Picture the scene: it’s 9am on a Thursday morning, the Year 5s are sat with their Reading Buddies talking about what they’re currently reading. The room is buzzing, some children are smiling or laughing, others look intense, speaking in hushed tones, a few are gesturing wildly. They are all on task, showing the range of emotions books conjure. Then, one girl starts crying, not a little tear running down her cheek slowly, but huge heart-wrenching sobs.
The Class teacher and I exchange confused and worried glances before I take her off to my little room off the classroom, sit her down with tissues close by, hold her hands, and ask “what’s wrong?”
“I feel so as ashamed! I’m rubbish at reading. I don’t understand the same books as my friends, and they know I’m not as good as them because of the books I can read,” she blurted out.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of and I’m really sorry you feel like this. Tell me how I can help.”
“I know you have some lovely books on your shelf, but they are too hard.”
I sat there open mouthed, and actually felt a physical pain as my heart broke for her. This is a child who tries so hard. All the time. She perseveres with everything. And she does it all with a smile. Her self-esteem had just gone crashing through the classroom floor because she struggles to understand what she’s reading. And worse still, I knew I’d added to how she felt about herself, because I have a bookshelf of must reads that she simply can’t access.
“Now I know that isn’t true*. There’s one there I know you’ll love, and I know you’ll be able to understand it. I only brought it in on Monday. Let’s have a look at it together.”
She gave me a weak smile, and nodded. I went to fetch the book. Her eyes lit up at the cover, and she read the blurb faultlessly. I then showed her the glossary at the back and told her I’d had to use it to understand the technical words used to make the book feel more realistic. We read the first chapter together. We practiced again how to work out the meaning of new words from the sentence they’re used in.
I promised her we’d read the whole book together, a little every day. She was smiling again; she had a book she could talk about with her Reading Buddies that wouldn’t make her feel bad about herself, and we had a plan.
*I also promised to find more books for my book shelf that she could enjoy by herself, because actually, she does have a very valid point. Most of my books are a bit too daunting for her just now. I need to make a much bigger effort to find hi interest low level books that don’t look like they’re hi-lo books. I actually refuse to buy books that have hi-lo, dyslexia friendly or early reader on the front cover for my bookshelf.
For now, I’ll search the bookshelves in the classroom and cover the books I think she’ll enjoy, so there’s a selection that she, and others in the class, can choose from for their genre and blurb that don’t scream “failing reader” from the cover, and won’t damage the self-esteem of pupils, like her, who can read well enough that they know “early reader” or “hi-lo” means you are reading below expectations in Year 5. And actually, she isn’t failing. She’s making good progress and catching her friends up. We all learn different skills at different rates, it’s just a shame that those at the top of education in this country have forgotten that and are happy to label children as “below expectations” regardless of the effects.