Teaching Reading: How a Children’s Book Club for Teachers Helps

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It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and a group of adults are having a lively discussion in the corner of a cafe. They all have a copy of the same book, and to a passer-by it looks like any other book club.

However, upon closer inspection, the book seems a bit below their reading age: Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman.

This is Reading teachers = Reading students (RTRP)a book club with a twist.

Created in 2016 by Ali Mawle, Co-Chief Executive of Cheltenham Festivals, RTRP is an initiative developed to help teachers find relevant and interesting new books to read with their class.

While the national curriculum states that teachers should teach a “wide range of fiction, poetry, drama, non-fiction and reference books or textbooks” at key step 2, and cover a wide range “of genres, historical periods, forms and authors” to KS3teachers are left to their own devices when choosing specific books – something some would appreciate support with.

“As a former elementary school teacher, Ali was aware that teachers didn’t have a lot of time to research contemporary books and good book recommendations,” says Rebecca Smith, Learning and Engagement Manager. Cheltenham Festivals.

At the same time, she says, Mawle also knew there was “a lot of research on reading for pleasure, a very important tool for getting children out of difficult situations and boosting social mobility.” This prompted her to set up a book club trial in Gloucestershire.

In the years since, RTRP has expanded beyond the county and there are now 50 groups across the UK.

A book club for teachers: how does it work?

So how exactly does the program work? And what are the benefits for teachers and their students?

At the moment the clubs serve teachers from KS2 and KS3 – but there are plans to expand to KS1.

Each year, a group of experts made up of people working in the children’s literature sector, teachers and leaders send a long list of books to Cheltenham festivals, which then compiles a shortlist taking into account the diversity genres, authors and characters. Together, the jury then selects five books per key stage for teachers to read and discuss in book clubs.

Every October there is a launch event to reveal the first book – and throughout the year teachers learn what they will read next at their club meetings.

Meeting times and locations depend on each book club, but often meetings are held in libraries and cafes and last about an hour and a half on weekday afternoons starting at 4 p.m. It’s up to teachers to decide when they read the books – but most do so in their spare time.

For Jane Avery, teacher at St James’ C of E Primary, Cheltenham, well worth the personal time investment.

“There are so many things you need to do as a teacher, and the reading group protects those 90 minutes of CPD around literacy,” she says. “You can talk about books with people who also love books, who have great ideas on how to teach them in the classroom. It’s just that it’s CPD like nothing else: you’re not being lectured per person; it is a shared understanding and interest.

During meetings, teachers are encouraged to use Aidan Chambers’ approach to talking about the bookand explain how they would use the books in the classroom.

Sarah Cooksley, Learning and Engagement Manager at Cheltenham Festivals, says organizers wanted teachers to use an easily replicable technique with pupils.

“The idea [behind Chambers’ method] is that it is a non-hierarchical book conversation, using a “tell me” approach. At first it focuses on likes and dislikes, then readers carefully explore meaning more deliberately through puzzles and patterns,” she explains. “There are basic prompts: ‘tell me what you liked, what you didn’t like’, but it breaks down into structural questions about things like characters, themes, connections and hang on.”


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The Benefits of Book Clubs

So what do club teachers think?

Cheltenham Festivals surveyed teachers involved in the RTRP this year and found that after taking part 86% said they were more enthusiastic about reading children’s literature and 80% said that were more confident choosing books to read with their class (see box below).

Since joining the club, Avery has started her own book club with 6th graders using the same books, mirroring Chambers’ technique.

“Everything we do in the book group as adults is very transferable,” she says. “At the beginning, you have to encourage the children a lot more. But they actually really get into the thick of it and the conversation about the book then becomes very natural between them as they explore and find meaning with each other, and with you as an adult.

Teachers at her school now often incorporate previous year’s books into their curriculum. Cheltenham Festivals, she says, maintains a class set that a teacher can borrow for a semester.

At the end of each year, clubs come together for a regional sharing session, during which they discuss best practices and favorite books – and, sometimes, meet the authors..

As a result, teachers draw on ideas from others: when Cooksley was a teacher, for example, she heard about a book club for parents that another RTRP teacher had started and started one in her own school. Others then posted the cover of the book they are reading on the classroom door, to encourage students to discuss it with them.

The influence of RTRP, says Cooksley, increases as teachers become involved in the club.

“When a teacher first joins, they might bring a book into the class over the course of a year or make a book for a small group of children, but in the second and third year you see yourself truly integrated into the culture, their classroom and their school. It’s starting to impact the design of the curriculum and the design of a school day, in which there are guided reading and group reading sessions,” she says.

Of course, teachers don’t necessarily need to join the Cheltenham Festivals book club to see these benefits: this model can be replicated, with adjustments, in your own school or MAT, to suit your own context.

So, as you look ahead to the new school year, it might be time to expand your reading list beyond the usual adult holiday reading and into the world of children’s literature.

You can find out about your local RTRP book club here.


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