Alison Dawkins is a Teaching and Learning Adviser for English at Herts for Learning

For me, the best ever end to a guided reading session goes something like this: ‘No, I’m sorry, we have to stop talking about it now; we’re out of time’. The children sigh, then brighten and say: ‘I can’t wait to read some more tomorrow.’

This happened to me the other day. The book was Stig of the Dump by Clive King and the children were in year 5. They were just starting the book and had pre-read some of the first chapter independently the day before our session. That meant we would be able to focus attention for our discussion on one or two shorter extracts from those pages. I’d picked my objective, taken from the HfL reading criteria for Y5: ‘comments on how a character is built and presented, referring to dialogue, action and description’ and presented that to the children as: ‘Let’s see what this first chapter tells us about the two main characters’.

After a minute or two to check that they did know who these characters were, and had understood the main point that Barney meets Stig when he falls into the quarry, I asked the children to re-read the couple of paragraphs covering that fall. (Watching the six read to themselves it was possible to see who was racing on and needed ‘nudging’ to go back and check they’d understood, and prompt another, whose eyes were wandering, that a finger under the line of text can be helpful.)

We clarified a few words that I thought they might have difficulty with; then the fun could start. ‘So, what do we learn about Barney in these paragraphs?’

‘He’s brave,’ one child said, ‘and curious’ said another. Rather than agreeing (although they were right), I just said, ‘what makes you say that?’ That is a default response as it makes them hurry back to the text to explain. If you need to pin them down further, it’s then easy to say, ‘show me the sentence you’re talking about’ and/or ‘tell me a bit more about that’. So next came, ‘courageous – going right to the edge like that’ and, ‘inquisitive? That’s the same as curious isn’t it? He just wants to see all that stuff he can’t see properly’. And then someone offered, ‘He’s creeping about the quarry here.’

This was a teaching gift as it involved a known word: ‘creeper’ that the child was familiar with in other contexts and so had assumed a meaning here – that was incorrect. This is a common cause of misunderstandings and guided reading sessions are an ideal place to unpick and discuss possible multiple meanings.

‘I don’t think that’s what it means here’ I said, ‘although you’re right, ‘creeper’ can describe the way someone moves because it’s like ‘creeping’. But read the beginning and end of the sentence again and then the sentence before it. And the rest of you read it as well.’ (You don’t want them sitting there doing nothing.)

‘Oh,’ she said after a minute,’ I see it’s not about Barney, it’s talking about something ‘twining’ but I don’t know what that is.’ I could have explained, but I didn’t. Instead, I went to my other default: ‘what do the rest of you think?’ Between them, two boys came up with the explanation that it must be a plant that was winding itself around all the other things and that ‘creeper’ was that kind of plant. All I had to do was then draw their attention to the capitalising of ‘Old Man’s Beard’ at the end of the sentence as the name of the creeper

After some more discussion where I continued to encourage the children to talk to one another rather than to me (they do need reminding about this), we moved onto the next character and another little chunk of silent reading of a few selected paragraphs to refresh memories and look for clues about what Stig is like, with the prompt, ‘as you read, be thinking about the things he does and says, and the things Barney says and thinks about him…’

‘What impression do you have of..? / Show us what you mean by…? / ‘Where’s the bit that made you think that? / Tell us a bit more.’ These were largely the phrases I needed as the children decided that Stig was resourceful, creative, helpful, and that both boys were respectful of each other, offering examples from the text to support their thoughts. (I was spotting a spelling opportunity by now and, putting these words together with the ones describing Barney before, made a quick chart to just ‘notice’ the suffixes.) I also pointed out that we knew what Stig was wearing by way of Barney’s thoughts rather than a direct description and we went back to establish where Stig’s name had come from as they’d missed that from their pre-reading.

They were convinced that both Barney and Stig were being portrayed completely positively (and with reasons to prove it) but I thought they’d missed something. So, ‘go back and have another read of that last paragraph’ I asked them. They all got to it at about the same moment: ‘he takes the knife’ / ‘he doesn’t give Barney his knife back’ / ‘but Barney wants the knife and it’s his’. Then the questions started to come – maybe Stig wasn’t all good; you shouldn’t steal people’s things; or maybe he didn’t understand; what was Barney going to do?

I could only shrug – we hadn’t read that bit and nobody had got quite that far the day before. But we had five minutes left and so I let them read on into the paragraphs where we find Stig offering Barney the worked flint, and which the children, just like Barney, decided they would much prefer to have in place of the pocket knife.

A final re-visit of the –ive, -ful, and –ous words we’d collected, a reminder about reading really carefully to get all the detail (which they’d be able to practise with their next independent read of the book) – and we were out of time.