The Book Whisperer

I have just finished reading (and taking a lot of notes!) on this inspiring and easy to read book by Donalyn Miller.


Donalyn Miller is a sixth grade teacher in the US with a huge passion for students becoming lifelong readers and she adopts some unconventional approaches to meet this aim.

She argues for the importance of independent reading where children have free choice over texts and regular sustained reading time (and related discussion) rather than reliance on skills based commercial schemes, or comprehension worksheets. Her students gain high scores on the reading tests year after year with her ‘reading freedom’ approach.

She sets her students the challenge of reading forty books during the year with her (aiming to select from a range of genres) to ensure that everyone always has a book on the go, both reading at home and in their class time in school. She is an avid reader herself and reads lots of children’s literature to ensure that she can make personalised recommendations to her children but also encourages peer recommendations through short ‘book commercials’ in the classroom where a student can  recommend and review a book they have read to the rest of the class.

A few other great ideas and values from the book:

-time for reading is well spent. The question should not be ‘how can we make time for independent reading?’ rather ‘how can we not?’ Independent reading time shouldn’t just be used for behaviour management or as an add on.

-an effective reading teacher needs to be a role model and enjoy reading regularly themselves, including children’s books. (See Lundberg and Linnakyla, 1993 for the link between the reading habits of teachers and reading achievements of their students).

-It’s good to discuss how we select books:  ‘I choose short books’ / ‘I only read fantasy books’ / ‘I like to read some books over and over’ / ‘I read the ending first and then if I like it I read the whole book’ …these are all valid choices. You can also highlight with the children that the book everyone else is raving about might be the one you just can’t get on with. Reading is a very individual thing. Equally, we can agree when children say some books are boring, that’s true. If they think all books are boring, then they just haven’t found the right ones yet!

-Its important to acknowledge the ‘less than highbrow’ choices (‘diary of a wimpy kid’ or ‘captain underpants’ spring to mind) and to validate popular fiction which gets many reluctant children reading. Just as adults will sometimes enjoy popular fiction too, these choices should be supported by teachers and then we can encourage them to branch out and broaden their repertoire of books.

‘to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life’

W. Somerset Maugham

The Book Whisperer

Some great reads

Three very simple and obvious tips to help your class love reading:

  1. Give them time every day to read (lots of schools adopt  DEAR – ‘drop everything and read’ or ERIC – ‘everyone reading in class’ as a whole school approach to this)
  2. Read aloud to your class every day, even upper KS2.
  3. Make sure your children have access to some great books in the classroom and that you choose books to read aloud to your class that you and they will enjoy (your enthusiasm for the book is important too) and are good quality texts.

I have created a ‘good reads’ list for foundation stage through to year 6 that can be used as a bit of inspiration or for teachers that might not feel totally confident with children’s literature. It can also be helpful to plan what books children are getting access to beyond texts used in literacy and think about creating a read aloud programme.

Please contact me directly if you would like the full list which includes books that might appeal to boys, graphic novels, non fiction, poetry, classics, picture books for KS2 and early reader options.

Here are a few of my favourites:


The terrible thing that happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne (author of ‘The boy in the striped pyjamas’) is one of my all time favourites  and my son and I have read this twice already. It’s a heartwarming story essentially about embracing difference but also involves a great adventure as Barnaby, a boy who floats, ends up travelling around the world meeting other people who don’t quite fit in either.


F.S / KS1:

The Something by Rebecca Cobb (illustrator of Paper Dolls)

‘Underneath the cherry tree in our garden there is a little hole…’ The boy wonders what could be down there, and his family and friends all offer different ideas about what might be living in the hole. Could it be a troll? Or a dragon’s den? Clever illustrations  help to tell the story which provides lots of opportunities for children to use their imagination. There are also children of different ethnicities and wheelchair users depicted giving a welcome sense of diversity.



There are no cats in this book by Viviane Schwarz

A really fun and original book with pop ups, fold out pages and a few other surprises along the way. Three cats in the book are desperate to get out and explore the world but need the reader to help them. A great book for developing print awareness, exploring speech bubbles and challenging traditional book conventions. It is perfect for emergent readers. You can watch the youtube clip of the author reading the text. If your class enjoy this then there is also the original ‘There are cats in this book’ to enjoy too. For similar books that also are original and interactive see ‘Press Here’ by Herve Tullet and ‘The book with no pictures’ by B. J Novak.



Some great reads

Book Corner checklist

Easily forgotten as term gets busy with assessment, parents meetings, trips and assemblies..the list goes on, but great book corners are an absolute classroom essential, upper Key Stage Two included.

