It’s all about the preparation

Preparing a stimulating transition project based on book trailers and quality children’s literature.

The idea for this blog post has been in my head for a while but I was struggling to write it as I couldn’t find a suitable hook on which to hang my ideas. That was until yesterday when I had one of those over the garden fence exchanges with my next door neighbour Derek. For the past few days I’ve been renovating our garden furniture. It’s been quite a job. I’ve sanded it back to the bare wood. Treated it with wood renovator to remove that nasty grey hue that older wooded furniture acquires, and now I’ve begun to stain and seal the furniture. I’m not finished yet but it’s looking fabulous. Dare I say it: as good as new. Now Derek had been watching this labour of furniture love unfurl and during our garden fence conference said (with just the tiniest hint of irony) that I should write a blog about my efforts. Voila! There it was, the hook I’d been looking for. My renovation project has been a success due to the simple act of good preparation.

It's all about the preparation.

It’s all about the preparation.

Transition day has a habit of creeping up on us and catching us unawares. All of a sudden we’re waving this year’s class off for a morning with Mrs So-and-So and ferreting around for something suitable to do with the new recruits who don’t yet understand the golden rules of not fiddling with the table trays, not swinging on their chairs or uttering the mildly irritating, “But our teacher always says/does/has/let’s us do that.” Ah the joy.

Finding out about your new class by asking them to create “All About Me” bunting or a “Family Coat of Arms” is fine but it’s not the most stimulating way to spend a morning with your new class, the potential for good-quality display is limited and it does seem to stand alone. Transition is about movement, passage or change from one position to another. So when we embark on a transition project with children we should really be looking for something that spans the ‘moving up day’ and the beginning of the new academic year. Doing this well requires a little bit of preparation but the results are so much more rewarding for all involved.

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Where the Wild Things Are: 10 teaching ideas

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a modern classic. Much loved in KS1 classrooms, this text is also a great model of a voyage and return story,  which could be used alongside a longer text such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in KS2. There is also now a film version available but as it is quite dark (and younger children may find it frightening) think very carefully before using this is KS1.

Here are 10 teaching ideas for using Where the Wild Things Are in the classroom:

  1. Start with a trigger before reading the text If you were sent to bed with no dinner, what would you do?” or What might you have done to get sent to bed with no dinner?”

  2. Make an emotions chart or graph of Max’s feeling throughout the story.

  3. Look carefully at the pictures – what happens as you move through the book? They start small and they grow to become full page before reducing again. Does this signify Max’s world experience getting bigger?

  4. Due to the predominance of the illustrations the descriptive text in the book could be further enhanced; so can the children describe the Wild Things, or the setting?

  5. Speech punctuation features quite heavily at the start of the book. Use this as a model for teaching speech conventions.  Then with the later pictures write what characters may be saying to each other .

  6. Use the pattern of they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth etc’ as a model and rewrite the phrase using different words to create alternate effects…‘they whispered their twinkly squeals and licked their luscious lips’

  7. Challenge children to write a ‘Quick Write’ poem about Max: 1 Noun, 2 Verbs, 3 Adjectives/Adverbs, e.g

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The Selfish Giant – Guided Reading Resource

Here at Primary English HQ we LOVE guided reading and if you read our posts regularly you’ll know that we write about it frequently.

What the national curriculum says

We’ve just finished a round of training and conference workshops where we looked at the place of guided reading in the new national curriculum. Yes, we know guided reading’s not a statutory requirement but when the national curriculum document itself recognises how ‘reading opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for young minds’  we know that guided reading needs to be central to your school provision. (Our blog post Guided Reading discusses the importance of quality and enjoyable texts for guided reading.)


Our literary heritage

In our recent work we’ve taken a particular look at the Y5 ad Y6 requirement for children to ‘read books from our literary heritage’. You may currently be reading books by significant children’s authors and older children’s literature with your children; and this new objective is not really so different – so long as you remember that it is about older children’s literature. We emphasis the children’s bit of that statement as on our travels we’ve unearthed a few ‘grown-up’ classic texts with some rather ‘adult‘ content finding their way into primary classrooms. By all means use the classics with children, but do make sure you know the texts well enough to avoid unsuitable themes. Even better still, use some of the fabulous abridged versions available from many of the educational publishers.


