Educational consultant Mike Fleetham shares some interesting ideas about choosing books and looks at some practical ideas for using stories to develop children’s thinking.

Choosing what you read When it comes to reading, people seem to fall into three distinct groups:

1.Those who read one book at a time: the serial readers.


.Those who have eight books on the go at once: the parallel readers.
3.Those who reserve their reading for the beach: the Binchy-Clancy readers.

You might empathise with one or more of these groups, or have a fourth of your own, but it remains that each person has their own style of reading. And whatever your style, you’ll use it to work through a certain number of books each year. In my first year of teaching I managed two: The National Curriculum and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. In the 15 years since then this number has increased to 60.

The classroom activities that follow are pitched to challenge all learners at their own level and allow them to freely respond in line with their abilities – this is one way in which I differentiate classroom work for mixed-ability classes.

Classroom activity 1 – describe your reading style

On your own, take five minutes to think about and record the key features of your reading style. Consider:

  • Do you read one book at a time?
  • Do you have more than one book on the go at once?
  • Do you only read at certain times of day? Week? Year?
  • In what sort of environment do you prefer to read? Bright? Dim? Cold? Warm? With music? Silent? With a snack or drink on hand?
  • How does what you’re reading affect how you read it?

Now form a small group. In turn each person describes their reading style. Choose a scribe to record the major differences and similarities between group members’ reading styles. Choose a spokesperson to summarise your findings to the class. 

Now here’s a thought: if I live for another 50 years, and keep my book rate pretty constant, I’ll have 3,000 titles on my reading list (or LRQ – Lifetime Reading Quota). But while I’m working my way through them, over 4,000,000 new ones will be published (assuming current rates of production). If these are added to the millions of books already out there, how do I choose the 3,000?

These are two valuable discussions to have with your learners: how do they manage their reading and how do they choose what to read? Tell them that they’ll only have the time to read a tiny fraction of the world’s literature (their LRQ), so they must choose wisely.

Classroom activity 2 – work out your Lifetime Reading Quota (LRQ)

  • Subtract your age from the number of years you expect to live. Call this A.
  • Work out how many books you read in the last 12 months. Call this B.
  • Multiply A by B to get your estimated LRQ.

To refine this estimate, think about how the annual read may change at different ages. For example:

  • Will it go up during your college/university years?
  • Will it go down if you start a family?
  • How might it change in your 30s, 40s or old age?
  • Will your chosen career affect your LRQ?

Maybe you could construct a graph or chart to illustrate your anticipated LRQ.

Take this idea even further by thinking about the future of publishing:

  • Will there still be books in 20 years time?
  • Will text change?
  • What different media could be used to transmit text?

Enhance your LRQ

With an LRQ of 3,000 (and falling), I need to choose books wisely. I’m an educational consultant so there are certain things that I have to read: the latest classroom news, research and resources. However, as a lover of stories, there are other things that I want to read and a tension is set up: shall I read a few more pages of the latest Ian McEwan or this week’s Times Ed? Maybe you feel something similar when the latest school policy arrives in your pigeonhole, or the next glossy initiative lands in your inbox…

Stories demand interest. Good ones have drive, purpose and interesting characters with believable motives. They pull you in to their alternative worlds, places and times. They get your attention and hold on to it. As such, they are a perfect method to share knowledge and ideas. They are perfect for learning.

Fortunately there’s often a crossover between my ‘have to’ and my ‘want to’ and I make the most of my LRQ by increasing this overlap. I choose to spend more time on texts that I both have to and want to experience.

For example, because I like stories, I’ll choose the historical novel Sarum by Edward Rutherford to learn about British history rather than any number of precise technical texts full of dates, drawings and diagrams. I’ll favour classroom anecdotes and stories from BBC Education over papers from the Journal of Child Psychology.

My LRQ is falling fast – I’m going to make the most of it!

Classroom activity 3 – sort out your reading

List everything that you’ve read in the last seven days – at home and in school. Place each item correctly into a two-ring Venn diagram.

  • First ring: text I wanted to read.
  • Second ring: text I had to read.
  • Overlap: text I wanted to and had to read.

Compare your diagram with those of your friends.

  • How are they the same/different?
  • What goes in the empty set (outside both rings)?
  • If you were to add a third ring, overlapping the first two, what sorting criteria could it have?

Using what you read

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything that your pupils had to read, they also wanted to read? Innovative authors and publishers play around with content and genre to make books that’ll tick both boxes. The Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary is a good example – delivering history through chatty, humorous, cartoon-illustrated text. The Graffix books by Steve Bowkett and others present engaging, grown-up storylines through the graphic novel genre. They target older readers of lower ability and provide an alternative to giving them patronising texts aimed at younger readers. And the Introducing… series by Icon books takes the same graphic approach with more weighty topics such as quantum theory, mind and brain, existentialism – good starting points for the specific interests of some of your G&T squad.