  • Think about range of books/ reading material in your class book corner: fiction, non-fiction, stories from around the world, dual language texts, comics, poetry, wordless picture books, graphic novels, magazines,banded or levelled books that children can read independently, audiobooks etc
  • Storage: labelled baskets, shelves, story sacks etc -something inviting and accessible – can the children browse and flick through or are the books so tightly packed in to the box or shelf its hard for them to actually get one out? Ikea is great for cheap storage but it often ends up that everyone’s book corners look the same. H and M, and Dunelm Mill also do great cheap alternatives for something different.
  • Interactive/ reader response activities: story sacks, props and puppets, book review charts on clipboards, reader recommendation post-it notes  and bulletin boards etc
  • Inviting display that might feature ‘author of the month’, display related to current text, reading habits, recommendations, word wall etc
  • A themed and exciting or cosy book corner – den/ tent/ superheroes etc. It doesn’t even have to be a corner depending on the size and shape of your classroom, find the best area for the space you have.


Some tips for keeping your book corner looking good and working well all year:

-Train the children at the start of the year to tidy up after they’ve been in the book corner and how to access the books and resources in there. Actually model how to use it and the activities by doing a mini-tour / guide of the book corner. Appoint book corner monitors!

-Try and allocate some time for yourself or your TA to refresh the book corner every half term or so. As part of that, you could organise a rotation of books across your year group or key stage so every term or so each class gets a brand new book stock to enjoy.

-If you’re a Literacy c0-ordinator, be kind and allocate some time in one of your staff meetings or INSET’s for staff to work on book corners each term- if something is important (and reading for pleasure most definitely is) you need to give people the time to be able to do it well.

Have a look on my pinterest board for lots of book corner ideas.





Book Corner checklist

CLPE Reading and Writing Scales

A  recommendation- take a look at this out new and free to download from the CLPE. These new progress and assessment scales are well worth a look particularly in terms of getting a bit of a fresh perspective on writing and reading development separate from new curriculum / interim assessment/ life after levels stresses. The CLPE are great for working from a research basis in their recommendations and giving practical ideas for how to teach and encourage literacy skills. The scales describe what a reader/ writer at the various stages of development look like and suggestions for teaching at each of those stages.From beginning reader or writer through to developing, fluent and independent. It also gives some key principles underpinned by well-evidenced research.

These are some that I thought were particularly significant/ useful if you haven’t got the time to read the full thing!

  • Learning to read and writer are interdependent processes, making links between both helps both.


  • Comprehension taught from the earliest years in school makes a significant difference to children’s effectiveness as readers.
  • Teacher’s knowledge of high quality literature (both classic and contemporary) is crucial enabling teachers to make personalised and meaningful recommendations.
  • Children use fundamentally different processes to identify words as they make progress in learning to read ( not just phonics!- yes i said it!)




  • It is really important to write publicly alongside older children ( see my previous post on writing journals and teachers as writers in the classroom on this). Research shows children make progress in writing when their teachers engage in writing themselves, sharing experience and expertise with their classes.
  • As children become more independent they need to have regular opportunities, ideally daily, for extended writing including self directed writing.
  • Digital texts have a key role to play in school reading and writing and keyboard skills should be taught as well as handwriting skills. ( I think the curriculum is going to have to embrace multimodality in a much bigger way soon.)


And lastly, I couldn’t leave this one out in the current climate-

‘High stakes accountability testing has consistently been demonstrated to undermine teaching and learning, this is particularly true for low-acheiving students.’

Amen to that.











CLPE Reading and Writing Scales

Reading comprehension- a quick ‘how to’ Guide

Comprehension, or making meaning from texts is highly complex involving lots of higher order thinking skills and requires explicit teaching.

What does it look like?

  • Questioning
  • predicting
  • summarising
  • making connections (to your own experiences/ the wider world / other texts or characters)
  • monitoring or metacognition (knowing you’ve got stuck/something doesn’t make sense, knowing what to try and if it worked)
  • making inferences (clues from the text + your own background knowledge as a reader = inference)

When do you teach it? 

In shared reading, guided reading, reading conferences, whole class or guided group in Literacy lessons, throughout the curriculum.

How do you teach it?

1.Model it. You can voice the thoughts, questions and interactions a competent comprehender has with a text. This ‘thinking aloud’ on the part of the teacher is proven to be a powerful technique in comprehension strategy instruction.

2. Practise and apply with guidance: Provide lots of different tasks for children to explore and strengthen comprehension skills such as…

  • Independent reading journals to record personal reader response including letters to characters, summaries of events, story mapping etc
  • Drama – hot seating/ conscience alley/ readers theatre etc to explore character choices/ view points/ setting etc
  • Practise inference skills using film, picture books and day to day real life contexts
  • Structured group text work such as reciprocal teaching whereby each child is assigned a reading role: summarising, predicting, clarifying and questioning with the teacher reducing the leading and scaffolding as the children become more confident with the approaches.

