Igniting a love of reading through literature circles

One of the biggest successes of the last few years for me has been the growth I’ve seen in students through the incorporation of Literature Circles into our reading day. The type of growth I’ve seen spans both quantitative and qualitative measures, including significant improvements in reading benchmarking scores and individual NAPLAN results. Most important is the growth I’ve seen in student attitudes to reading, ability to think deeply and talk about what they read and make connections to other texts and to the world around them to help them understand both.

So what are literature circles and how have we done it?

There are lots of different ways of going about introducing literature circles and numerous blogs, books and guides on the topic. I’m not a fan of the approach that uses ‘roles’ to introduce students to the concept – I have found, even when used as an initial scaffold, they’re still too restrictive and students tend to get stuck in thinking in set ways.

To begin with, we started with great books. That sounds like a given but there is so much ‘fast fiction’ on the market these days and much of it is specifically targeted at schools. To have really good quality discussions about books, you have to start with really good quality books and here are some of the characteristics to look for:

  • rich vocabulary slightly beyond the level of the intended readers;
  • texts with real life themes that will have students asking and contemplating big questions;
  • complex plots with twists that leave the reader wondering what is coming next;
  • relatable characters with all the wonderful and flawed human characteristics;
  • books that students of this age generally wouldn’t choose for themselves.

While this all might seem like a big ask, there are many, many books out there that fit the bill. There is a list of potential title for consideration at the end of this blog.

Getting started – dangling the bait

One of the differences between excited and flat students when it comes to reading is exciting or flat teachers when they talk about reading. I know that sounds harsh but it makes such a difference – enthusiasm is contagious and a vibe students want to be part of. The first step in our literature circles is giving brief book talks about each title on offer to help students decide which is the right text for them. We tell them a synopsis of what the book is about and the genre, the level of vocabulary they’re likely to encounter, something about the main character and their traits and any connections to other titles (eg, “If you loved watching/reading Harry Potter, you’ll love this book!”). Students then get a short time to read the blurb and sample the first page. We stress how important it is to choose a ‘just right’ text for them – enough challenge to allow them to practise their growing skills but not so much that every chapter is a struggle. Students then finish by writing a list of their favourite 4 books to help us put them into groups.

Grouping students

Our students are grouped according to their choice of books. It’s rare that we can give everyone their first choice as we only have 5 copies of each title and their tends to be a certain buzz around certain books each time, often dependent on the chatter from the previous round of literature circles. However we ensure all students get one of the four they chose. If students have chosen a book that will be very challenging for them, we’ll have a discussion with them about this – not to put them off but to make them aware and plan some supports for them to be successful. These might include us getting an audio copy of the book, arranging sessions to read it with someone else or a weekly conference before our literature circle meeting to check in and prepare.

Let the discussions begin

We do a lot of work during our whole class reading sessions on different comprehension strategies and model a lot of how to talk about texts and these developing skills are evident in the way students talk at the start of literature circles. We’ve never needed particular roles to get students talking and, while some students are quieter than others, all have something to say at their own level of understanding. Our roles in the groups are as facilitators and it gives us the opportunity to model the talk we want to hear and to thrown in prompting questions or wonderings to move the talk on to the next level. For example, students might be discussing what has happened in the latest chapters at a quite literal level, talking to understand and recall events. Throwing a question in about why an author included that event or why they’ve written about it from a particular perspective sometimes leads to a bit of quiet thinking time then takes the talk off in another way. We also model how to agree or disagree with someone else’s ideas and how to build on to what they said (rather than repeat it).

What about when they don’t?

Some groups find the conversations easier than others. In some, I sit back and watch as the discussion pings around, arguments and debates happen (respectfully) and themes are suggested.

Some groups seem to sit in silence for a long time, looking awkwardly at each other and waiting for us to step in. We deal with this firstly through encouraging students to be prepared – we ask them to write very brief chapter summaries before coming to the group along with post it notes about any questions they have as they read or words they don’t understand. These are often a great jumping off point for meeting discussions – what were the key parts of the chapters? What vocabulary did the author use – which bits did you like and which bits didn’t you understand? Can we work it out together? Why didn’t the author use an easier word there – why that one?

