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Teaching Phonics is Only a Start; Fluency and Comprehension Required

TeacherTapp’s revelation that reading every day by primary school teacher was not as common as I thought has spurred me on with respect to reading, as an entitlement, at our two primary academies.  In a previous blog post, actions taken at St Mary’s to overcome reading difficulties that impacted upon comprehension across the curriculum were shared.

The key change implemented was the introduction of a Literacy Canon – a core set of texts that are encountered by all children as they proceed through each year of high school.  While teachers at St Mary’s are rightly determined to overcome the reading difficulties that children arrive with, in part, through the use of the literacy canon, the extension of it into the academy’s primary schools will lead to more children arriving at the high school with good reading comprehension.

Before the current academic year, there were few texts that were read year in, year out in both primary schools. Class teachers made decisions on which books would be studied in their classes, often linking books to topics, or reading texts that were chosen by the children. Novels would sometimes be chosen one year, then replaced by another choice a year later. The implementation of the canon has meant that a set of five non-fiction texts has been chosen for each year group to study, bringing greater stability to the teaching of reading, as well as clear progression in text difficulty from one year group to the next.

When selecting these texts, the primary literacy team ensured that texts from a variety of different authors were chosen.  Each class set includes at least one novel considered a classic, and at least one novel set in a different culture.  The other important consideration was that the chosen texts needed to challenge pupils by exposing them to literature written in different styles.  As such, Doug Lemov’s ‘Five Plagues of the Developing Reader’ section from Reading Reconsidered’ was used.  Children will now study texts that fall under each of the ‘five plagues’: archaic texts, texts with non-linear time sequences, texts with complex narration, texts with complex plot structures, and resistant texts (novels that the author has set out to make difficult to understand).  Coming up against a range of challenges should support children’s ability to access different text types when reading for pleasure or for academic purposes.  While we do not discourage children from reading popular fiction in their free time, one of the aims of the canon is to empower children to be able to access and enjoy a wider variety of literature. Pupils are free to read ‘Diary of A Wimpy Kid’ or David Walliams’ novels, but are also prompted to select other books that are written by authors of the canon texts or books that have similar themes to those texts.

Primary Literary Canon by Class (Y6 at the top) with non-fiction yet to be added

Unlike the high school, where canon texts are encountered during form time, both primary schools have used the texts in whole-class guided reading.  The weekly guided reading cycle has also had alterations made to it and its format has been made uniform across Key Stage 2.  There now exists a clear focus on using non-fiction links and explicit vocabulary teaching in order to give children ample background knowledge to help them have a clearer understanding of each canon text.  Teachers have collaborated to plan quality reading sessions that will support next year’s class teachers should they be new to the texts or experiencing them for the second year.

To support teachers in choosing relevant non-fiction to pre-teach, knowledge organisers have been developed. These one-sheet guides also earmark themes and discussion points that teachers and their classes can get their teeth into when studying the novels.

One sheet guides

Over the next few months, the literacy team will be expanding the canon further. Firstly, Key Stage 1 canon texts will be finalised and rolled out in Years 1 and 2.  Following that, non-fiction texts will be chosen and added to the canon.  Towards the end of the academic year, we will also be evaluating the initial impact of the canon.  Realistically, it will take time for the full impact to be felt throughout the Trust but we are excited to be taking the first steps towards improving the reading comprehension of our pupils.

Thanks to Matt Collins, one of our Literacy Leads, for writing the above.  This work sits alongside on-going development of the curriculum; another key aspect of creating really good readers.



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