This summer Lou Kuenzler from London’s City Lit Writing Children’s Books Workshop sent us some of her students’ work. As Verna and I discussed the pieces, we found ourselves constantly referring to what children would make of them. It gave us the idea to ask children directly, thereby giving them the chance to participate in the making of the books they read.
Lou was happy to let us run with the idea. I talked to Phil Brett a Y5 teacher at Bruce Grove Primary School if he was interested in working on this with his class. He readily agreed and set aside a literacy session for it. He chose three extracts, aimed at children of 10 and under, so that his Y5s would have a range of writing styles to consider and all children in the class would be able to participate.
We explained to the children that the extracts we were going to look at were written by adults who go to a class to learn and practise how to write – just like children do at school! The class found this idea intriguing and they expressed delight at the notion that they could tell authors what they were doing right… or wrong.
The children all joined in with the class discussion and were clearly inspired by the idea of helping adult authors. They had strong views and didn’t always feel that the material in the stories was “appropriate”, especially in the books for readers younger than themselves. They had a lively debate about use of language and what they thought was difficult. Every child in the class participated in the lively discussion session.
When we asked “What is reading for?” Mr Brett and I were saddened that the first few answers were all about learning and vocabulary expansion. The children are pressurized, even at primary age, to pass exams and reach government set levels. They have learned that adults want them to show that they are eager to improve their skills. At last, one child said he read for fun, at which point many of the others admitted they did too.
The whole class settled down happily to write comments on the extracts. I told them I was going to pass their work back to Lou to share with the authors. This acted as a huge motivator and every child was keen to write down their thoughts so they could interact with the authors. They made predictions about possible endings and suggested ideas. They all expressed an interest in reading the next part of the stories to see how they turned out…
The children are clearly already conscious of the weight of the written word. Several asked for help in finding the best way of phrasing their opinions, so that they wouldn’t hurt the writer’s feelings or sound rude.
The children were engaged throughout the session and Mr Brett was delighted at their response, as was Lou! We hope to repeat the exercise next term and Lou has promised to keep us informed of how her students get on.