A further example of genre and content working well together comes in the form of ‘thinking stories’ – tales chosen and used to develop specific thinking skills. Robert Fisher’s much loved work, including Stories for Thinking and First Stories for Thinking are great examples. They have become classics over their 10 years in print and still sell incredibly well. The chances are you have copies in your staff room, library or classroom cupboard. Each offers a collection of short tales with thought-provoking questions to follow.

In one of my favourites, ‘The Pretend Doctor’, a failed shoemaker moves to a new town and sets up shop as a doctor. He swindles money from the sick with his magic medicine – which is really no more than plain tap water. At the story’s finale, he is brought before the king and arrogantly restates his claim that his medicine will cure all illness. As a test, the king challenges the pretend doctor to drink from a bottle of deadly poison and cure himself with the fake medicine. The doctor is thus trapped and his story provides a wonderful opportunity for children to think strategically and creatively.

I’ve told this story in classrooms in the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa. Children from across the world give a great variety of answers to the question ‘What would you do if you were the pretend doctor?’, though certain themes always crop up.

Common answers to the doctor’s dilemma

  • I would own up and ask to be forgiven
  • I would attack the palace guards and run for it
  • I would punch the king
  • I would talk my way out of it
  • I would talk to the king and try to make a bargain
  • I would say sorry to the old lady (one of the tricked patients)
  • I would make the king feel sorry for me
  • I would pretend to drink the poison
  • I would ask to go to the toilet and while I was there secretly swap the labels on the bottles
  • I would persuade the king to try the poison first
  • I would get a guard to try the poison instead of me.

See below for details of my own ‘thinking stories’.

Mike Fleetham is an educational consultant and author who works with children and their teachers to help make learning more effective and fun. He has worked as an electronic design engineer and then as a teacher and assistant headteacher for nine years in a range of inner-city schools.

Using stories to develop children’s thinking

Inspired by Robert Fisher’s approach (see the section on ‘Using what you read’, in the main article above) and the quirky fairy tales of Terry Jones, I decided to spend some time creating a set of stories directly linked to National Curriculum Thinking Skills. I aimed to make practical classroom resources that children would want to read (or have read to them) and ones which would develop their thinking skills.

So, for each story I added some background information and teachers’ guidance in the following format:

1. About this story
2. Using this story

  • Big question
  • Get thinking
  • Think some more

1. About the story
Just after each story there are few paragraphs describing the ideas behind it; the thinking opportunities that it provides; and what inspired it – whether a memory, another story, a person or an interesting idea.

2. Using the story
Big question
This is the single, profound question which picks up where the story ends. It’s used to help learners think up their own endings, activating their creativity.

After I’d finished writing the stories, the first people to hear them were my children. Arthur (six at the time) took them in his stride, asked a few questions, then wandered off to make some more space rockets. With Ella (nine at the time), it was a different kettle of fish. She’d listen eagerly, eyes wide, totally engaged, and at the end of each one explode in my face with utter fury: ‘Why don’t you finish them? You never tell me what happens! It’s sooo unfair! I hate you!’ etc. The ‘big question’ hands over the resolution of the tale to the reader.

In all of her short life, Ella has been given endings: in books, on TV and at the cinema. None of the ‘thinking stories’ comes with a nice, neat ending. If they did, I’d have missed a golden opportunity for thinking. The tales take you by the hand, right to the last scene, and then let go. Children have to engage, to take part, to be active in resolving the challenge, rather than passively receiving the last sentence.

Get thinking
The National Curriculum asks us to teach six different types of thinking skill. Here they are, briefly summarised:

  • information processing – finding, organising and presenting facts
  • reasoning – making connections between ideas; making decisions and justifying opinions
  • enquiry – questioning, investigating and researching
  • creativity – generating new ideas and enriching existing ones
  • evaluation – making value judgments using criteria
  • metacognition – thinking about thinking.

Each story gives specific opportunities to meet these requirements through six questions – one designed to activate each type of thinking. I also decided to include a ‘transfer’ question – a prompt to show children how they can use the story’s thinking in different contexts. A single question for each type of thinking cannot hope to cover the full range of skills in each area, but it does provide a way in; a doorway to using thoughts in a specific way.

Further information

Appignanesi, R (2006) Introducing Existentialism, Icon Books
Bowkett, S (1999) Roy Kane, TV Detective, A&C Black Deary, T, Horrible Histories Series, Scholastic Hippo

Fisher, R (1996) Stories for Thinking, Nash Pollock

Fisher, R (1999) First Stories for Thinking, Nash Pollock
Fleetham, M (2006) Thinking Stories to Wake Up Your Mind, LDA
Fleetham, M (2003) How to Create and Develop a Thinking Classroom, LDA
Fleetham, M (2006) Multiple Intelligences in Practice – Enhancing Self-Esteem and Learning in the Classroom, Network Continuum
Gellatly, A and Zarate, O (2005), Introducing Mind and Brain, Icon Books
Jones, T (2003), Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories, Chrysalis Children’s Books
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