Deepening critical reading with undergraduate students

At the UK Literacy Association international conference in Glasgow at the beginning of the month, I attended a presentation by Dr Naomi Boakye of the University of Pretoria, where she described her approach to developing academic literacy with English as a second language learners in the sociology department, which I fully intend to develop. She uses an approach that I recognise from my primary teaching days: Literature Circles roles.

I have been thinking about a piece of feedback received from my mid-module evaluations: “Alison talks too much”, which, while my initial response was “I’m a lecturer! It’s my job to talk!” made me consider to what extent I am really meeting my students’ needs. By presenting them with information in lectures and then just expecting them to discuss it, am I disempowering my students, particularly those who need longer to digest information? In addition, my frustration at those who don’t do the reading may not be helping them. Perhaps I need to make it clear to them why I have selected the weekly reading, how to read it critically and what I mean by discussing it.

So, I have adapted literature circle cards. I am going to put my students in randomly assigned groups of 5 for seminars (I have 40 students on my module next academic year) and each group will be given the role cards. They will be assigned a role for the following week’s discussion, and the roles will circulate each week. I am hoping that the need for the role cards will lessen as reading critically becomes internalised. I am seeking ethical approval for a small piece of qualitative research with my students to find out their experience of critical reading and whether or not this approach has helped them, and I will report back.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Literature circle role cards


You love Roald Dahl: Now Read This!

On Friday I was lucky enough to go to the very beautiful city of Cardiff to run two workshops at the Fantastic Mr Fiction conference at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Thank you very much all who attended, and for the enthusiasm you demonstrated. It made the very long journey home to the South coast worth it! Please see the list below that both the morning and afternoon sessions came up with. If you feel that anything is missing, please add in the comments section.


Funny books list from Alison Baker’s workshop at the Fantastic Mr Fiction conference, 4/11/16


  • The Spot on my Bum- Gez Walsh
  • Old Possom’s Book of Practical Cats- TS Eliot
  • Michael Rosen
  • Brian Patten
  • Please Mrs Butler/ Heard it In the Playground- Allan Ahlberg
  • Centrally Heated Knickers- Michael Rosen
  • Spike Milligan
  • Woollard

Information texts/ non fiction

  • Horrible Histories- Terry Deary
  • Murderous Maths- Kjartan Poskitt
  • Doctor Dog- Babette Cole
  • Mummy Laid an Egg- Babette Cole
  • Guinness Book of World Records
  • The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff- Andy Seed (and sequels)

Picture books

  • Room on the Broom/ The Smartest Giant in Town- Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  • The Dinosaur that Pooped a Planet/ The Dinosaur that Pooped Christmas- Dougie Poynter and Tom Pinchon
  • Burglar Bill- Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  • Aliens love Underpants– Claire Freedman and Ben Cort
  • Want My Hat Back- Jon Klassen
  • When Chico Went Fishing- Robin Tzannes
  • Oi Frog/ Oi Dog- Kes Gray and Jim Field
  • Two Frogs- Chris Wormell
  • Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs- Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury
  • Beware of Boys- Tony Blundell
  • The Cat in the Hat- Dr Seuss
  • The Time it Took Tom- Nick Sharratt
  • Traction Man- Mini Grey
  • Mr Wolf’s Pancakes- Jan Fearnley
  • Eloise at the Plaza/ Eloise at Christmas- Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight
  • Sir Charlie Stinky Socks- Kristina Stephenson
  • Where the Wild Things Are- Maurice Sendak
  • Not Now Bernard- David Mckee
  • I’m Coming to Get You- Tony Ross
  • It’s A Book- Lane Smith
  • The Book with No Pictures- B. J. Novak
  • I need a Wee/ Dwi ddim eisiau pi-pi- Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
  • Who’s in the Shed?- Brenda Parkes and Ester Kosepuu
  • The Giant of Jum- Elli Woollard and Benji Davies

Early Chapter Books (KS1-Y3)

  • The Grunts- Philip Ardagh
  • Claude- Alex T Smith
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine- Roald Dahl
  • Utterly Me, Clarice Bean- Lauren Child
  • Betsy Bigalow- Malorie Blackman
  • Dixie O’Day and the Great Diamond Robbery- Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuilliamy
  • Ginger Ninja and others- Shoo Rayner
  • Astrosaurs- Steve Cole
  • Flat Stanley- Jeff Brown
  • Dennis the Menace- Steven Butler
  • Clementine- Sarah Pennypacker
  • Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf- Catherine Storey
  • Horrid Henry- Francesca Simon
  • Agatha Parrot- Kjartan Poskitt
  • My Mum’s going to Explode- Jeremy Strong
  • Sophie- Dick King-Smith
  • You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum- Andy Stanton
  • Moone Boy- Chris O’Dowd
  • Cakes in Space- Philip Reeves & Sarah McIntyre
  • Ottoline – Chris Riddell
  • Julius the Zebra- Gary Northfield
  • Captain Underpants- Dav Pilkey
  • The Legend of Spud Murphy- Eoin Colfer
  • The Diary of a Killer Cat- Anne Fine

