How many friends should we have to be truly happy?

One? Two? Ten? A hundred? On social media, it’s definitely the more the merrier. But are they friends? The number we should have, is constantly in dispute. And this is because the term “friend” has varied meanings.

The in-tune friend:
If we’re lucky, we have that one friend, who knows exactly what we’re thinking and we can finish each other’s sentences. Sometimes just a look is all we need to know and we fall about laughing. That’s a great friend to have. You feel in tune with that person and therefore have a sense of belonging which so many of us need. But not everyone has that friend. There are other types of friends.

The Forever Friend:
Then we might have that friend who we rarely see, perhaps once per year at most due to distance, family or just life. But when we meet up we feel we’ve never been apart. We have the same viewpoints and interests so we instantly reconnect.

The Effortless Friend:
Then there’s the friend who we can relax without the need for conversation. The friendship is peaceful. It’s effortless. We all need peace in our lives.

The Challenging Friend:
In contrast there’s the friend who we feel we should hate. Who argues with us and has totally different viewpoints. When you analyse your friendship you have no idea why you keep arranging to meet up all the time. But perhaps, unbeknown to you, you actually like the challenge of having to prove your viewpoint. The relationship is fiery but fun and keeps you feeling alive.

The Reliable Friend:
Then you might have that reliable friend. You know if you arrange an event, whether it’s a party or a sponsored run or a litter-pick, they will turn up. They will support you whatever you do, even if they don’t like what you’ve organised. You organised it, so they’ll show up. They’re solid.

The Party Friend:
If you organise a party they’ll be there and they’ll be the important life and soul of the party. But they’re unlikely to come to much else. They know what they like and they stick with that. And that’s fine – they don’t owe you anything.

The Friend of a Friend:
We don’t invite them out and they don’t invite us out, but whenever you bump into them, you get along. Probably because you have the same friends.

The Fantasy Friend:
Sometimes a celebrity or fictional character in a book can feel like a friend. We’re not daft, we know they don’t know us (perhaps don’t even exist), but it’s still a nice feeling – I have a lot of those!

The Phone Friend:
If you’re feeling down, you can pick up the phone and they’ll listen. They don’t interrupt, they don’t tell you what to do, they just listen.

The Social Media Friend:
They interact with lots of your posts. That brief moment of trepidation when you post something that you hope others like but maybe won’t is immediately alleviated by their reactive “love”. You might never even have met them, but you feel a bond with them which you reciprocate by liking and sharing their posts too. Often this can be a “business” rather than an individual person, yet you still feel that bond.

The Work Friend:
You get on like a house on fire at work. You really appreciate each other and have a good laugh. You only want to go to work dos if they’re going to be there. But you never meet up any other time.

The Family Friend:
It could be your spouse, sibling, parent or adult child. The friendship is different but so important. They know you so well, yet never hold that against you! They may be your only confident.

The Furry (or feathery or scaly) Friend:
It’s no joke – your pet can be that constant source of love and acceptance. You can tell them your deepest darkest secrets and they’ll never tell a soul.

The Manipulative Friend:
The one who sucks the life out of you, makes you feel angry, depressed, worthless and tells you that you owe them. They’re not a “friend”. They’re just a manipulative “person”.

The Self Friend:
This friend is the most over-looked friend – it is you! Are you kind to yourself? Do you allow yourself “me time” or are you harsh and judgemental? Friendship definitely starts with yourself because you’re with yourself 24/7.

Some of the above might be the same person. And we don’t need all of them. But what if you don’t have any friends? Not any true friends – just people who you associate with and think they’re your friends. Sometimes, friends are not the people you expect them to be…

In “The Boy Who Couldn’t”, I put Greg, a boy with a difficult family life and who was considered cool and tough, with two younger boys, one of whom, James, was very uncool and certainly not tough. It was like a little social experiment. Of course, none of them wanted to be friends, they never would have chosen each other in a million years, but circumstances placed them together.

As they were forced to spend time together, they saw past these external façades and began to get to know the real character inside. Greg began to admire James for his knowledge and passion for the countryside and in particular for badgers. James glimpsed a kinder side to Greg and a vulnerability as he saw him smile and laugh for the first time as he watched the badger cubs playing and came to the realisation that Greg must usually be very unhappy.

This tenuous friendship is soon tested when the boys have to rely on each other to save the badgers from dangerous baiters. Distrust and misunderstandings quickly cause problems.