The Selfish Giant

By keeping one eye on accessibility and the other on engagement, the text that we’ve been using in our workshops is The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde – written in 1888. If you’re unfamiliar with this text it is a rich and evocative story of selfishness and rebirth. It is packed with figurative language and has sufficient challenge to engage the most demanding of Y6s. The version we’ve been using is the Puffin Picture version (illustrated by Michael Foreman and Freire Wright) as the illustrations add a useful scaffold for children who may otherwise struggle to access the syntactical and linguistic challenges of an older text. You can though, use any version or find the text online as it should remain unchanged.


Guided reading activities

Our conference delegates have enjoyed working on reading activities including: making predictions about the text from a word cloud; analysing the text using Aiden Chambers’ Tell me’ structure; and thinking about giants in a variety of children’s literature using our ‘same but different’ thinking frames. We linked each of these activities to the aims statements from the new national curriculum as a way of ensuring that not only were aims met, but they were done so in an engaging and creative manner.

The Selfish Giant is a wonderful text from our literary heritage that we’re certain your children will love reading as a guided group text. Our Selfish Giant – Guided Reading Resource is now available to purchase from our resources area. Just click here

Rachel Clarke – Director, Primary English Education Consultancy Limited


The Polar Express

Using The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg for primary school literacy

Primary English The Polar Express

The Polar Express. Image: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited.

Creating a really worthwhile unit of work, whilst still marking Christmas, is one of my favourite activities of the festive season. In this short article I look at a few ways to use a high quality Christmas picture book as a vehicle for good literacy teaching and learning. The book I’ve chosen is ‘The Polar Express’ by Chris Van Allsburg. I haven’t added age groups to the activities as many are generic but I hope there are sufficient to meet the specific needs of children from across the school.

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Millie’s Marvellous Hat: a multipurpose picture book

This week we take a look at a really versatile picture book that you can use across the school and for a variety of literacy units.

Millie’s Marvellous Hat

Millie’s Marvellous Hat by Satoshi Kitamura is one of the most versatile picture books  I use in the classroom. Not only is it a great story, but Kitamura has created illustrations which bring the text alive.

The plot

On her way home, Millie passes a hat shop and spots a hat that makes her head turn. This is a shop that could have featured in Mr Benn; full of hats with feathers, frills and fripperies! Now Millie, despite wanting the ‘Marvellous Hat’ with the colourful feathers, cannot afford the £599.99 price tag (perhaps she should read our thrifty blog)! The quick thinking shopkeeper offers Millie a solution by giving her ‘the most marvellous hat’ of any size, shape or colour she wishes for and so opens up a world of imagination.


Millie’s Marvellous Hat is a book that encourages the far-fetched. You can have a hat for every occasion: for the way you feel; to show who you are; to reflect what you like… It’s a great book for an assembly based around ‘it’s ok to be different’. Millie’s Marvelous Hat works across the whole school and is a great text to use with all classes on a transition day.

Great credentials

Not surprisingly Millie’s Marvellous Hat was shortlisted for the Greenaway award in 2010. Although it didn’t win, being shortlisted indicates the quality of both the text and illustrations.

Literacy units of work

If you like the sound of Millie’s Marvellous Hat then it sits with stories by significant authors and stories with familiar settings. Furthermore, because it is so imaginative, it is also an ideal text to use for analysing stories with imaginary setting It is superb for work on description and lends itself to making hats in DT. There is so much you can do with Millie’s Marvellous Hat. 

Charlotte Reed – Primary English Consultant

Versatile Picture Fiction

I love a picture book, you know this. I’m obsessed by them, I own hundreds of them, but why?

One of the most important things for me in the classroom is that I can get as much as possible from one picture fiction book because, here’s a secret,  *Checks who is looking* I’m a bit lazy. I like one book to work really hard for me so I don’t have to sort through loads. This also helps with time.  I don’t have all the time in the world to be searching for books and nor, I guess, do you.

Here are some of my top favourite books which are really versatile and could take you all term to explore fully!

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You 
This is a superb botanical study of the creatures that feature in the Spiderwick Chronicles.  This gives a new non-narrative dimension to the stories for upper KS2 – think top trumps cards for each creature, wanted posters, reports and explanations.

Archie’s War by Marcia Williams
With the 100 year anniversary of the start of WW1 next year this picture fiction book is perfect to use in KS2.  A story in scrapbook form, this has the potential to cover every single text type you might meet during the year.  It would be the perfect basis to start children’s own scrapbooks to record key moments in their lives. With a strong link to autobiography the book has examples of letters, newspaper reports, postcards and many other text types.