Little by little, groups gain confidence and are more readily able to talk about what they’ve read. There will always be some students who find it hard to talk in such situations – the preparation they do can help them a lot in feeling confident in speaking and feeling their contribution is valued when they do.

How do we assess it?

We use a checklist adapted from Fountas & Pinnell to track the progress of our students’ skills – in reading, asking questions, talking about themes, providing evidence, working out vocabulary but also in group skills such as including others, being prepared and managing conflict and dissent.

Collecting student chapter summaries is also a valuable source of assessment – they often start off overly detailed but manage to hone it down to the really important parts and key events or characters. Quite often, we produce written artefacts as we talk – character maps showing relationships that develop (or deteriorate), lists of traits of certain characters and evidence to show it or physical maps of locations to get our head around where the action is.

Great – where do I start!

We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few visitors over the past year come and watch literature circles in our classrooms and the question we always get is which books do we start with so that seems like the perfect place to end this blog. List of books below that we’ve used with our Grade 4-6 class:

  • Paper Planes (Steve Worland)
  • Holes (Louis Sacher)
  • The Loblolly Boy (James Norcliffe)
  • The White Tower (Cathryn Constable)
  • The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)
  • When you reach me (Rebecca Stead)
  • Somewhere around the corner (Jackie French)
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Assessment in the digital world….with a pencil

I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and there is one component of the job I just don’t ever seem to be able to fully, effectively manage – paperwork. Specifically, assessment paperwork. I start the year off with good intentions and, quite often, a folder neatly organised and labelled with appropriate headings, all ready to sort the rich evidence of learning of each of my students.

Regardless of what system I’ve devised over the holidays, I’m usually happy with it initially. Until about week 4. That’s when I start to see the flaws and it starts to become a little unruly before building up to unmanageable and I spend the rest of the year trying to backtrack and put band aid solutions, hobbling along and swearing next year will be different. Which it always is…with the same results.

I think the crux of it is that my digital life is very organised and orderly, my paper life less so however my assessment is a real mix of the two. Finding a way to merge all of that without duplication (because who has time for that?) has been the challenge which I feel like I might have got on top of this year.

Two things have made a real difference to my assessment this year – Microsoft OneNote and my Apple pencil.

I wasn’t initially a convert to OneNote – I found it to be a bit glitchy and wasn’t entirely convinced it did enough to warrant me moving over to it. It was pretty but didn’t have any additional functionality that I needed. However the real clincher was my Apple pencil – suddenly the benefits of OneNote were clear – an organised space for my digital records with multiple sections that I could type in and write on as well as store documents. All in a friendly, vaguely paper looking format.

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My current setup for my reading conference notes looks like this – a summary page at the start with hyperlinks to individual pages for each of the student records. The different colours on dates are for the fact that I share my grade with another teacher so this solution allows us both to take notes and know where the other teacher is up to.

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The individual pages look something like this. You might be wondering where my handwritten bit comes in as it’s all looking very spreadsheet-ish at the moment. Firstly, I take my running records on my iPad. No longer do I have to waste paper or ink on printing them out, only to file them then shred them at the end of the year. I take them in Notability, save them and attach them directly below the notes of that session so it’s all accessible.

Below each student’s record, I also keep a copy of the ‘Fountas and Pinnell behaviours to notice and teach’ and I (physically) tick & date each of the behaviours when I see them to help me figure out the student’s next area of learning in reading.

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So far, so good. I love the fact that it’s all tidy and in one spot as well as the ease of use when multiple teachers need to access student’s assessment results. Their writing records are being kept in a similar way and have allowed me to take snapshots of students’ work, annotate it and keep it all organised. Who knew that all it would take to bring me over to digital record keeping was…..a pencil?!

How do you organise your reading conference notes? Do you prefer digital or paper records?

ALEA conference 2016 – day 2

I’m a little delayed on this blog post due to the enormity of thoughts floating around in my head after 3 days of intense learning. Forgive me. Here is as coherent a summary as I can manage.

