Developing a love of reading

Aidan Chambers’ book ‘The Reading Environment’ talks of ‘The Reading Circle’. Here’s how I’ve tried to develop this in the classroom, hopefully encouraging a class of readers at the same time.

The Reading Circle, from Aidan Chambers’ book ‘The Reading Environment’ (1996)


Know your books (bookstock and availability)

I’ve been buying lots of books over the last seven/eight months and have read lots of blogs written by teachers and book reviewers in order to try and develop a wider knowledge of suitable books for my year 6 children. While I’ve always loved and promoted books like Skellig, Wonder and Holes, I wanted my children to become familiar with a wider range of authors, which is what they’re currently doing.

They now know about newer authors like Polly Ho-Yen, Lara Williamson, Peter Bunzl, Lisa Thompson and Kiran Millwood Hargrave. They are learning about more established authors such as Elizabeth Laird, David Almond and Kate DiCamillo. They are out at the weekend buying or borrowing books, then rushing in to tell their friends, or me. This is probably the best feeling there is as a teacher – to know you have influenced or encouraged them to pick up and buy a book.

And to do this, I have needed to show that I am enthusiastic, knowledgeable and interested. People like Simon Smith, Rhoda Wilson, Ashley Booth and Mathew Tobin have helped enormously with this as they regularly engage in book-talk, sharing recommendations, ideas and enthusiasm online.

Share books (accessibility)

I know lots of teachers do this, but I also know that lots of teachers wouldn’t ever want to – I think it is important. My class borrow books from me all the time, and through word of mouth certain books are seldom on my bookshelf. That’s what I want.

Whenever I finish a book, I share my review with the children and put it on my lending shelf. By the end of the day it has usually gone.

My personal bookshelf, which children go to and borrow from regularly

We have now opened our junior library at school so hopefully the children will have a greater range of books to choose from.


Engage with authors (formal talk and book gossip)

There are so many ways to get in touch with authors these days that it would seem silly not to. Twitter is the most obvious route, with authors keen to hear from their readers and able to give quick replies. Lara Williamson contacted the class via Twitter then sent them a personalised email; M.G. Leonard responded to a tweet by leaving a lovely comment on our blog; and Frank Cottrell Boyce sent us a letter that included a fake £20 note from the set of Millions. 

These authors didn’t need to take the time to reply to our class but the fact that they did really engaged the children – here were real-life authors talking to us, thanking us and asking us questions.  This is such an easy thing for a teacher to do and the children’s reactions are priceless.

Discuss (book gossip)

It sounds obvious, but talking to the children about the books they are reading has such a massive impact. Whenever I see them reading, or with a book, I ask them what it is, how they’re finding it, whether they’d recommend it etc. They’re probably sick of me doing so, but they are doing it themselves now – sharing recommendations, asking to borrow each other’s books and even telling me when a particular author has a new book out.


Read together (time to read)

Linked to the point above, because of their confidence in reading, the children love to read together. When we have reading time, either at the start of the day or when it is timetabled, some children choose to read silently on their own, some read with a partner (almost acting the stories out), and other children listen to one of their peers read parts of their books to them. Seeing the children involved in their books is a powerful and rewarding thing. 

Read aloud (hearing it done and doing it for yourself)

As a class, we’ve read 6 books this year, which doesn’t sound many but isn’t bad going considering we have had SATs to prepare for and a squeezed timetable at the best of times. We read every day – the children voice some of the characters, and they create accents and personalities for the characters we come across. The children are involved. As Chambers suggests, they are hearing it done, doing it for themselves and having time to read.

There were two reading-related articles in the Guardian this weekend, both of which surmised that stories are being devalued and almost forgotten in our current education system.

The Secret Teacher

Ditch the grammar and teach storytelling instead

Reading is a wonderful thing to share with a class, and it should be promoted by a teacher as often as possible. Chambers’ Reading Circle is a simple, straightforward model to follow and has helped my class to develop as readers, hopefully for a much longer time than I’ll be teaching them.