The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett
Fancy explaining the Fibonacci sequence to small children?  This picture fiction book could help you out!  What happens when you start with two rabbits in a field?!  The book is a calendar and in every month there is something new –  and a new text type to look at.  Starting with January and one very lonely rabbit who sends an invitation for friends to come and join the party!  With brilliant links to maths, this book is a great all rounder you could use in KS1 or KS2.  There are instructions, invitations, autobiography, measurements, order forms, catalogues and many, many other types of writing.  You will discover new things every time you open it, a great investment – but buy the hardback if possible; you will see why at the end of the book.


Don’t you love it when the books do the hard work for you?  Cue me sat on the sofa, cocktail in hand…

Charlotte Reed – A Very Lazy Primary English Consultant

Look again!

A picture book with good illustrations gives a book longevity, it enables you to return again and again and revisit a familiar tale.  When did you last really look at the pictures, take another look, see something new?  Share that book with a child and they will see something you haven’t even spotted yet.  Some books just cry out to be revisited. Some books wink at the adult reader (‘See, I put that in especially for you,’ they say – see below, from Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett). 

“Picture books can be deceptive.  There may be more to them than first meets the eye.  Good picture books deal with important human issues and can convey quite complex ideas despite their economic use of words.”
Badderley & Eddershaw 1994

When I am looking for quality picture books my first stop is always the Greenaway shortlists. The Kate Greenaway Medal was established by The Library association in 1955 and has been drawing our eye to high quality picture books ever since.  These days the medal  is awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).  The shortlists for this year have just been announced.  The award itself offers exciting opportunities for children to shadow the awards, get to know the books and share their thoughts.  There is an official shadowing scheme that schools can get involved in, a safe place for groups to create their own shadowing website and share their opinions on the selected books with others.

Over on Pinterest you can find collections of our favourite books for Foundation StageKey Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 alongside themed collections of books, books about about Lost Toys for example.

 “…picture books are often given less attention than books aimed at older children…This attitude is puzzling.  Illustrations bring the text to life, and aid understanding of the story, prompting questions and responses to the tale.”

Booktrusted News 2004

5 questions to ask when looking at picture books:

1) What is your eye drawn to first in the picture?
2) Does the picture describe just what is happening in the text or does it add more information?
3) How much has the illustrator involved you in telling the story?  How much is left to your imagination?
4) What are your first impressions when you look at this page?
5) Describe how you read the images and text.  How do your eyes travel across the page?

“A picture book is text, illustrations, total design; an experience for a child.  As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.” 
Bader 1976

5 activity ideas to use with picture books:

1) Give the children one illustration from a book and ask them to think of a title.
2) What is happening outside of the picture?  Photocopy one page and get the children to extend the illustration.
3) Imagine you are in the picture – what can you see, smell, hear, touch and taste?
4) Let the children look at a page for one minute, then ask them to draw and write everything they remember.
5) Wrap a selection of books in cellophane and ask the children to predict what each one is about and sort them into groups to see if they can see patterns or themes.

More about quality illustrators can be found here.

Charlotte Reed – Primary English Consultant

We’re Going on a Pudsey Bear Hunt


As it is Children in Need this week, we thought we would show our support with a blog all about books with bears in them!  The more we thought about it, the more there seemed to be. Here are a few of our favourites.

Scruffy Bear and the Six White Mice by Chris Wormell
This is a traditional story where Scruffy Bear helps the Six White Mice to hide from three predators. What makes this book stand out is Wormell’s illustration style, he captures expression in animals so well.  This is a superb story too for children to learn and then imitate, with them adding their own predators.

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Picture this

The Big Draw is the world’s biggest celebration of drawing. It has grown into a month-long festival throughout October all over the UK. In this blogpost we celebrate those talented people without whom books would not be the same. 

“Yes, that’s right, children, the illustrator draws the pictures.”

How often is that heard in a primary classroom?  Is that all the illustrator does?

Here at Coventry English HQ we know there’s more to it than that. Good illustrators take words and bring them to visual life, adding their own special idiosyncrasies and quirks. We’ve chosen a few of our favourites to share with you.

Picture books transport us to worlds beyond our imagination. We love illustrators like Satoshi Kitamura, who is able to capture emotions seamlessly in colour and with pace. In Angry Arthur the whirlwind of destruction throws you across the page, while in Millie’s Marvellous Hat the riot of colour and detail invites you to sit, look, stay a while and ponder.  This is what we want in a book, one that excites emotion and gives us something to think about.

Jeannie Baker‘s books use collage to tell their tales. In Window the story of environmental change is told by looking through the same window over a period of 24 years. Written text is minimal – reserved for birthday cards on the window ledge, vehicle signs and advertising hoardings. Two narratives can be read in this text though: the story of a boy growing up and the story of an environment changing over time. In this text images reign – they tell the story, with words used only to fill in any gaps left by the images.