The power of the word – Jenni Connor

This was my first keynote of the day and Jenni grabbed me early as she spoke of the importance of a childhood rich in books and literacy experiences, something I’ve blogged about before and which I am particularly passionate about. She talked of how, to truly grow a lifelong reader, we need to let them read rich and inviting texts, not necessarily those which are age appropriate or at the right level for them. She provided us with some rich examples of quality literature, in picture books I’d forgotten about, such as The Coat by Julie Hunt and Ron Brooks, but also in places you wouldn’t imagine, such as the powerful writing of Stan Grant in his speech for The Ethics Centre on racism and the Australian dream.

Jenni also ranged into novels and spoke of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once‘ with its honest, raw and child centred portrayal of a horrific time in the world. This novel and all that it embodies sums up for me another of her key messages – the power of fiction really is in its lessons of empathy beyond our own lived experiences. As a young child, I was fortunate enough to experience actual life in both the UK and Australia but the diversity of experience I was exposed to was much broader thanks to the range of texts I read or had read to me.

Narrative and creativity: Where do they fit in today’s schools? – Misty Adoniou

I love hearing Misty speak and still count the keynote I attended at last year’s conference as amongst the most powerful professional development I have been part of.

To begin with, Misty spoke about the messy, competing demands and critical thinking required by engaging with multimodal texts in the real world then considered whether this was the case with those neatly packaged, single genre texts encountered by students in the classroom. In fact, it was a speech of considering contrasts – literacy as skill acquisition vs literacy as meaning making being the next. As a primary teacher, this is one I often grapple with, particularly in writing. While students obviously need to develop a whole range of skills and will need varying amounts of time and practise to build them, there is no point in developing such skills in the absence of meaning and purpose. Grammatically correct sentences with sturdy punctuation make no difference if there is no one to read them.

Misty finished with an idea that resonated that helped bring the contrasts to a point – perhaps part of our role in school is providing students with additional skills, opportunities and beliefs that, in conjunction with those from their home environments, allow them to exist in and create in a third space, separate from but informed by (and enriched by) both. I like that concept a lot and I think it helps me reconcile my role as an educator – not there to be the only element in a child’s education, just part of the complex mix that will support and extend their life choices.

Using picture books to explicitly teach about language – Robyn English

A thread that was very common throughout the conference was the power of narrative, particularly picture books, for learners of all ages. This session was no exception and provided both multiple great picture books as well as novel and interesting ways to use them with students.

One of the games I liked was a ‘grammar by dice roll’ game where students were given sentences from favourite picture books and, based on the roll of a dice, were encouraged to…

1 – change the verb

2 – add an adjective to the second noun

3 – add an adverb

4 – add a circumstance

5 – add detail to the subject noun

6 – add a circumstance that includes a conjunction and a pronoun

I could see this being a lot of fun, especially playing with language from texts that my student already loved and were familiar with.

Another activity involved using vocabulary from familiar books and asking students to discuss and justify which was the odd one out of each line. This takes the skills beyond just knowing what the word means and requires students to think more broadly and argue for their point of view.Cm5tHk-WIAA03wc

Overall, another great day of ideas and wonderings.

Day 3 post to follow soon…

How to grow your own word detective

I haven’t always been passionately interested in spelling. During my first year or two of teaching, I will admit to being similar to so many teachers – frustrated with my student’s attempts, reaching for commercial spelling programs and over-reliant on the ‘look cover write check’ method.

Initially, I put it down to the fact that I had been one of those children who ‘just got it’ when it came to spelling. And reading and writing for that matter. But it wasn’t something I was born with – it was a product of the environment I came from.

From a very young age, I saw the power that words held. They mesmerised my Mum when she relaxed on the couch and read, ignoring whatever yells and screams were coming from me and my sisters as we fought over something petty on rainy afternoons. They earned praise for my sister when she brought home writing from school to show my parents – those words on the page made them smile and say how proud they were of her. And they earned a lot less praise for my other sister when she brought home her school report. I didn’t know what the words said but Mum & Dad clearly did and it wasn’t good. Powerful things, those words.

