From live performances to gruesome tales, Heywood Prep’s Head of English knows how to inspire a passion for reading and writing…
Given his love of literature, you might not be surprised to hear that Heywood Prep’s Head of English grew up immersed in books. But Gareth Edwards is also a huge fan of music and, in his twenties, his two passions collided when he found himself on the stage, taking starring turns in several productions.
“I took a musical theatre degree in Guildford,” he explains. “We studied and wrote plays, then sang and performed them around London. They ranged from Twelfth Night to the more ridiculous musicals, such as Barry Manilow’s Copacabana. It was intense, but brilliant, and I learnt so much about what makes a good story.
“After graduation, I did pursue acting for a time. I did TV voiceovers and narrated audiobooks too, but I soon decided I wanted to go into education. Fortunately, teaching later took me to New York for three years, where I was able to take full advantage of all the fantastic theatre on Broadway!”
Of course, Mr Edwards now brings his wealth of theatrical experience to Heywood, where he leads English in the prep department.
“Wherever possible, I use drama in the classroom,” he reveals. “For example, we often do a technique called hot-seating, which really helps the children to understand the characters in a story. If we’re studying Macbeth, I’ll invite them up one-by-one, to sit in a chair at the front and ‘be’ Macbeth.
“We’ll then take it in turns to ask questions, such as ‘what advice would you give me if I ever met three witches out on a moor?’ or ‘How do you feel about Lady Macbeth?’ It’s a great way to help the children get under the skin of a character – it really brings that person alive, and enables a deeper understanding of their psyche and motivations.
“We’ll often act out scenes from novels too, especially if it’s a more challenging chapter involving multiple characters and simultaneous events. Not only is this great fun for the children, but it enables them to really visualise the scene and develops their ability to interpret a text. It’s a huge help with comprehension.”
Vital life skills
Currently, the English curriculum is divided into three main strands – reading, comprehension and writing. While reading focuses on decoding words, comprehension focuses on a child’s understanding of a text and writing encompassing spelling, punctuation and grammar. And for Mr Edwards, the fundamental importance of these essential life skills cannot be underestimated.
“People say reading and writing will become less important, due to technology, but these are still the primary ways that we access information,” he explains. “We need to read to navigate a website, follow a recipe and even to access our learning. For example, a child might know how to do multiplication, but they need to understand the written question to know what’s being asked of them.
“Comprehension and reading fluency give us the key to accessing so much in life, they have a massive effect on our experience of the world. And when children learn to decode letters, they suddenly have access to so much incredible information, that’s lying at their fingertips. Those of us who are lucky enough to find reading straightforward can’t resist devouring the words on the back of a cornflakes packet, or a poster on the wall.
“When I worked in New York I taught a boy with learning difficulties, who couldn’t read English. I’ll never forget the first time he read the name plaque on a teacher’s door, completely independently. Suddenly he knew who was sitting in that room. It was a brilliant, lifechanging moment. We can’t predict what paths our children will take in adult life, but we can certainly give them the tools to succeed.”
But Mr Edwards doesn’t just want his pupils to learn to read and write fluently. “That’s just a baseline,” he says, passionately. “I love literature, and my goal is for the children to step beyond learning tools for life. I want them to love what they are doing, and get as much enjoyment from reading and writing as I do.”
So, how does he foster that enthusiasm for writing in the classroom? “Sometimes I’ll take in a piece of writing that isn’t effective – I usually write it myself,” he says. “Then I get the children to re-write it and improve the punctuation, grammar and figurative language. If the plot is already done for them, how can they really make it sizzle?”
Another technique, called quopying, is also guaranteed to get a great reaction.
“I write a story, then I highlight a quarter of the descriptive words and challenge the children to change them,” explains Mr Edwards. “It often develops into a silly or exaggerated tale, with wonderfully gruesome descriptions – a recent story involved ‘drops of ruby-red blood.’ Afterwards, I encourage everyone to read out their own versions, and the expression on the children’s faces is priceless.”
Stretching and supporting
As Mr Edwards mentions, not every child will find reading and writing easy at first, while others benefit from being challenged. Here at Heywood Prep, our Individualised Learning programme enables us to cater for this by giving each child four small-group sessions a week, which are carefully tailored to their specific needs. These might be writer’s workshops, or sessions geared towards boosting spelling and punctuation.
“We know who needs support and who needs to be stretched,” explains Mr Edwards. “Sometimes I’ll meet children who tell me they hate English, but by the end of the year they love it and that breakthrough is always wonderful.
“In class, it’s also important that we allow everyone the chance to throw themselves enthusiastically into the parts they can do more easily and not feel weighed down by their spelling and handwriting. Of course, these things are important, but the fundamental prerequisite is enjoying a story.”
A love of books
To that effect, Mr Edwards has championed creating a new school library at Heywood Prep. We opened the doors at the start of term, and the children are now embracing the opportunity to choose from a wide array of fiction and fact-based books.
“Nothing is quite as much fun as coming to a room that’s totally dedicated to books,” he says. “We organise them according to how tricky they are, and we help the children choose stories that they’ll find both challenging and enjoyable. The Year 6 students have access at lunch and, whenever I pop my head in, I find them chatting about the stories they’ve loved and recommending them to their friends.
“It’s so important to find the right books. After all, if you’re not desperate to find out what happens next, it’s hard to get excited about turning the page. When we’re reading in class and the lesson ends partway through a chapter, we want everyone to groan, “nooooo, not there!”
You can meet Gareth Edwards and the rest of our teaching team on a personal tour of the school. Find out more about life at Heywood Prep here.