Interview with Georgie Hughes, Reading Recovery Teacher Leader, Tower Hamlets

Georgina (Georgie) Hughes is the Reading Recovery teacher leader for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and also trains teachers in Reading Recovery for other London boroughs.  Georgie is based at the two-form entry Osmani Primary School in Whitechapel, East London, where she is the Inclusion Manager.  Osmani’s intake of children is primarily of Bangladeshi heritage, with seventy per cent eligible for free school meals and where the majority of pupils begin school with limited knowledge of English.  The school is housed in an Edwardian former secondary school building and has a spacious feel, with generous sized classrooms and a large number of support rooms available for one to one and small group tuition.  Georgie graduated from Nottingham Trent University with a degree in European studies before moving to London for her Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and a Masters in Reading Recovery and Literary Leadership at the Institute of Education. Georgie was my teacher leader when I trained as a Reading Recovery teacher in Tower Hamlets in 2010.

Think back to your first school.  What was it like?

My very first school?  I just .. it was really … all I can remember is the hall.  My brother was in a play and I remember sitting watching him in a hall and I remember the playground.  And that’s all I can remember.

What was the playground like?

It was .. this is going to sound awful … it was grey.  That’s all I can remember.  It was concrete, there was no grass there that I can remember, even though it was in a town, up in Stoke.  I was really young.  I think that’s when I was at reception age there.

And can you remember where you first learned to read?

I think so.  I can’t actually remember learning to read but I can remember reading at my next school and we had Topsy and Tim books and I really liked them.  But we did read a lot at home because my dad loves reading and my brother does and my mum loves reading cookbooks.  And I just remember books just being all over the place and being read stories in the evening and that was it.

I remember the classroom and it must have been reception (I moved to quite a lot of schools) and I remember there just being books and lots of tables and lots of different activities and it was all very free flow …

What was your ideal place to read when you were a child?

Anywhere!  I always tried to read in the car and it always made me ill.  Bed, probably (laughs) somewhere really comfortable because that’s where I remember being read to as well.  I still do that now.  I can now read in planes, trains, cars, anywhere now.

So when children are learning to read do they need a comfortable space to learn?

I think they do.  I think they need somewhere they can actually sit and have time and they’re not going to be distracted or disturbed, to give them that opportunity to get right into the book so if people are walking in and out they’re oblivious to it.  So yeah, I do think it has to be somewhere comfortable.

When you did your teacher training, did you learn about classroom design or how to arrange your classroom and places where children would learn?

When I was doing my PGCE every week we had an English lecturer who, for our very last session of the week we’d all take a book in, a picture book, to help us get used to reading out loud but also so we could find out more about books.  And as part of that we had to design our dream reading area.  And I think mine was like half the classroom.  And when I went into class I realised I didn’t have that much space.  And so I went to IKEA, I bought cushions, a little car mat and tried to make it into as comfortable and as colourful an area as possible.  And you see that now; you go into some of the other classrooms and whatever their topic is, they’ll put trees and, you know, if they’re doing ‘going green’, they’ll have trees and plants and pictures of things and books out to match up with their topic and they’ll have little cushions as well so that children can go in there any time and read.

So you think that design does make a difference to the way children learn?

Yes, I do.  Because you’re not telling them what to read.  They get to choose.  And the child that struggles can go in and pick up any book and  sit there and they can open it up and read it, even if they’re not looking at the words they can sit and they can read.  And you see them with one another reading to one another too, or telling the story.  And that’s what we encourage the parents to do with them as well.

As a Reading Recovery teacher who teaches children one to one have you observed how children respond to different places where they’re being talk?  Can you think of a particular example?