The friendship that is perhaps more important than any other in this story is James’ father towards Greg. It’s the relationship he should have had with his own dad and it is the gentle glue that holds Greg together when his world is falling apart. It is initially James’ father’s idea for the boys to spend time together and it made me think about how often we can influence our children’s friendship choices.

Too many times I hear of children with autism, ADHD or some other difference, being excluded from parties. Recently, it was one of my own friends who poured her heart out; how upset her child was knowing he wouldn’t be invited to the “Freedom” parties during the summer holidays. We need to teach our children that everyone deserves a chance at friendship. Every child deserves forgiveness and second chances when they get things wrong. When you invite that troublesome or lost little soul to your child’s party, you won’t miraculously cure all their problems, but you can be one significant signal to that child that you think they’re worthy.

World Friendship Day this year is 30th July 2021, followed two days later by National Friendship Day UK on 1st August 2021. Wouldn’t it be great if every child and every adult picked up the phone, called round (if rules allow) or sent a message to a friend – whatever type of friend that might be. And if they reached out to someone who isn’t a friend yet, even better.

Friends make the world a better place. To quote Winnie the Pooh (well, A A Milne I guess), “A friend is someone who helps you when you’re down, and if they can’t, they lay beside you and listen.”

Let’s all try to be that friend and teach our children to be that friend too.


How Can I Get My Teenager to Read?

Teenagers… they’re a little more challenging than they were when they were in single figures!

We all try our best, but I frequently have frustrated, worn out parents of teens asking me for the magical cure to make their previously cheerful child recover from their current reading refusal.

At this point, I wouldn’t blame Primary school teachers for feeling a little smug – they did a fantastic job teaching the children to read, but now those same children are at Secondary, it’s all gone awry!

So, what’s changed and how can you fix it?

They are older. Okay, I know I’ve stated the obvious here, but think about it – have you actually made any adjustments for their age? Are you still trying the same author that your child liked five years ago? Or last year? Are you trying to protect your children from horrors and thrillers perceiving your child to still be too young and in need of protection? Pre-teens and teenagers love danger and taking risks – the safest way for them to experience danger and risk-taking is through a book so let them push their boundaries.

They think reading is so uncool! Well, if they’re still reading the same books they read at Primary school, yes it is uncool. If you’re still using their Primary teachers and (I’m sorry…) yourselves as role models, then yes – you are soooooo uncool, like OMG embarrassing! Change the role models, how about Marcus Rashford, Frank Lampard, Georgia Toffolo, Scarlett Curtis, Stacey Dooley, Stormzy, Oti Mabuse, Nish Kumar, Aleesha Dixon, Tom Hardy, Taylor Swift… If you haven’t heard of some of these, you prove the point! Look out for my next blog where I’m going to be looking at the reading habits of certain celebrities.

The books are too difficult/too big. If your child hasn’t reached the fluency stage yet (which happens at a reading-age of approximately 12/13 then they are still concentrating hard on the actual reading itself: decoding, sentence structure and punctuation. It’s only when they reach full fluency that reading becomes almost as subconscious as breathing and they feel like they’re watching a film rather than doing any work. Teenagers are old enough to have this explained to them. Tell them that just like anything, football, gaming, dancing, whatever – practice is the only way to improve. But be clear that the practice will pay off – once they reach fluency it really will be like sitting down and watching TV! Now what self-respecting teenager isn’t attracted to the idea of no work at all! Oh and contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of older children’s books which are nice and short! There are also “Hi-Lo” books which are written for higher aged students with lower reading ages, so if their reading age is younger than their actual age, they don’t have to read “babyish” books. Ask your school librarian for recommendations.

They don’t have as much time as they used to. They don’t have time or you don’t have time? Time management is one of the most useful skills you can teach your child. They have more homework now and they still want to attend their clubs, then there are their friends to play out with. There is time to read, but it needs to be scheduled into their daily plan. Make sure their reading time is also your reading time. If you sit down and read together it makes the calm, relaxed and focused time they need. If you’re zipping about doing the laundry or making dinner, they’ll be distracted and stop reading. This is the best excuse ever to stop the housework, sit down and relax with a good book – and you’re being a brilliant parent doing it. I’m handing it to you on a plate! Take it 😊

They just don’t want to. In order to make reading an attractive proposition, we need to enhance the experience. Make sure the room is clean, tidy, comfy and quiet. Get yourselves a hot chocolate or a cool lemonade, light a scented candle, put out a snack, snuggle up with your pet… anything that makes the time more attractive. Make sure they have plenty of choices of books. If they find a book boring, there needs to be another one to hand. Borrow lots for free from your school or public library. Your teenager doesn’t need to read for long. 10 minutes is enough to start with and then build them up to 20 minutes per day if you can.