3. Use high quality texts that are engaging  and will motivate the children to read, question and reflect.

For more training on effective teaching of comprehension under the new curriculum and end of Key Stage Tests contact:






Reading comprehension- a quick ‘how to’ Guide

“Writing is boring!”

First draft chapter of my dissertation just handed in, research study now underway so I’ve got writing journals well and truly on the brain! Here’s a quick run down of what they are and why you might want to give them a go when your children complain that ‘writing is boring’…

A writing journal is basically a notebook or folder dedicated to children’s  independent text making- with total freedom over what and how they write.

The journal sessions I am running for my research have with the following rules which the children agree to:

  1. I can choose what to write about and how I write it in my writing journal.
  2. I can choose to draw in my journal alongside my writing.
  3. I can choose to write with friends or on my own.
  4. I can choose where to sit when its writing journal time. (will see how long this rule stays in!!!)
  5. I can choose whether to share my writing with my class.
  6. I will listen to other people’s writing and be respectful.


Writing journal entries are not marked or responded to with written comments by the teacher (imagine!!) and time is allocated on a weekly basis for the whole class to journal usually for around half an hour depending on age group. Writing journals have been trialled through case studies and action research projects from Reception right through to Year 6.

These are the benefits:

  • children’s autonomy over their writing- including children choosing to redraft and edit when appropriate
  • children writing in a range of genres
  • children discovering their voice and identity as writers
  • fostering a strong writing community
  • increased enjoyment, confidence and engagement in writing
  • the opportunity to write for an extended period of time
  • marked progress in writing ability as measured by CLPE writing scales for many children (for more on this see Graham and Johnson, 2003/ 2012)

A few useful ideas:

Spend a session negotiating ground rules for journaling and giving children some ideas about what and how they might write before you get going, they could also be given some time to decorate their journals at this point to personalise them and give them a feeling of ownership.

Some teachers journal along with their children! Sounds scary but children then see you as a writer along with them and it gives real value to what they are doing.

If you want to read more, the UKLA do a minibook – Children’s Writing Journals by Graham and Johnson.  Go to publications and search for minibook series, there’s lots of other good ones there too and as the name suggests they don’t take too long to read but are packed full of good ideas and some theory behind them.

Happy journaling!




“Writing is boring!”

Planning Dread

Does anyone else get that sinking feeling when you know you’ve got to sit down to do your planning for the following week with a blank sheet in front of you? These are a few things I have found helpful to get me going when planning a unit of work or lesson…

-Start with a great text. There is so much amazing children’s literature around that can be perfect for inspiring writing, exploring genre, language etc.

-Start with the end!- think about what you want the learning outcomes to be for your children and the final piece of writing you’re aiming for each child to produce and then work back from that.

-Hook them in with a visual image, experience or art that gets them engaged from the outset and gives lots of opportunities for exploring language. The literacy shed is a great website with film clips for a variety of genres as a starting point for writing.

-scaffold the writing process through talk, drama (conscience alley / freeze frames / readers theatre / hot seating etc) leading into writing in role, drawing, mapping and stealing good ideas from example pieces of writing. Shared writing is also a brilliant way of modelling the writing process and ‘writerly thoughts’ around word choice / purpose. Support can also be given through writing frames, planners etc.

-Scaffold for only as long as is needed and then let the children get writing and have an extended time to do this on a regular basis.

-Think about choice and collaboration – children respond really well when they have an element of choice in what / how they write and present their written work. Writing with a clear and motivating purpose (and often audience too) is important.

-Choose how/ when / if to focus on the transcription elements of handwriting and spelling as part of the editing and evaluating process. The ‘publishing’ of the writing shouldn’t be a beautifully presented piece devoid of spelling mistakes every time- it could be the public reading of their writing with a focus on sharing and discussing of written drafts.












Planning Dread

Handwriting in the classroom


I blogged a few weeks ago about why handwriting is still important and the way in which a fluent and automatic handwriting style allows children to write more and write better. If children don’t have to think about the process of handwriting then that frees up brain power for attending to all the other tricky bits of writing and allows the composition side of things to take priority.


So how do you go about teaching handwriting in the classroom? A few ideas..