Junior Chapter Books (Y4-Y7/8)

  • The Boy in the Dress/ Mr Stink- David Walliams
  • Rent a Bridesmaid- Jacqueline Wilson
  • Mallory Towers series- Enid Blyton
  • Millions/ Framed- Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Early Harry Potter series- J. K. Rowling
  • Darcy Burdock- Laura Dockrill
  • Johnny Books/ Diggers/ Truckers/ The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents- Terry Pratchett
  • Prankenstein- Andy Seed
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events- Lemony Snicket
  • Casson family series- Hilary McKay
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid- Jeff Kinney
  • Tom Gates- Liz Pichon
  • Bartimaeus trilogy- Jonathan Stroud
  • The Misadventures of Tallulah Casey series- Louise Rennison (Y6 and above)
  • Dork Diaries series- Rachel Renee Russell
  • Ruby Redfort series- Lauren Child
  • Madame Pamplemousse series- Rupert Kingfisher

A quick word of advice- check these books out yourself before introducing them to your class. Read the first 100 words to check that they’re appropriate. Check out the authors in your local library!


Girl cooties, or why do we think boys won’t read books with girl protagonists?

A discussion with our employment based trainee teachers on teachers reading class novels aloud prompted me to think further about my attitude to the assumption that boys won’t read “girls’ books”, which seems to have become extended to experiencing any books with girls as protagonists. My argument against this perception is two-fold- firstly that just because there is a (legitimate) concern about boys’ literacy, particularly white working class boys, does not mean that there aren’t reluctant girl readers who should hear good quality literature to engage them read aloud, and secondly, we don’t expect maths-hating girls to avoid geometry, so why should we not challenge boys’ assumptions about “girl books”?

The case for Pullman’s His Dark Materials boy-friendly books with a girl protagonist has often been made (despite Will becoming the de facto protagonist in The Subtle Knife and Lyra being off stage for most of The Amber Spyglass) so I will say no more about it. But my suggestions for books about girls that should appeal to all children are:

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and sequels. Bonnie Green and Dido Twite are great kick-ass girl characters, but there are also feminine  girl characters who are brave, quick witted and resourceful, while also able to sew and cook.

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. A wonderfully creepy book with more than mild peril: definitely more appropriate to upper KS2 (9-11 year olds) and early years of Secondary school.

David Almond’s My Name Is Mina. Skellig is a fixture in both KS2 and KS3. Why not encourage both boys and girls to read this amazing companion text?

Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean books and Dick King-Smith’s Sophie Series. These are great comic books, which have had my lower KS2 (ages 7-9) classes in fits of laughter. Both are set in firmly “real world”, Clarice in an urban setting and Sophie in the country, but with family and school relationships that most children will recognise- annoying siblings, busy parents and in Clarice Bean’s case, an unsympathetic teacher.

For younger children, Catherine Storey’s Polly and the Wolf stories have stood the test of time for a good reason- who doesn’t want to read about a clever little girl outwitting a bad but easily fooled wolf? This is a great read-aloud for years 2 and 3.

All reception and KS1 children (5-7 year olds) will relate to Rebecca Pattinson’s Roald Dahl Funny Prize-winning My Big Shouting Day– a day when your cereal is too crackly, you don’t want to play with your friends and ballet is TOO ITCHY. It’s great to read a book where a girl’s anger is not punished. This would be good to read alongside Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. 

Pip Jones’ Squishy McFluff books are great- funny domestic stories about a girl and her invisible cat. Written in rhyme but in early chapter book format, these will engage years 2 and 3 as read-alouds due to the rollicking text and because of the delightful illustrations.

Finally, two comic/ graphic novel books: Kate DiCamillo’s award winning Flora and Ulysses, beautifully written and illustrated part-novel and part-comic strip, a book about love, loss and faith. It’s a book that made me think deeply and laugh a lot. Zita the Space Girl is a graphic novel, not great for reading aloud, but one that both boys and girls should enjoy for independent reading.