.  On our last reciprocal reading course we generated a list of ways in which these skills could be used so that it doesn’t always feel like you are doing the same thing over and over again.  Below are the suggestions with many thanks to the teachers who attended.

Predicting – this is frequently done using the front cover of a book but can also be undertaken during reading.  The research suggests that children draw very heavily on pictures to help with this strategy and also that the title of the text is a very important signpost.  The suggestions were:

  • Use some images from the text and the title to predict what it might be about
  • Use one key image from the text to generate ideas about the text
  • Generate a list of words that you might expect to find in this text
  • Craft a sentence which says ‘I predict that this book will be about ……. because………..’  The putting of ideas into a sentence is crucial as it forces us to order our thoughts and put them together coherently
  • Reveal a paragraph at a time and predict what the next paragraph might be about.  This can also be done sentence by sentence on a very short piece of text.
  • Using a wordle of the first paragraph/chapter and trying to identify what the text might be about

Clarifying is where children try and work out what things might mean when they were confused.  This can happen at word, sentence, paragraph and whole text level.  Many children will focus upon words here so we will need to model needing to make sense out of larger chunks of text.

  • Rereading the puzzling part of the text and reading around it
  • Using knowledge of words to help identify meaning, e.g. I know what medicine is so I can guess what medication is.  But this also moves into signposts in language such being able to generate synonyms, knowing what connectives such as on the other hand, or and because mean.  This is an enormous area and is one reason why word level work is not just about spelling but also about how words work and their meaning.  Online programmes can support this type of work such as Wordnik or Visuwords.

Questioning – this is where children generate questions that can be answered from the text and is not teachers about teachers having a prepared set of questions that will help children understand the text better.

  • Start this activity on small parts of the text and then build up to the questions being about the whole text.  I have had to start on just one sentence with some groups of children and then move on from there.
  • Teach children how to identify key words in a sentence/piece of text and then attach question words to the information.  For example if the key words are River Exe, starts at Simonsbath, Exmoor can we start a question off with who?  Why not?  Can we use when?
  • Encourage children to generate as many questions as possible.  This means that they will start with the obvious ones and then move on and will without knowing it eventually move into inferential and evluative questions.
  • Team games can be played where other teams have to answer the questions.  The children must know where the answers to their questions are in the text.  Again ask for the answers in sentences so that children can see how the question and answers contain many words that are the same.

The purpose of this type of activity is not really in the answering of the questions but in the generation of them.  When children are doing this they are once again discussing their understanding of the text.

Summarising again demands that children explore what is important information in the text and what is not, helping them to make more/clearer meaning.  Different ways in which this can be done are:

  • In 2 or 3 sentences
  • Using autosummarise in word and seeing what happens each time, discussing whether the meaning is maintained
  • Creating a blurb such as that on the back of a book or in the review section of the television programmes
  • Creating a sub-heading for each paragraph
  • Drawing a story map of the text
  • Tell the text in six words

What has worked for your children?

Other posts about reading .