They have a new hobby. Excellent! They can read lots of non-fiction books about their hobby to learn as much as possible about it. And I guarantee, no matter how weird their hobby is, there’ll be a fiction book out there with a main character who has the same hobby!

So there you have it. What has changed is your child! They don’t have the same mindset, tastes or attitudes they did last year. We have to let them grow up, no matter how much we want to press the pause button, but we can still guide them. And the fact you have just read this blog shows you want the best for them. You are fabulous and they will appreciate you … eventually.

Good luck! xx


Reading with Mother (or whoever)

A great blog here on how to help your young child foster a love of reading. Written by Jessica Norrie.

Words and Fictions

Once a week we send two “reading books” home from the school where I teach.We also send a library book, English and Maths homework from year 2 onwards; requests for help with projects like family trees, local history or holiday diaries; pleas for junk modelling materials and Sainsbury’s vouchers; payment demands (technically optional) for school outings/ visiting performers/ tuition in musical instruments, sports or drama; slips to be returned with appointments for parents evenings and curriculum information sessions; reminders to bring in PE kit /suncream /rainwear / asthma pump /no cuddly toys in in case they cause arguments; occasional instructions for special clothing, eg red for Red Nose day, jeans on Jeans for Genes Day, superheroes on – you get the picture – or once, crazy hair (can’t remember why)… Then there’s a newsletter containing information about everything else, except what’s forgotten and has to be disseminated via separate letters, and what is officially copied…

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Accelerated Reader: The Marmite of Reading Programmes across the UK (and possibly the rest of the world)

I love Accelerated Reader. Almost as much as I love my dog.

Can you relate to this – you take your students to the library full of the thrill of knowing you’re just about to expose a whole class to the joys of reading. “Look at all these books,” you enthuse, “there’s something for everyone.” Then you knowledgeably quote Frank Serafini: “There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who haven’t found the right book.” You picture yourself as Robin Williams in the Dead Poets’ Society and as you turn to see their lit up delighted faces, you notice that they have their backs to the books and are chatting about something totally irrelevant. “Come on, choose a book,” you cajole. To your horror, Candice and Ferrari reach out behind them without even looking and turn to the MIDDLE of the books and carry on talking.

Eventually you have the whole class settled with a book each. Dani even has his turned the right way up, now you’ve pointed it out to him. Sofee and Angel have had their maths homework removed from behind the books and Zacc and Tyler have agreed to read a very thin book.

Ahh, you’re convinced that twenty minutes of complete absorption will follow and you’ll have converted all 30 students into readers for life. Two minutes later, Zacc and Tyler claim they have finished their books. “But you can’t have finished already!” you protest. They are adamant, so you find them two more skinny books. Meanwhile, Tia and Davina say their book is boring and want to change it. Lee’s just realised he’s already read the one he has and the ever-ambitious Quentin admits he really doesn’t understand what is happening in “The Great Gatsby”.

Reality hits you square in the face.

Before Accelerated Reader, this was my reality.

Accelerated Reader is a two-part programme. The first part is the STAR test. Of all the reading tests I’ve used over the years, this is the one I favour. The reason is that it adapts each question depending on the student’s answer to the previous question, so the questions are never too easy or too hard for any student, which prevents boredom or disillusionment and keeps them focused and trying their best. One huge bonus is that there is no time-consuming marking for the teachers and as it is a live site, the results are instant. The STAR test results give far more than just a reading age, you can find which are their weakest skills to highlight for intervention and many other things too. But the key information for me is the students’ ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). Books that are too easy do not improve the students’ reading skills; books that are too difficult only improve the students’ reading skills slowly and often put the student off reading; books that hit the Goldilocks spot give the reader the most enjoyment and the fastest progress.

Tia and Davina’s books might be boring, but it is more likely that the books are too difficult, so the story is lost on them. Zacc and Tyler’s books are probably far too easy and they need something more challenging. (Although it’s a mistake to assume a small book is an easy book.) Quentin can challenge himself more realistically when he knows his ZPD.

Your librarian might not love you when s/he finds out they have to label up every book with their AR level, but it’s going to be worth it. Trust me. (By the way, librarians love little gifts like a box of chocolates or a very large bottle of wine!)