#52books2017 – April

19. Benjamin Zephaniah – Refugee Boy


This book starts with two almost identical chapters – one in Ethiopia, one in Eritrea. This is where the main man Alem is introduced – his Dad sends him to Great Britain as a refugee, being as his parents have a foot in either camp of the warring factions. Alem’s journey is unsurprisingly not a barrel of laughs, and the book is gritty, honest and at times difficult.

Alem experiences lots of problems as he tries to assimilate into British culture, building to an ending that fits in well with the rest of the book. It was published in 2001 but is just as relevant today.

I’d read this to my class but won’t be lending it to any of the children – there is some swearing that I’d be able to edit out if I was reading aloud.


20. Benji Davies – Grandad’s Island


Recommended by lots of people on Twitter, so I bought it despite not really knowing what it’s about. It’s heartfelt, and a thoughtful way of looking at death with younger children.


21. Markus Zusak – The Book Thief


I’d had this for a while but wanted to wait until the Easter break so I could get stuck into it. I initially found it difficult going as the narration had an unusual, stop-start style, but this soon passed and I found myself devouring chapter after chapter.

Liesel’s story takes in death, war, bravery, theft, naivety, friendship and loss, all through the voice of the narrator – Death. Her life is turned upside down as she is orphaned at the start of World War II and so is sent to live with the Hubermanns (Hans and the fearsome Rosa), of whom Hans becomes everyone’s grandad and an all-round wonderful beacon of light through the dust and dirt of the poverty in which they live.

Liesel steals, gets beaten at school and is pestered constantly for a kiss by her good friend Rudy. Unsurprisingly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s a hell of a journey.

A large portion of the story centres on the Hubermanns’ decision to shelter a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, the son of a man Hans Hubermann fought alongside in WW1. His presence allows the reader to see a different side to Rosa, and Liesel develops her own moral code and strength of character.

The power of words…


22. Morris Gleitzman – Once


Following The Book Thief, I thought this would be an apt read. Felix, a young Jewish-Pole, narrates his tale as he tries to escape occupied Poland, although his naivety and innocence is present throughout the book, meaning he doesn’t really know what it is he’s running from.

This changes when he meets Barney, a dentist who is secretly protecting children from the Nazis. Felix realises what is really happening – the ending is excellent and appropriate. Now I need to get the sequels.

There’s a lovely footnote from Gleitzman at the end of the book too.


23. David Solomons – My Brother Is A Superhero


I read the first chapter of this book to my class who loved it – it may well be our next class read. Luke’s older brother Zack suddenly and mysteriously gains six superpowers, though he doesn’t know what they all are. He and Luke agree that his pseudonym should be Star Lad, and he immediately shoots to fame when he prevents an accident outside his local comic store.

Cue Lara, a girl in Luke’s class who is determined to unmask Star Lad in order to satisfy her own ambitions as an up-and-coming journalist. Luke eventually sees her as a confidante, especially when Zack goes missing, and eventually the two work together to solve the mystery.

Solomons writes with lots of humour and clearly knows his comic-book history. Recommended.


24. Crystal Chan – Bird


I loved this book – really, really loved it – from the opening line to the very last word.

Jewel lives with her Mexican mother and her Jamaican father in what appears to be a fairly loveless and difficult arrangement, particularly as all concerned have never recovered from the loss of their son (Jewel’s older brother) John. There are arguments, silences and awkward moments provided by the most important character – her mute grandfather. Jewel makes lots of mention of her Grandpa and the silence of the house in beautiful yet sad ways:

I never really thought of Grandpa as someone who had feelings – with him being all silent, I just thought his heart was silent too. 

We meet a new boy who befriends Jewel, though her father and grandfather have doubts about the validity of this friendship.

Jewel feels as though she has never been fully accepted by her family in the light of their loss, and her friendship is the best thing she has ever had going for her. But her family’s misgivings lead to a climactic ending, and one that I don’t mind admitting shedding a few tears over.

A beautifully told story of acceptance, struggle and friendship.