Because it’s one to one and because I’m usually in this room on my own, when they come in they’re quite quiet to start off with and you give them the book and they’re like, they don’t always know what to do with it.  But then they start to feel more comfortable because they’re reading out loud, nobody else is listening to them.  When I’ve seen them in class, when there’s lots of other children around you can see them looking at other children and you can almost get inside their head and see that they’re worried about what might be said to them or if they’re doing it wrong.  Whereas in here, I think it gives them a little bit more security, a bit more of a friendly environment and then as they continue, we keep all the books too, their ‘familiar reads’ so if I want them to read something I give them a choice of three or four books and they get to choose.  And the children that I’m currently reading with – normally it’s like you take one book home a day – they’re choosing  five books to take home. This has never happened to me before but they’re really really getting into it and they’re really enjoying it and I think it’s … they have to feel secure wherever they are.

The Reading Recovery training room with its double-sided mirror
The Reading Recovery training room with its double-sided mirror

Have you ever had to teach in a place where the children don’t feel secure or observed someone else doing that in another school?

Er, yes.  I’ve seen teachers having to read in corridors with children and they’re OK until a whole class has to walk past and then they’re either distracted by that or they’ll be really really quiet.  I’ve gone into other schools and I’ve worked with teachers and their children and as soon as I’ve sat down the child’s just sat there and kind of moved away and read so quietly that it’s like, having to get  in really close to hear what they’re doing and that’s just their confidence.

I remember when you came to visit me and one child had to go into the next room because he was so shy.

Yes, that’s not the first time.  Or a teacher’s brought their most confident child from their school to teach behind the screen (teaching in a small room with trainee teachers watching behind a double-sided mirror so that the child can’t see them watching) and just the change of environment they’ve actually, bless them, they’ve started to cry. And then they’ve relaxed and they’ve realised, ‘Oh these are my books, I know this’ and once they get into it they start to pick up again but, yeah, it can be a really scary thing for them.

Do you think it’s got anything to do with the fact that learning to read has to be done aloud and so you’re on show more than if you were practising maths?

I think that’s part of it.  I think where other people can hear them, um,  you could walk past this classroom and there’ll be a child reading, somebody will walk in and they’ll go quiet, they’ll walk out and they’ll start to read louder again.   I think it’s because we encourage them to use different voices as well, for the characters, and so they’re having to maybe do things that they’ve not really thought about doing before but I think it’s also partly children’s understanding of what reading is.  Quite often in the classroom if they’re reading with an adult it’s like ‘Oh, how accurate is this?’ whereas we’ve been doing a lot of work here getting children to read for enjoyment and so that’s another reason they can choose anything they want to read, you know, it could be the back of a cereal packet, a book or lyrics to a song or something, something that they are interested in.  And then you can hear, if it’s something they really enjoy, they don’t really notice what’s going on behind them as well and you can hear the expression coming through and the phrasing.  That’s nice to hear.

So it’s about establishing that, sort of, safe …

…Yeah, yeah.  And for them to know that you’re reading for enjoyment.  Yes, you do have to learn to read but you read to learn, to make yourself laugh.

If you could design a school yourself, how would you design it to make sure that every child had a chance to read well and to build on those reading skills later in life?

I would make sure that there was definitely books available in every single classroom, like a little library in there, an area that they can go to, they can sit, they can read, um, that they can take those books and put them in their tray or sit at their table and read.

There definitely has to be a Library.  We’ve got a Library (in the school) and it is used but it would be nice if it was … where our Library is, it’s right downstairs, it’s a little bit difficult to get to, you need a code so you have to be with an adult.  It would be nice if it was more central in the school so that the children can just say ‘Oh, can I go to the Library and get a book?’ ‘ Yes, you can go with a partner and you can go and choose a book’ and do it themselves a little bit more regularly rather than once or twice a week.

What about support rooms, are those valuable in a school?

Yeah, definitely.  Thinking about the children I work with, some of them come in with, they’ve got a lot of item knowledge (i.e. they can recognise letters and words but haven’t yet learned how to read fluently) they just haven’t learned how to put it all together yet, and so sometimes taking them out away from the rest of the group, taking the distractions away, we can teach them how to put those strategies together and then you can transition from a one to one into a smaller group but you sometimes … some of the children, they are, you know, they are children, they’re going to be distracted by what’s going on around them and so I think it’s a good way of teaching them how to become less distracted.  And  yeah the group rooms are fantastic.