So this is where the Accelerated Reader part comes in to play.

Every time a student finishes reading a book (that was preferably but not always within their ZPD), they are asked to take a quiz on it (REMEMBER IT’S A QUIZ NOT A TEST!) If they pass the quiz, they get points and a computerised bar or sunflower is filled, depending on your settings (my students love the sunflowers). In most schools, points make prizes. Boys in particular, seem to love competing.

Remember Sofee and Angel? They always chose a different book and read the middle pages. They can’t get away with this anymore because they can’t pass the quiz based on 4 pages from the middle of a book. Let’s face it – they didn’t even know what the book was called. Now they have to read a book from beginning, through the middle, to the end. You never know – now that they’ve tried it, they might actually enjoy it!

Zacc and Tyler were reading the skinny books. They’re competitive sporty boys (I know I’m stereotyping but it’s just so common!) Well when they started competing against each other, they read lots and lots of skinny books that added up to the equivalent of one huge book each. Then they started on slightly thicker ones because they’d read all the thin ones. Turns out they quite like Tom Palmer and have requested more.

Quentin, is over the moon because he’s been reading lots of large books within his ZPD and he’s now a word millionaire – yes that’s a thing. He has his certificate and everything.

Here are the arguments I hear against Accelerated Reader

Students can watch the film to pass the quizzes easily. Actually, no. Those lucky so-and-sos who write the quizzes have to watch every film version of the book and make sure that enough of the questions are based on the differences between the films and the book. Try it – some of our English teachers tried quizzing on films they’d seen to test it out and they all failed the quiz.

They should be reading for pleasure not for points. Yes, I hear you. But if you can’t actually get them to read, then they’ll never develop the reading for pleasure. The ones who are already reading for pleasure are not the target here, they’re reading any way and Accelerted Reader won’t detract from their pleasure. Hooking in the reluctant readers is the aim and that it does very well.

It’s not suitable for SEN students. They have no chance competing against the stronger readers. Oh I beg to differ. This is ideal for SEN students. Firstly, look at your competitions. Are you competing with points or amount of words read? Stop! Your competitions should be based on amount of engaged minutes read. This is the only fair way to do it. Every time a student passes a quiz, not only does it count the amount of words in the book, but it also takes into consideration their reading level, assuming that weaker readers, read more slowly than higher readers. Therefore, it can estimate the amount of minutes the student was engaged in reading. This creates a level playing field from the weakest reader to the strongest. It also means that if you are competing between classes, it doesn’t matter how many students are in a class as it is an average. So the special class with just 8 students is just as likely to win as the full class of 30. Furthermore, students who have a short focus enjoy the quizzing because they see it as a break from reading, but they are still totally engaged with the book they have just read and progressing their learning and their reading skills.

Readers shouldn’t be told they can’t read a book – it’s too prescriptive! Of course a student shouldn’t be told they can’t read a book. That’s not the correct way to run this programme. The advice is to read at least 60% of the books within their ZPD, but never, never should we tell a student they can’t read a book. If Sofee and Angel suddenly discover Dork Diaries, I’m not going to stop them reading them whether they’re in their ZPD or not. Reading for pleasure absolutely IS the focus here. We’re just guiding them to books that suit their ability.

We study a book in English that doesn’t have an Accelerated Reader quiz. Teachers can make their own quizzes and upload them for their school.

Like anything, if you research it carefully, put some effort in and have support of the teachers delivering, it can be a big success. I thought I’d leave you with a couple of success stories:

Child A – I was informed he was disruptive during silent reading. I spoke to him and discovered that he was reading David Walliams and it was “boring”. The book was 4.8. Child A’s ZPD was 1.4-2.4. I brought him 6 very thin books within his ZPD and persuaded him to give one a try. He read it and passed the quiz, shouting out to the whole class that he’d passed (I allowed him that disruption, his enthusiasm was heart-warming). He then asked if I’d bring him books every day to Silent Reading. I agreed. When we broke up for half term, he asked me for extra books to take home. 😊

Child B – Told me her mum was amazed to find her quietly reading in her room. Especially as she hadn’t even been told to. This hadn’t happened since primary, three years ago. It turned out she’d simply got out of the habit of reading, but now that the teachers knew if she’d read the full book or not, she’d had to read a full one and rekindled her love of reading.

Child C and Child D – I overheard them discussing which books were most fun to read. These were two reluctant reader boys who had started off pretending to read and borrowing the same books again and again, just to look like they were reading.

