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Whole books beat extracts hands down!

By Ruth Merttens

A conversation with Ed Finch

Full video at the end of this blog

Ed has long been a fan of using whole books rather than extracts when teaching English to primary children.

“Why is this?” I asked him.

“Well, although extracts seem easier and – so the argument goes – you can select a short text to focus on the particular aspect of the English curriculum that you want to cover, nonetheless there are just so many reasons for using a whole book over a longer period. For a start, you then see any extract you select for focused work in its context. Extracts removed from context lose so much, and severely limit the scope of the learning. To me,” Ed explains, “studying an extract without reading the book is like studying the heart without looking at the whole body. Ed leans in to his argument, “Furthermore, children love stories, they really enjoy a book read with enthusiasm by a teacher who knows it well and loves it. It’s really important,” he stresses, “that teachers choose books they are passionate about. The quality of teaching of a whole variety of topics on the English curriculum that you get from this is reflected in the quality of the children’s work.”

“What about the fact that some children may love the story that you have chosen, but others may not be nearly so keen?” I ask. “Won’t I have a number of children who are bored and do not want to listen?”

“That depends on your making it not boring!” Ed is adamant. If you read the book in an interesting way, doing all the voices and making it lively, no one has time to be bored! We’re literacy professionals – reading is what we do well.”

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When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed.
Check out the three weeks of teaching with Year 5 or Year 6 children.

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“So, Ed,” I want to pursue some of the implications behind what Ed is saying. “Are you an equally big fan of reading a longer story or a novel to children outside the English lesson – just for fun, as you might say?”

“I certainly am. It can be just the nicest part of the day when the teacher reads a story to the class just for the pleasure of it, and this may be the only time that some children get to listen to a story read aloud with energy and enthusiasm. The evidence is clear about the positive effects on children’s education, and not only on their literacy. Fortunately, OFSTED are also clear about the benefits and they not only applaud this practice, they also look for it and are disappointed if it is not in place.” Ed pauses, as he recalls some of his own experiences reading to his class. “Sometimes, although I was reading the story with no thought of getting any formal English task out of it, an opportunity for just that would arise. I remember when I was reading The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, I reached the part where Chaya is in prison. The children were so excited to think how she might escape that they started telling me all their predictions. Then some of them suggested plans of escape, and, before I knew it, I had a wonderful opportunity to get them writing predictions, escape plans and other things too. So, the advantages are many and sharing a book with the class is not only good for children, I really believe that it’s good for teachers as well.”

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See the three weeks work for Year 5 or Year 6 on The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook.

“How about oral storytelling?” I ask Ed. “Do you think that this traditional practice has a place in primary schools.”

“Of course, it does,” responds Ed. “But it isn’t easy. I know myself that teachers need training in how to tell an oral story well.”

“Despite the fact that it takes a skill that has to be taught, when you actually tell a story to your class, the difference between that and reading a book is huge. When you read a book by, say, Malorie Blackman, that is her book; it is her words, and although you can and do put your own spin on it, and read it in your own way with your own intonation, voices, etc. nonetheless, it remains her book. But when I tell the story of the Sleeping Beauty or the Dragon Dinosaur, it is my story. I make it my own. Making stories our own is a very important thing – children want their own authorial voices and oral stories are a wonderful way to give them these. Sometimes these oral stories can capture children’s imaginations in a way that even a picture book may not do – they are inventing their own images for the characters and the setting, and their writing will reflect their ownership of the story.”

See Hamilton’s bank of oral stories on YouTube including Sleeping Beauty and Dragon Dinosaur.

“Well, thank you so much, Ed. I really am enthused all over again by hearing you speak and hope that teachers will be in touch if they want to join in this conversation.”