Basing literacy lessons on one novel

Think back to that moment when your line manager or head teacher told you that there was money in the pot to buy new books. Think of your excitement when throwing out the tired and dated novels. Think of your panic when you realised that you would have to write a new scheme of learning, and the work that would entail. Take a moment to read my top tips for working with a new text.

1.      Read and read again

This has to be my absolute top tip! I will never forget the moment when, in the space of one year in teaching, I made not one, but two huge errors. I forgot to do two things. One- in a lesson observation, my class (15 and 16-year-olds) studied a poem. It was all going swimmingly until I told the class that an angle poise referred to a fish. Yes, you read that correctly…a fish! After the observation, my co-teacher told me that the lesson was fab, and didn’t make too much of a deal when she told me it was actually a lamp (like the Pixar one). I was mortified. Luckily, nobody in my class clearly knew what one was either, so I was spared the embarrassment, though I did confess to them the next day.

Two- in my next year of teaching, and another observation as part of the school’s monitoring, I decided to read a text aloud. It did not even occur to me then to have a look through the chapter and check that I knew exactly what was going on. Why would I? I was teaching 11-year-olds. However, in that text, there were several words that just would not allow themselves to be uttered. I stumbled over them, felt like a fool, and in the end just admitted to the class I couldn’t say the word. This time, one of them could. She was praised highly.

Neither of these situations ruined my career. Actually, I got very good feedback from both, but I have never since gone into a class without knowing with absolute certainty that nothing in the text would throw me. If you ever read Jane Austen’s Emma twice, you will know that an extra reading can make all of the difference to your understanding of both the characters and author’s craft. Read, and read again!

2.      Learn about the author

Finding out about an author has to be one of the most exciting things a class can do. Sure, it seems boring, but when you have gems like Roald Dahl describing snozberries, the inspiration can hit hard. Allow the children’s imaginations to run wild. I know that any time my students have said they want to be writers, or even teachers, I have felt excited on their behalf. What better job where you can create new worlds and characters every day? Dahl has done a marvellous job of inspiring generation after generation and his work seems ageless. Get the children to think about which events in an author’s life made them make the pivotal decision to write.

This is particularly important if you are studying a historical text because what the author was doing at the time can be featured in much of their work- take Shakespeare as an example. Bin the biography, and ask students to really consider what made authors jack in regular money to start their writing career.

3.      Know the context in which the text was written

Another important one, which can be missed. If you don’t know what was happening historically when the text was written, then you are likely to miss the nuances within a text. Look how relevant 1984 still is, and how it still speaks to new readers decades after it was written. In fact, if you can choose a text that is as relevant today as when it was written then your students will start to appreciate how authors can change the minds of the masses.

A really good novel that incorporates both is King of Shadows by Susan Cooper where a boy is transported back in time and meets Shakespeare. Although this novel is quite dated now, I found it brilliant in terms of author’s craft. Another is Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman- because although it was written twenty years ago, the changes in technology and medicine at that time gave Blackman the inspiration to create a moral dilemma for her readers.

4.      Bookmark the best passages

There is nothing worse than wanting to share a scene or chapter with a class only to realise that you can’t find it. I try to find different passages to illustrate different things. For example, if there is a setting description that can be used to inspire your class use that rather than sticking to working with a chapter at a time.

However, for the children to really get an understanding of the novel or text, it is best that you find the time to read it through in its entirety.

One brilliant way to determine how much the character has changed over the course of a text is to ask the children to read the first and last chapter of the class text- though make sure you do this at the end of the scheme otherwise you may give away some of the plot! As an exercise, it is fantastic because we always want to encourage children to create rounded and believable characters- and this is one sure fire way of doing it.

5.      Decide on the types of written text you will teach

If you really want to teach the entire text, then you must ensure that enough time has been set aside to do this. As a secondary teacher, I had a huge number of texts available, but some were just far too long to get through- even in a half term. Think about what you want to get from the text before you even begin. It may be that you have to juggle around outcomes to ensure that you study it in a great amount of depth.

As an English teacher, we usually analysed the text first and did writing tasks secondary to this whereas the writing tasks are more important in primary. Think about what reading outcomes you can cover rather than just focusing on the writing side of things. Guided reading lessons can be based on the text rather than a range of other resources.

6.      Think about ways to engage the children with your new text

If you have been comfortable in teaching a text for years, it can be daunting to start again. However, the children will only be as passionate as you are. Devote your display to it, and allow the children a range of activities to complete once they have read the text (either partially or fully). Character profiles, a new ending and letters to the author will encourage your class to think about what they are reading in a new way. It will help them to develop innate analytical skills too.

If you want to encourage your children to read widely then why not download my Mind the Gap project book aimed at getting children to read for enjoyment. 

About the author: Now an English consultant, Jill formerly worked as both a secondary Head of English and a primary teacher.

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