This love of literature is at the heart of our Primary English curriculum at BISS, from our ‘Talk for Writing’ use of rich, thought-invoking texts in writing lessons, to the rigours of our assessment systems in phonics and reading. But as both teachers and parents, what challenges do such systems bring? As soon as students have mastered their initial letters and sounds and are able to blend independently, they are reading. From here on, they will be guided through ever-evolving focuses centred round fluency and comprehension. At the close of every book, every chapter, every paragraph, students are likely to encounter an ambitious teacher or parent, armed with a bank of categorised questions.
What was it about?
How do you know?
Where is the evidence?
Did you enjoy it?
Why? (Always followed by further ‘whys?’)
How else can we hope to develop students’ comprehension skills, which are, after all, both internal and silent? And let us not forget that such questioning frequently enables the most enjoyable and enriching of discussions, ultimately deepening students’ understanding. However, let us also for one moment reflect on this as adult readers. Daniel Pennac, through his book ‘The Rights of the Reader’, reminds us that one of the greatest pleasures for any reader is the silence that follows after the story has been read. Our ‘trespassing’ on such moments does, I would argue, therefore come at a cost: a lack of opportunity for the reader to reflect, to think, to wonder. Precisely for such reasons, our busy weekly timetables at BISS, for all classes across Primary, have protected time for both library visits and whole-class reading slots, enabling teachers to stop, and read aloud from a selection of age-appropriate texts across the course of the year. In so doing, it is an opportunity to develop and share a communal love of reading, free from assessment, free from questions, free from expectation. Only open discussion, should the students or teacher choose it, shared in the wake of beguiling literary worlds, painted through rich vocabulary and delivered with honest enjoyment. Pennac summarises this endeavour succinctly, stating that,
“When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading as a gift.”
Continuing this theme, Pennac further alludes to the idea that when children are read to at bedtime, they are freed from their daily slog of word-decoding, and from the labyrinth of subsequent comprehension questions. They are also trusted to be listening, and to be “paying attention”. It is an unguarded time simply to enjoy and, on occasion, to re-kindle their growing love of reading. A child – an adult – is never too old to listen to a story and yet, why is it that all-too-frequently we allow this ‘right’ to be forgotten as children progress through their schooling? At what cost do the adults among us allow themselves to transition from ‘magical story-teller’ in Pre-Nursery through to Key Stage 1, to that of ‘comprehension questioner’ by the close of Key Stage 2?