Do you think it’s important for there to be private spaces in school for staff to use as well?

Yes, everyone needs a bit of me time.  I think the book corners the children have got, they’re never overcrowded.  You might find five or six children in there maximum, that’s possibly because of the size of them, but there’s benches and room outside so that children can read outside if they want to.  For us, we’ve got a resource room if we need to hide away and do some work and we’ve got our staff room as well, although the children are encroaching on the staff room as well at the moment for their phonics and their guided reading and their early literacy support but that’s just because we haven’t got enough space for all these different things.

If you could change one thing about schools, if you had the power to make one sweeping change across the country, what would you do?

I think there’s a list of books that children have to read that come through the curriculum and core texts and sometimes they’re the only ones that get read to them.  Some schools are very very good at having a story at the end of the day and being read to and I think particularly in primary, in Year Six, children should be read picture books.  And I would make that, sort of, compulsory that they are read to, because how else are they going to know how to read to themselves with all that expression and enjoyment?

And if you could design a little area yourself as a one to one reading teacher how would it look?

It would look tidy (laughs) just looking at my area now.  It would be spacious, um, room to move because I think sometimes as well I work with children who like to get up and act out their stories.  It would have some colour.  It wouldn’t be overloaded with words on the wall or phonics letters, graphemes and things like that.  If it’s going to have things on the walls it would probably be pictures or writing that the children have done.  I send books home with children and they come back and they’ve rewritten the story or they’ve drawn a picture of something that’s been in their book.  That would be on the wall.  And when I did have my own classroom we had a wall that was the children’s gallery, so anything they brought in that had nothing to do with what we’d be teaching them but something that they’d gone away, they’d done themselves, I’d have those things on the wall.  I think that’s something that all classrooms should have if they had the space.

What would your ideal for book storage and book displays be?

The design I was telling you about that I did in my PGCE, there was like a reading tree  and the books were hanging off the tree like apples would hang and that’s something … books there so the children could see the front covers, I’d have that.  I’d have the books hanging down so that they could reach up, take a book, read it and then put it back up there.  I’d have books on shelves.  I’d have them displayed in every possible way to meet all the different kinds of needs and different ages as well.  Some children are quite happy to look through the books and choose one from the spine, others need to see the colours and the pictures.  And I’d also make sure that any really really tatty books … children love new books, especially in this area.  Unfortunately they don’t get to see many new books. And so I’d make sure that anything that was really really tatty was replaced.  I wouldn’t throw the tatty ones away unless they had ripped pages but we could use them for other things or the children could take them home if they wanted and keep it.

But  is display is really important?  Do you find there are adequate display shelves?

I think they’re OK.  I think what we have is OK.  And usually at the beginning of the year it’s all sorted and each class will do it slightly differently, I don’t know, alphabetise it or have it in levels and say, in Year One, you’ll go in and see them having sections for different levels of reading and then you’ll see some shelves where there’s lots of different kinds of books as well, there’s fiction books and non-fiction, a whole range and there’s atlases as well, some of the children love the atlases, it’s brilliant.  So I’d have the two different kinds of ways of displaying (books).  And then low level ones as well, they’ve got the boxes for the big picture books as well.

What is it about trees and schools, is there some connection between trees and reading …  everybody’s mentioned trees that I’ve talked to in connection with school design?

I don’t know, it’s probably the whole growing idea, plants and trees produce new flowers and things every year don’t they and so if we can put new books on it …

But children seem to really love trees in schools?

Maybe it’s because around here because there aren’t so many, maybe.

Did you ever have any trees in school yourself, as a child?

Yes, I did, one school I went to was on a hill and the drive up to it was tree lined and grass everywhere, so yeah, there’s been a lot of trees!

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