Christian Birmingham’s illustrations work in a more traditional illustrative manner, of supporting the role of words in telling a story. The Impressionist quality of Birmingham’s style makes his drawings ideal companions for traditional tales and children’s classics. Lavish versions of Sleeping Beauty (retold by Adele Geras) and The Snow Queen (retold by Naomi Lewis) owe much of their allure to the stunning artwork produced by Birmingham, which transports the reader to imagined worlds inhabited by witches, princesses, heroes and magic. Our blogpost To Infinity and Beyond features more on Christian Birmingham.

We love to share picture books with children, but we also know that the adult wants some entertainment too. One of our favourite illustrators is the fabulous Emily Gravett.  Her earlier books are particularly good for grown-up giggles, for example Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears. Children love the story, and adults sharing the book will feel just as entertained, as Emily inventively uses everything from the ‘nibbled’ cover to the back pages and even the publisher information to add to the story.  You have to devour every element of the book to get the most out of it, and will want to return again and again to lift flaps and unfold maps. You’ll find something new every time.

In recent years a lot of these picture books have made a long-awaited venture into KS2. Books like Flotsam by David Weisner, Varmints written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Marc Craste, and The Arrival by Shaun Tan, have introduced KS2 children to the world of the beautiful, the unexpected and the strange – visual texts to stimulate thinking and provoke writing. Children move from ‘But there are hardly any words!’ to fascination and real depth of thought.

The amount of thought that goes into an illustration will never be obvious to us readers, and that surely is a measure of its success. How long does it take to choose the right colour, composition, expression? Illustrations don’t just show the author’s narrative but can also interpret their thoughts and feelings. Just think of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake, a masterpiece of empathy. The illustrations hold your hand through the text, giving you more when you need it and leaving it blank when you don’t.

So no, they don’t just draw the pictures.

Take a look at our collections of picture books for Foundation StageKey Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 on Pinterest for lots more beautiful books.

 Originally published on 12th October, 2012

Neil Armstrong: Celebrate his legacy with a picture book


At some point in every child’s primary school career they will learn about the Earth, Moon and Space. It’s a topic that excites and one that I’ve enjoyed teaching many times over the years. Alongside the science of our solar system there’s usually an opportunity to look at the exploration of space, the journeys that have taken place and the possibilities for the future. Like many other primary school teachers I’ve often combined the topic of space with biography writing, knowing that the life of Neil Armstrong inspires so many children to read and write. It comes as no surprise then at how saddened I was to hear of his passing earlier this week.

As a modern-day adventurer, Armstrong leaves an incredible legacy for children: showing how dedication, team work and bravery can lead to phenomenal results. He was a quiet man, who never exploited his celebrity, instead choosing a life of teaching and learning at the University of Cincinnati. To a generation of children (and particularly boys) growing up in the 1960s and 1970s he was a hero – an icon who shaped their play, inspired their reading and shaped their aspirations.

As one of those children touched by the achievements of the Apollo 11 team the first book that I reached for on hearing of Neil Armstrong’s death was The Sea of Tranquility by Mark Haddon, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. This beautiful picture book is an autobiographical account of Mark Haddon’s childhood – growing up as a little boy fascinated by space and the lunar missions.

Christian Birmingham’s beautiful illustrations capture the young Mark Haddon making a scrapbook called The Journey to the Moon; playing with a model space rocket; gazing out of his bedroom window at the moon. It is though, the carefully placed references in the visual text that make this book for me. On the first page Haddon is pictured wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt with a red pocket. Later in the text he is seen saluting for a photograph next to this t-shirt – now being used as a flag – as he ‘claims’ the snow-covered garden. In the same image we see an echo of the lunar landing in Haddon’s bootprints left in the snow. The t-shirt motif is used again later in the text – but where I shall leave for you to discover yourself.

Neil Armstrong has taken his last step on the Earth but his incredible journey to the moon remains an inspiration to children all over the world. He will continue to be a figure children want to read about and write biographies about. The Sea of Tranquility provides an autobiographical account showing them just how much Armstrong’s adventure to the moon inspired a generation of children who might just be their mums and dads.

Years ago there was a little boy who had the solar system on the wall” Mark Haddon

Rachel Clarke – Director, Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

Mark Haddon is best known as the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”

Mark Haddon’s thoughts about The Sea of Tranquility

The Sea of Tranquility –

We have written about Christian Birmingham here.

First published 27th August, 2012.