25. Patrick Ness – The Rest Of Us Just Live Here


I didn’t understand this story at all, so this is what I think happens:

  • A group of teenagers are living in what seems to be modern society, though it is after the vampires and soul-eating ghosts have struck
  • Mike, the main character, is in love with his best friend Henna
  • Henna sometimes is and sometimes isn’t in love with Mike, but is in love with another boy called Tony, but ends up dating a guy called Nathan instead
  • Mike has another best friend, Jared, who is one quarter God and can heal things with his hands. He is also able to communicate with cats
  • Mike suffers with OCD; his sister once almost died from anorexia
  • Indie kids keep going missing
  • Blue lights keep appearing, both in the sky and in the eyes of people and animals

And that’s it. I couldn’t piece it all together, yet raced through the book hoping that something would make sense. It didn’t. The way it’s written lacks any real memorable description – it’s mostly dialogue (and a hell of a lot of brackets).

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has read this and enjoyed it – I’m sure I must have missed something…


26. Elizabeth Laird – The Garbage King


Set in Ethiopia, this story sees two boys from very different backgrounds develop a friendship in unlikely circumstances. Dani is rich, fat and fed up of the threats he receives from his father, so runs away from home, surviving on the bag of clothes and 20 birr he takes with him.

Mamo is from an altogether more modest background, and his story starts when he is spirited away from his sister to work as a slave in the countryside. He too runs away and eventually crosses paths with Dani, before the two of them join a street gang, scavenging piles of rubbish for clothes and begging for food.

The messages here are strong ones, commenting on social injustice and the true meaning of friendship, but for me the book never really got going. It was fine – the story moved along at a decent pace, the characters grew a little – but there just seemed to be a lack of emotion, almost as though it were a reporting of facts rather than a story from the heart.

I am looking forward to reading Welcome to Nowhere though.

#52books2017 – March

14. Kate Dicamillo – Raymie Nightingale

Rather than writing a short review, it’d be much better to read Martin Galway’s blog where you can see what he made of it. As I said to him, sometimes I worry that an inflated expectation of a book (or anything at all) can too often end in disappointment.

This is not the case here.

15. Sara Pennypacker – Pax

The story starts with Peter and Pax (Peter’s pet fox) being forcibly separated by Peter’s father.

As a result, Peter runs away, meeting one of my favourite characters of all the books I’ve read so far. Vola comes across as blunt, stoic and no-nonsense. Her layers are gradually peeled away as she teaches Peter more than he’d ever expect.

Meanwhile Pax is busy learning how to be a fox, something he struggles with – however, he does understand the value of trust and friendship.

Set against the backdrop of impending war, the story is ultimately one of two individuals finding themselves whist trying to find one another.

16. Lisa Thompson – The Goldfish Boy

This reminded me a lot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, featuring as it does a boy who struggles with the normality of the outside world. The main protagonist, Matthew, suffers with OCD, so much so that he seldom goes outside, instead watching the world go by from his bedroom window.

When a toddler on Matthew’s street goes missing, Matthew thinks he has the answers. He inevitably gets to the bottom of things thanks to some surprising help, and the source of his OCD is finally revealed – the last chapter is a bit of a tear-jerker.

17. Ross Mackenzie – The Nowhere Emporium

This is all adventure from the word go. Daniel stumbles across a shop – the Nowhere Emporium – that nobody else can see, meaning Daniel has something that others don’t.

Daniel is trained by Mr Silver, the owner, and becomes able to explore more of the labyrinthine Emporium, a place where rooms can be created based on your wildest dreams and desires.

Daniel repeatedly loses and gains Mr Silver’s trust but does befriend his daughter Ellie. The two of them work together to quickly deduce that Mr Silver is in trouble and work together to try and save him, the Emporium, and themselves.

The story is rich in language and would certainly be one a year 5 or 6 class would enjoy.

18. Kate Dicamillo – The Magician’s Elephant

A short-ish story based around a boy who wants to find his sister, and is told he can by following the elephant. So he does.

