Reading in the Wild

Reading in the Wild
Langstone Harbour Information Board

There can’t be a piece of wilderness in Britain that wouldn’t be improved by a well written information board. I love the sensation of having a well informed, but not too pushy, expert with me. An expert you can walk away from.

Text books are overbearing companions; they have a pedagogic, good-for-you quality and set me skim reading. I don’t learn well from a text book.

The information board adds a layer to the landscape. It is rich and situated and real.

I also love the texts at museums. Without them, how can the strange objects in display cabinets fill me with wonder? But here’s the point of this blog – how many children can’t access this written information? It isn’t enough to take children to museums. Unless they can access the texts they only get superficial access.

This footprint is a great example, I have copied its accompanying text from the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester:

Reading in the wild.
Dinosaur footprint.

You are in Swanage in Purbeck, Dorset, looking out to sea, except that instead of standing on the promenade, your feet sink into a shallow, shelly lagoon. Unstick your shoes from the limey mud, take a few steps and look at the impressions left behind you. Your footprints are not alone.

This footprint trackway was left by dinosaurs. The size, depth and gait of these prints give us clues about the bulk and weight of the creatures. We can see they have three toes (tridactyl) making the most likely candidates iguanadons or meglosaurs. Evidence of both of these dinosaurs is fossilised in nearby rocks of the same age. 

Which of your pupils will read these texts and gain the wonderful context provided? You know it isn’t usually the ones who never get to go to a museum. Even when you take them, they only get half the experience.

So here is my recommendation. Adapt Read Write Inc’s Literacy and Language model. The sequence, simplified, is outline below:

  1. Prepare the scene for the pupils: collect images, objects and videos. In this case, bring in a fossil to show and discuss; show a walking with dinosaurs clip; show art work of the meglosaurus or iguanadons.
  2. Read out a very simplified version so that pupils have an outline. In this case, it would be a simple as, “When the dinosaur walked over the soft mud, it left footprints.”
  3. Read out a more detailed version, but without the challenging vocabulary. For example, “Imagine you are wading along a shallow muddy beach. You can see your own footprints in the mud. You can also see other footprints of a large animal.” Then show the photo of the museum object. “This footprint was left by a dinosaur. It gives us clues about the type of dinosaur walking here millions of years ago. Fossils of dinsaurs with similar shaped feet have been found nearby.”
  4. Choose the vocabulary you want to focus on to understand the text. Your pupils don’t need to understand every word, as long as the meaning can be interpreted. For example, limey is probably not needed, but impression is.
  5. Read the text to the pupils without them reading along. Ask questions.
  6. Read the text with them following.
  7. They read the text alone.

In a Read Write Inc lesson, there are other activities surrounding this sequence (and the texts are longer) so it would take several lessons. I recommend sharing this sequence over several lessons as well. For example, number 5, 6 and 7 can be five minute sections at the start of end of separate lessons.

If you incorporate this sequence into your lessons before you go on a trip, your pupils will be able to read the text with almost no effort. They will be able to access the knowledge as well as a more experienced reader and have a richer experience.

Being able to read texts “in the wild” gives learners access to a richer experience. Keats should have known better – knowing about a wonderful thing can’t “unweave a rainbow” but instead will add a layer of wonder and understanding. Prepare you pupils and they can share it.


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