Our education advisor, Claire Bagnall shares her insider tips from the classroom on how to support reluctant readers.
During my many years in the primary classroom, I observed a trend which was to continue regardless of which cohort of children I had in front of me. My observation was that the boys I taught, in general, were no less able in reading than the girls; indeed, some of my most able readers were boys. Rather, they were often more difficult to engage in reading in the first place. Making this observation impressed upon me the need to use all of my teaching expertise to unlock this hidden potential, so that these boys might flourish during their time in my class, and hopefully leave it with a love of reading for its own sake. An ambitious (but entirely possible) goal to aspire to.
Having drawn this conclusion, I gave a considerable amount of time to establishing whether there was a discernible reason for this difference. I came to the conclusion that part of the problem were the materials we were using to inspire boys. I looked at the rows of tired-looking home reader books, and decided that they were, on the whole, completely uninspiring for my boys. Whilst traditional tales have an important place within the curriculum and form a much-loved portion of virtually every child’s bookshelf, placing too much emphasis on them was depriving the children of other types of text which could have the potential to inspire and engage them.
Following a discussion with the literacy co-ordinator, an exciting new batch of books arrived in my classroom. Complete with vivid colours and a ‘new book smell’, they were a hundred times more exciting to my class than the dog-eared, well worn, outgoing set, and the difference in the engagement levels of the boys was especially palpable. This is not to say that pre-loved books shouldn’t have a place in our lives: indeed, I know that some of our favourites from the books we have received in our The Bear Can Read boxes will be treasured for years to come as sentimental reminders of the precious time we spent together investing in the invaluable skill of reading. However, my experience in the classroom had demonstrated to me that the tangible draw a new book has, with its crisp, clean pages and unblemished cover, is something that is especially powerful. This same allure is something that The Bear Can Read boxes, unlike books sent home from school, can offer, and is the first factor in their winning formula!
Another appealing lure of the books in my classroom, in addition to their newness, was the variety of genres available for the children to explore. Naturally there were some non-fiction, with plenty of topics to cater for all readers, but there was variety within the fiction too: genres such as sci-fi, adventure and mystery especially delighted my more reluctant readers. The experience underlined for me that it really is no good trying to fit a square peg in a round hole! Fortunately, the team at The Bear Can Read ensure that this fact is reflected in the degree of variety of books included in their boxes, which ensures that they will always be a source of great excitement.
A further interesting observation from my classroom was that format of the books also could have a bearing. Some of the books had prose, but others had more of a comic book format, with speech bubbles. I think the comic-book format was of particular appeal to the boys, not only because it reminded them of magazines they may see on the shelves in the supermarket, but also because this format has the effect of breaking the text into bitesize sections so that they were less overwhelming. Reassuringly, the Word Sparks series, which are amongst those from which the Bear Can Read books are chosen, also have the same effect of cleverly avoiding overwhelm by building in breaks and splitting the book into sections for each of the two people reading the book. Pages for the parent to read to move the story on between the pages the child reads – all the learning and progress that phonics readers can bring from the child’s section with an engaging story and the introduction of vocabulary they otherwise wouldn’t encounter in a phonics reader book thanks to the adult sections. Win win!
Finally, my classroom experience was an opportune moment to once again reflect on the importance of precision in the choice of book, not only in its theme, genre and type, but also in its pitch. All of us are more motivated to do something if we feel we are doing well in it and are turned off when we feel something is too challenging for us and our self-esteem takes a nose dive. A carefully curated set of books, offering just the right level of challenge, is essential, and by taking note of children’s starting points, The Bear Can Read boxes provide exactly this. Furthermore, when these books are packaged up inside a personalised box with the child’s own name on it and are arriving through the letterbox, they are no longer just books, but rather are a special gift, carefully chosen just for them. and therefore can inspire even the most reluctant reader to await their books with excitement and anticipation. A relief for care-givers of reluctant readers everywhere!