This is a playful book, full of dry humour and amusing conversations between an interesting cast of characters.

Talk for Writing in Y6

I’ve encountered a few comments recently about Talk for Writing around whether (or how) T4W works in year 6. I thought this might be useful for one or two people.

Talk for Writing is split into three parts, on which there is more here.

This 6 week block was based on Tales of Fear (fiction) and Reports (non-fiction).

Tale of Fear: Imitation

We shared the short version of our story ‘Jack‘ with the children, and the first week saw them mapping and learning the text.

The trick here was to encourage them to internalise some language, but particularly to look at sentence structure. This was talked about as we learned the text, but looked at more deeply when we shared the longer version – the children were able to give reasons for longer, more complex sentence structures which were then followed by short, dramatic changes.

This discussion around sentence structure allowed us to develop the children’s understanding of a wider range of punctuation as well. From here, a toolkit was made (to my mind, a toolkit is what could be included, not what has to be included – as per success criteria). The toolkit has the tools used in the learned text (e.g. repetition) alongside a directly-lifted example, as well as, if possible, the impact it has.

Reading around the text

Spotting tricks

Initial toolkit

When the children engaged in reading as a reader activities, they were quick to notice that things were deliberately hidden from the reader, and questions were raised about whether the creak was a ghost/spirit, a noise made by Jack’s dad as he went to work, or simply Jack’s imagination running wild. This is easily my favourite part of the unit as the children have so many ideas about the story and really get their teeth into it.


After our analysis of the text, we boxed up (see picture below) the story so that we could then plan our own. Some children will innovate through simple substitution – the creak might be replaced by a shadow, for instance – while others might write from a different point of view, or even attempt to write a prequel or sequel to the learned text.

Boxing up based on the imitation text

Throughout this week, I model my planning process, writing part-by-part. Here is a perfect opportunity to wean the children away from five paragraphs, which a lot of them will get stuck with, and on to a deeper understanding of what a paragraph is and does, or how one sentence is allowed to act as a paragraph. There is a lot of modelled and shared writing here – I write part of the story before the lesson, the children analyse it (I drop in deliberate spelling mistakes or SPAG targets from that week), and then we write the next part together, all the while talking about vocabulary, impact of sentence structure and referring back to the toolkit.

Annotated version of my text, written with the children

The children then wrote their own stories innovated from the text.

Innovated writing: sticking fairly closely to the original text, developing own language and voice while also playing with structure

Peer feedback with reference to the toolkit


Simply put, this is the part where the children plan and write their own stories independently.

As a stimulus, we read the opening chapters of A Monster Calls, The Graveyard Book and Where Monsters Lie; we shared picture books where fear is an active element, such as The Dark (Lemony Snicket), The Watertower and The Viewer (both Gary Crew); watched videos such as Alma and Road’s End; and also did a short burst piece of writing using two clips – the first was personifying fear and the second was somebody trying to conquer theirs. We looked for the physical manifestations of fear as well as how it might feel – vocabulary such as oppressive, suffocating and paralysing were developed from this short session, which led to a short burst piece of writing.

An invented tale of fear – this writer did not reveal what was scaring the narrator, nor what happened to them – the class were desperate for more

The best part of this week is the sharing of the texts – children take turns to read aloud to their small group and we hear the familiar moans of ‘oooh, it can’t finish there!’ and ‘I want to know what happens next’. The constant sharing of one another’s texts gives greater value to the children’s writing and also encourages and maintains a high standard.

Developing language

Reports – Imitation

We wrote a short report on fears so that we could link easily to our fiction text. As with the imitation week for the fiction work, we learned the text, looking particularly at the vocabulary, punctuation and sentence structure. We really wanted the children to develop a formal voice within their writing throughout this unit, so the imitation week was important in developing vocabulary and an understanding of the active and passive voice.

Looking carefully at new and unknown vocabulary

Explaining writer choices

Once more, we devised a toolkit of the features we found and showcased them with working examples.


