I don’t know about you, but I look forward to introducing a new class reader with the various classes I teach. There’s something about the opportunity to share great literature with young people and also have the chance to share my own passion as a reader. It’s always enjoyable to challenge myself with a new book but also to challenge the reading expectations of young people.
I see it as part of my role as a teacher to encourage and nurture the tiny flickers of interest that my students have in reading. Although we know that reading amongst our students has been declining over the years, as so many other things compete for their attention. Having the opportunity for just a short time in their week to focus on reading and have the chance to talk about what we all think of a book is something to be relished. I’m mindful that some students I teach don’t have a single book in the house, so the exposure at school to any form of reading is an unusual and occasionally difficult experience. I have known students, even at secondary school, who claim to have never read a whole book from start to finish. It’s a situation I consistently try to remedy.
Introducing a new class reader: engaging your students
So, how do we go about trying to ensure that from the outset our students are ‘grabbed’ and interested enough to at least give the whole reading thing a chance? Clearly, I can’t know your own school’s policy on choice of texts. You may be in a situation where the choice is made for you depending on the year/ability of the group you have been allocated, or you may have free rein. Whatever your classroom situation, I’ve listed below some ideas which you may find helpful when introducing a new class reader.
- It’s important and useful to read the book yourself before starting it with a class
If you’ve been dropped in at short notice that may not always be possible, but putting yourself in the position of a student coming fresh to the text is a beneficial experience. Read it whilst at the back of your mind thinking ‘How do I feel/react/think about this?’ Your own reactions are helpful in preparing you to anticipate how your students may react.
- Do some research about the writer and anything they have said about the book
It’s interesting to find out what the author was hoping the book would do for readers and what motivated them to write it in the first place. A useful tool for this I have found are the ‘Author spotlight’ sections in OUP’s Rollercoaster series. Authors have provided some insights to accompany their book, which are helpful in setting context. For example, A. M. Dassu author of ‘Boy, Everywhere’ cites her contact with refugees and their families as the inspiration behind her book. It’s useful to know this sort of information to explore with students what motivates writers: their language and thematic language choices and why they think the book has been created.
Having gone through the book yourself, you may well want to start planning how you will introduce the text to your students. We all know the expression: ‘first impressions count’. It’s no less true for starting to read a book. So the important thing from the outset for me is to get the students curious about what they are going to read. Strategies I have used in the past to engage them before starting to read include:
- Display images from the front cover (without giving them the book!)
Ask them to predict what the title and images are suggesting the book will be about. Students could work in pairs or small groups to come up with a range of ideas. Discussions around their ideas will help students understand more about how books are designed to entice readers.
- Give students the title of the book and invite theories about what the topic of the novel will be
This helps students to understand that the title is part of the ‘message’ the author wants to give readers.
- Identify themes from the book and provide images which link to some of them.
Display the images around the room. Challenge students to group the images thematically and ask them to explain their choices. OUP’s free Resource Packs, which accompany each Rollercoaster title, provide a section outlining the most prominent themes which is a useful starting point. One example is ‘The Island at the End of Everything’ which suggests five themes: Family, Friendship, Insensitivity of authority, Persistent hope and kindness and Healing power of nature.
An internet search linked to some of those themes throws up a diverse selection of pictures – three or four of which could be shown for each one. Students sometimes prefer visuals to help them understand abstract concepts, so this visual reinforcement will serve a dual purpose as you start to unpick their ideas about links. The Resources pages in many of the OUP Resource Packs include images which can be used to incite student thinking in your lessons.
- Introduce the setting of the book by telling students where it is mostly based
For example, ‘Boy, Everywhere’ is set initially in Syria. Invite students to share what they know about the place(s) and to draw up a list of questions they may have about what it’s like to live there. These can be retained to check against during the reading of the book so students understand how even fiction can reveal things about the ‘real’ world.
KS3 class reader resources and support
I know that delivering lessons on several different texts, to different year groups, simultaneously (as so many of us do) is rather a challenge, so it’s hugely useful to have resources to ameliorate some of the planning and preparation work. I’ve found the OUP Rollercoaster series offers some great texts as well as lesson plans and resource sheets which provide almost ‘off the peg’ text-based learning.
Many of the Rollercoasters feature a section called ‘Endmatter’ which as well as the ‘Author Spotlight’, includes ‘Novel insights’, ‘Vocabulary list’, and a section on ‘Language and Style’ to further develop and challenge students’ reading skills. A particularly innovative feature of the Language and Style section are the Word clouds, which focus on different categories of word and their use in the book. These help students to improve their lexical knowledge and gain greater understanding of how writers choose their words for specific reasons.
The associated free Rollercoaster Resource Packs provide a handy lesson overview at the start to help you see the progress and range of activities suggested so you can plan ahead. They also include photocopiable activity sheets to accompany most lesson plans, so you don’t have to try and think of what you might include on a handout for students. The Resource Packs are customisable so you can amend any activities which might be too long for the time available or need to be in a different font to meet students’ needs.
Whether your class is a set or mixed ability, there are suggestions in most of the Resource Packs for both ‘Support’ and ‘Stretch’ activities. These build on the main teaching points and enable learners to independently tackle a different aspect of the text. It’s amazingly useful, especially as time is so limited for differentiation of a text. Many activities encourage peer to peer sharing of the results of their activity so the whole group can benefit from what has been done by students of different abilities, which helps build confidence and shows the worth of what they have done.
For me, the main thing about a class reader is getting students to enjoy the book. Even if they don’t enjoy the whole book, for some, enjoying a part of it will be a new experience and maybe enough to encourage them to read another by the same author, or on a related theme. Each Rollercoaster title also offers some additional ideas for ‘Further reading’ so you don’t have to scrabble about trying to find another title to suggest.
I hope this helps you enjoy reading with your groups and introduce a new class reader successfully.
Written by Julia Waines, Assistant Headteacher, Senco and Head of English at Scarborough PRU