Growing up, I began to understand how certain words could achieve different things, depending on where they were used and who you gave them to. If I used certain words or phrases at school, teachers listened to me more (for positive and not so positive reasons) and different words and phrases would get me attention at home. A whole other set worked with my peers. As a teenager, I realised that using a certain tone in my speaking and writing made others see me differently and allowed me to build a picture of who I wanted to be, no longer limited by socio-economic or geographic limitations. I saw the power of words take my sister through Year 12 and into University.

Wanting to use and play with that power, I chose to become a journalist where words were my only tool and the product that I spent so long crafting each day.

So I didn’t just ‘get’ reading, writing and spelling. I was raised in a literacy rich household where I had daily demonstrations of the power and wonder of language, almost guaranteed to make me curious. And my reflections on my journey through word curiosity is why I now am so passionate about spelling and words and literacy in general. Ultimately, language has power, whatever age you are and whatever your postcode is. Some children are fortunate enough to be born into environments swimming with rich examples, while others get demonstrations of how limiting it can be when you hold an incomplete set of tools or the wrong ones to do the tasks that you need. Getting children excited about words helps them fill their own toolbox and unlock that magical power that language holds. How can you not be passionate about that?

Digital dandelions: Exploring and interacting with diverse digital texts in primary classrooms

I’m presenting today at the ALEA conference in Brisbane on the topic of using digital texts in primary classrooms. If you’re interested, here is the Prezi and supporting notes that go along with the presentation. A proper blog post will definitely follow 🙂

Prezi

 

List of digital texts that could be used in primary classrooms

Just right texts…..digitally

There’ll be a different tone to this blog this year as I’ve taken on a new role which comes with a whole new set of hats to wear, metaphorically speaking. As of 2 weeks ago, I am a Leading Teacher – 21st Century Learning/Literacy. To say I’m excited would be a huge understatement – what an amazing opportunity to combine my two absolute teaching passions in a school that I love and with a leadership team I respect. There are certainly some nerves in there as well at the steep learning curve I face but I’m really grateful to have the opportunity.

One of my first roles has been supporting teachers in setting up their Literacy rich classrooms and planning for their Literacy time. Within that, there is a very big focus at our school (and throughout our Region) on ‘just right’ texts. Even though our school has intentionally chosen to call these ‘texts’ and not ‘books’, there is still the inevitable lean towards printed material and a small part of my job is to make sure teachers and students consider other options.

On Friday, I had the chance to do a lesson on ‘just right’ texts in a digital sense after being asked by one of our fantastic graduates how to introduce this. I started with an online text from British Council which we used for Shared Reading. At the end of the first page, we talked about whether this was ‘just right’ and one of the students said of course it was because it was read to us so we didn’t have to figure out any of the words. That lead to a great discussion about not only being able to read the words but also to understand what they meant and what was happening in this text – a quick check revealed that not all students understood what was happening in the first page so some other students jumped in to retell it in their own words. By the end of the story, students were very much attuned to what was happening, predicting future events and making inferences about how the characters might have been feeling. In the discussion that followed, one student offered that he sometimes knew all the words on the page but didn’t understand the story so perhaps that meant that his book wasn’t ‘just right’ for him after all. Breakthrough!

Students then worked in pairs to read/view/interact with texts on the iPads, focusing on whether they were ‘just right’ and ensuring this by asking each other questions and retelling what was happening. We explored The Numberlys, The fantastic flying books of Morris Lessmore, Barefoot Atlas and Dandelion and the classroom was abuzz with really rich discussions of stories, characters, motivations and predictions.

To conclude, we talked about how the digital texts were different or the same as the ‘just right’ texts in their book boxes and whether there were features that had helped or hindered their understanding. I had originally thought some of the features in the interactive books might be distracting but one student said he used them to act out what had happened up to that point and get it clear in his mind before moving forward. Another student said she did find the features distracting and couldn’t remember the story – she’d decided in the end it was because that text was too hard for her so had closed it and tried something else.

I’m certainly not suggesting that students constantly be fed a digital diet but this lesson opened these students and their teacher up to the rich possibilities for comprehension in digital texts and, I hope, added it as an important ‘food group’ when considering their reading and viewing needs in the future.