Some of the children were keen to write about their own fears, or fears they had heard of, but others went a bit further, bringing in books about different phobias. We shared these as a class and then set about planning our own report, this time on unusual fears. We looked at how the imitation text was structured, which the children decided was thus: define the fear, explain its causes, share symptoms then report on medical advice. Therefore, that’s how we planned.

Shared planning (before boxing up)

A simple boxing up ahead of innovation

I wrote my own text, introducing fears of broccoli, a loss of mobile phone signal and the rain, and the children seemed to really enjoyed helping me with this before writing their own too. Again, we did a lot of modelled and shared writing here, always considering what made our writing formal and what made it less so. I was pleasantly surprised to hear children explaining that the use of the second person was ‘too chatty – it’s just like you’re talking to your mate and you don’t sound like an expert’.

My annotated innovation – the pink writing is what the children have edited for me

Developing a formal tone

This child finds punctuation tricky, but here they are using complex, deliberately-structured complex sentences to show formality


As before, the children planned and wrote their own reports, some using their own passions and interests; others using our topic week as a starting point.

Over the six weeks, we had covered the vast majority of the English writing curriculum, as well as parts of the reading curriculum.

Other notes

  • We have separate reading and grammar lessons which are tailored to support each week’s learning. For example, we did short burst sessions on using colons during our grammar session of report writing (week 2), and in week 1 of the same block read lots of different report-based texts.
  • It is vital that you write your own text first – don’t just write it cold. Know what you want to write, but be prepared to let the children tweak it. Explain your choices throughout.
  • Ensure the children have enough time to plan carefully, and if they’re unsure, to plan with you. Poor planning generally equates to poor writing.

Hopefully this has been of some use – it isn’t ground-breaking, nor difficult. What it definitely offers is an easy way to teach vast swathes of the curriculum to year 6.

#52books2017 – February

6. Haruki Murakami – Wind/Pinball

Being a massive Murakami fan, I’d been looking forward to reading this for a while without ever really making it a priority to do so. The two stories are the first he wrote: Hear the Wind Sing lacks much strength in structure for me, but Pinball 1973 shows Murakami finding his writing style. Probably one only for the Murakami aficionados.

7. Lara Williamson – The Boy Who Sailed the World in an Armchair

My class loved Lara’s first book – A Boy Called Hope – and one of the boys in my class lent his copy of this title to me.

Lara writes with humour and heartache in equal measure, and her writing style reminds me of Frank Cottrell-Boyce. A really easy read and a great reflection on modern life.

Further to writing books, Lara is active on Twitter – she has emailed our class and sent messages on several occasions – a great author and lovely lady to boot!

8. Dave Eggers – The Circle

I loved this book. It is set in a frighteningly-near future, one where ‘The Circle’ is an all-encompassing tech company, reaching into everyone’s lives as they use The Circle to pay for things, to check in to places, to connect socially and to generally live.

Sounds familiar?

The plot follows a new employee, Mae Holland, as she travels deeper and deeper into The Circle’s, erm, inner circle, as the tech becomes ever-so-slightly more intrusive.

9 and 10. Gary Crew – Memorial / Caleb 

I love Gary Crew’s picture books and managed to pick these two books for next to nothing. Memorial is a sombre affair about keeping memories of war alive, and is co-written by Shaun Tan. Caleb is a longer story, showing a great change in character as the mysterious, insect-obsessed Caleb enters the narrator’s life, causes a bit of a commotion then strangely disappears.

11. Neil Gaiman – The Day I Swapped My Father for Two Goldfish

As literal a title as you’ll find – almost a fairy tale and an easy structure for younger children to follow. A boy trades his dad for two goldfish and then has to retrace his steps to get him back. A nice, straight-forward comment on family life.

12. Alex Wheatle – Crongton Knights

I read this purely on the basis that I could share it with my class. Sadly, I don’t think I can, despite it being an excellent novel, following the troubled life of McKay, whose father has been lying about something and whose older brother is getting further and further into trouble. It reminded me a little of a modern-day Stand By Me.

A great narrative but the language and some of the content would be unsuitable for my year 6 class.