– in EYFS, opportunities to practise forming letters once fine motor control is reasonably secure can be given through play provision in a variety of areas and with a range of writing implements (whiteboard pens, paintbrushes of different sizes with water, forming letters in different textures in active trays, chalks etc)

-Teachers need to model and explicitly teach handwriting at some point during the week, little and often is the ideal I think. There are lots of different handwriting schemes with slightly different scripts and descriptions for how to form each letter or join but the main thing is consistency- adopt one approach as a school and ensure everyone is modelling it the same way

-make sure handwritten notices / headings / labels etc are on display in classrooms. I think there is less and less evidence of this these days as laminated sparklebox and twinkl ( to name a few!) readymade display signs seem to be all over every classroom but I think its really important children see handwritten signage and labels too.

-Think about when to make a big deal of handwriting and focus on other things at other times. So model that note taking or idea generating doesn’t need to be our best handwriting but a final published piece would do. Give children the opportunity to choose best pieces of writing ( in terms of composition) to be written up with neat handwriting and presentation. Handwriting and presentation / decoration choice can and should be an enjoyable thing – calligraphy etc.

-Lastly, don’t ignore keyboard skills! Children will be increasingly producing written work on computers alongside handwritten pieces. My course in touch typing during my A-levels has turned out to be invaluable although I wasn’t that enthusiastic at the time! Realistically, beyond primary school almost all written work will be keyboard based so its worth thinking about.






Handwriting in the classroom

Why make time for handwriting?

In the good old days when there was far less targets and testing for Key Stage One, I was able to do 20 minutes of handwriting time 3 times a week in my Year One class. The whole class would practice letter formation and spelling words (we didn’t teach joining at that stage then) and it seemed to really improve their writing – as well as being a nice calm start to the afternoon.

It feels like handwriting is often neglected these days due to the pressure of overpacked timetables and targets (again). I had a lecture on handwriting for my last MA module and it was interesting to be reminded about why its important.

So – a quick summary on what it’s all about:

  • Writing is a very cognitively demanding process and difficulties with handwriting are often one of the earliest constraints on writing development.
  • Berninger (1998) says handwriting is ‘language by hand’ and much more than just fine motor skills – it impacts fluency and composing of writing.
  • The aim is legibility, speed and automaticity.
  • It begins with gross motor skills in the early years (large movements with the arms and hands e.g twirling ribbons / chalks on walls / big construction / climbing apparatus) moving to fine motor (tweezer activities / playdoh / baking etc) to develop wrist strength and hand dexterity.
  • Boys often develop fine motor control later than girls.
  • The process of handwriting then begins to be about the 4 P’s: posture, paper position, pencil grip and pressure. Concentration and co-ordination are also important too.

I will post again in the next few weeks to think about the practical application of all this in the classroom, in the meantime I need to work on my own untidy scrawl as my Year 6’s keep telling me they can’t read my feedback in their books…



















Why make time for handwriting?

If not guided reading then what?!

I talked before about the difficulties of making the independent groups in guided reading effective and a few years ago, as Literacy leader and a teacher in Year One this proved to be a bit of a deal breaker and I decided to make a change. We basically abandoned the independent groups altogether in Year One classes and instead the GR group worked out of class with the teacher whilst the TA did some shared reading or story time. This had two big advantages – the GR group was so much  more focused without the interruptions and noise of the other groups and we were really struggling to have some daily story time that wasn’t a few snatched minutes at the end of the day – so a twenty minute dedicated shared reading time was a big bonus. The children started to really miss having time in the book corner to share books with friends so we allocated time in the day for each group to have their book corner time. All of this made a big contribution as well to our ‘reading for pleasure’ agenda. I still think this approach can be really worthwhile for Reception and Year One children who cannot yet work independently at reading tasks.

Another GR alternative which I think really benefits the older children is a whole class approach to reading. I came across some fantastic ideas and resources for this on blog and have since introduced this approach for Year 6 on the three mornings a week they are in sets. The advantages of this are the AF’s or whatever assessment criteria you are using can be taught explicitly and modelled which they really need in Key Stage Two. There is enough time for a focused written response from children too. Some schools do this as a dedicated hour long session, for us we do this for our three sets mornings for half an hour and then when they are back as a whole class on the other two days they return to normal guided reading groups with the carousel of activities.

Finally, a different way of approaching the guided group can be to try ‘reciprocal teaching’. This was devised by Palinscar and Brown (1984) as an intervention in small groups to improve comprehension skills for those children who were competent decoders but poor comprehenders. The key skills explicitly taught and used are:

  • making predictions
  • clarifying what has been read
  • questioning
  • summarising

As the children become confident in having a dialogue around the text under these headings the teacher moves from extensive leading and modelling to standing back more and instead facilitating the discussion amongst the children in the group. The idea is as the children hear the ‘thinking out loud’ of the comprehension processes they can then use these effectively for themselves.

Would love to hear of any alternatives to GR that have worked for other people?

If not guided reading then what?!