13. G.R. Gemin – Sweet Pizza

Joe has one mission: to stop his mum selling the cafe that so many locals depend on – or at least, used to. A thoughtful and heart-warming story that shows the strength and love a community can create.

#52books2017 – January

I’ve loved the 52 books challenge – it has directed me back towards my neglected book collection, though my wallet is beginning to moan a little.

1. Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere

If wanted to read more of Gaiman’s work for a while, particularly after loving The Graveyard Book, so started here. It is set initially in today’s London, with main protagonist Richard finding his way into a mysterious (and initially confusing) underworld, meeting characters such as Door and the Hunter who help guide him in his new surroundings. It took me a while to get into it but ended up being very enjoyable – a tale of friendship, adventure and coming-of-age.

2. A.F. Harrold – The Imaginary

I loved this book. It’s a story about Amanda and her imaginary friend, Rudger, who end up in more trouble than they realise when they cross paths with the bewitching Mr Bunting. Emily Gravett’s illustrations add to the tale; I can’t wait to read this with my class.

3. John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

Having bought my headteacher A Monster Calls for Christmas, she insisted I read this as it was also sad and so I’d therefore like it. I enjoyed it. It was an easy read – very straightforward to follow and what happened was quite obvious. Not as moving as A Monster Calls but a well-written insight into the suffering illness can bring.

4. Brian Bilston – You Took The Last Bus Home 

A Christmas gift from my wife as I’d become slightly obsessed with Bilston’s Twitter output. Christmas Day mainly consisted of my surprise recitals, and I’ve since shared Refugees and Frisbee with my class. The collection is generally humour-based but so many poems are written in such a clever way. Made me love poetry again, while simultaneously making me jealous.

5. Polly Ho-Yen – Where Monsters Lie

I was delighted to pick this up in Oxfam for £1.99. I loved The Boy in the Tower and didn’t know Ho-Yen had a follow-up. Similar themes are apparent, such as mysterious, unexplained happenings (which remain deliberately left unexplained throughout), friendships and disappearances. Not as strong as the debut novel – I felt there wasn’t as much tension – but a good read nonetheless.

That’s it for now. Five down, 47 to go. I’ve got a pile of ‘to-read’ books taller than I am (which might not be saying much). I’m enjoying reading more and am (coincidentally?) sleeping much better too.

Reflecting on writing 

We have been spending a lot of time reflecting on our choices, explaining our methods and expanding on our thoughts in maths recently. It made me wonder why we don’t do the same when writing.

Over the last week we have been writing fantasy stories, set in far-off distant kingdoms, under the sea, inside volcanoes and, erm, on a football pitch (we talked about this). The children have enjoyed this but some have found it hard, particularly as writing fantasy stories relies heavily on creating a whole new world, and, ideally, a new fantastic point of view.

So the children have been busily imagining predators and prey, hunters and faeries, merbabies and Giders (a gorilla crossed with a spider),  and as such have been trying to do the old ‘paint a picture’ thing – something they realise is more important than ever as nobody has actually ever visited their land other than themselves, in their heads.

We’ve encouraged the children to explain why they have chosen certain words or phrases in order to write more deliberately and effectively. Some examples are below.



This was an interesting exercise, not least because it shows at least one child is unsure about what a metaphor is, but because after writing these comments, lots of the children went away and changed what they had written. They edited, improved and rewrote. Some children loved their feedback partner’s idea so much that they ‘magpied’ part of it for themselves. Writing improved. Description improved. Children made deliberate choices – and, thanks to the blog, they were writing for the reader, not just the teacher. This has obvious links to reading as we begin to prepare for SATs, as well as developing understanding for the grammar terminology. 

In addition, we (and when I say we, I really mean the children) quickly put together some videos on iMovie using photos, videos and the voiceover option (click here to see these). They were really easy to do and lots of the other children want to do the same when they’ve finished describing the shark that turns a cloud into gold with its death-ray.

Writing is fun, isn’t it?

Header image taken with permission from Sweetie187