Child E (SEN) – Dad emailed to say how proud his son is of reaching his sunflower target ahead of time and please could he have his target increased.

I’d love to know any success stories you have.

I would just like to point out that I am not in any way affiliated with STAR reading or Accelerated Reader, RenLearn or Renaissance Place. I’m just a really enthusiastic librarian who loves to share great ideas and success 😊

All names are fictional.


We Wish you a Merry Lockdown and a Frugal New Year

How to enjoy Christmas on a small budget and no relatives round. With some imagination and a little organisation, you can have a festive Christmas.

We claim Christmas is about religion, children, family and being charitable. In reality, Christmas has become about, expensive presents, feasts and heavy drinking.

This year, many people won’t have as much money as they normally do, or they’ll be worried about spending in case they lose their job in the new year. So perhaps this is the reset we all needed – even if we didn’t realise we needed it.

  1. Father Christmas doesn’t buy tonnes of huge presents to put under the Christmas tree – come on, be realistic, he couldn’t fit them all on his sledge. He fills one stocking (a sock, not something you could fit a small elephant in) with cheap little presents: comic, pack of cards, chocolate bar, multi-bic, cheap nail varnish, orange, walnut, bath bomb, sticky goo, etc.
  2. YOU buy the bigger presents that go under the tree. Then not only do you get the credit and your children learn to appreciate you instead of the big guy getting all the credit, but in the case of a family financial crisis, the children don’t think Father Christmas is cross with them this year.
  3. Instead of pictures of your child next to a ridiculously large pile of presents, post a picture of your child’s grinning, chocolate smeared face, appreciating the presents regardless of value. We have to stop competing with money and enjoy the moment instead.
  4. All those nights you would have been out partying? Sit together as a family with your children and make your own Christmas cards and presents for the closest family members. I know I appreciate my grandchildren’s hideous drawings of me and their clumsy attempts at creating bookmarks, because I know that they loved making them and they were thinking of me when they made them. I’d rather have a badly decorated £2 flowerpot than some £50 designer pot every time.
  5. The Christmas meal. Why do we go so over the top? We can never eat it all and even with turkey soups and turkey curries for days after, most of it still goes in the bin. So, let’s just make a Sunday dinner and add stuffing, cranberry sauce and a cracker. (A Christmas cracker – although if you want to have a cheese cracker with your Christmas dinner that’s your choice!)

Now what really contributes to the Christmas fun, is squeezing 101 family members around the tiny kitchen table. Unfortunately, we can’t do that this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still interact. There’s plenty of time to learn how to use Zoom (I’m sure other brands are available). And it’s free. So here are half a dozen great family-friendly, Zoom-friendly, Christmas party games to start you off:

Charades: This is a mime game. If ever a game translated to Zoom, this was it!
Rules: Whoever wants to host goes first. They think of the title of a book, play or film and mime which it is. If it’s a book they mime opening a book, if it’s a film they mime holding an old fashioned TV camera with one hand whilst winding with the other hand, if it’s a play they draw the shape of the opening curtains. Then they hold the amount of fingers up for the amount of words in the title. Once everyone has shouted out the amount of words, they then hold up the finger to show which word they are going to mime first, so if they’re starting with the second word they hold up two fingers. To show how many syllables the word has they tap that amount of fingers on their arm. They can also mime one syllable at a time if they like by tapping which syllable on their arm. After that, when everyone knows whether it’s a book, film or play, how many words it has, which word they’re miming, how many syllables it has and which syllable they’re miming (if they chose to split the syllables up) they, mime that word (or part word). If someone get’s it right the mimer normally touches their nose and points to the person who got it right, but for Zoom, they’ll just need to shout the person’s name who got it right. When someone eventually guesses the full title, they win and it is their turn to be the mimer.

Bingo: (It’s a good idea to warn everyone to prepare this the day before). Everyone needs a pen and paper. They make a grid of 2 down by 8 across. They put in 16 different numbers between 1 and 99 of their choice. At the beginning of the game, everyone must hold up their card so everyone can see it – this avoids the temptation to have a blank card and write the numbers in as they’re called. Maybe you’ll trust your family? Maybe not! The host uses any random number generator site and shares their screen so everyone can see it. They can also have great fun giving the full Bingo calls: Legs Eleven, two little ducks Twenty Two, etcetera. You can have prizes for a line and prizes for a full house.

Quiz: (This definitely needs to be prepared in advance by whoever wants to host the game). Make sure there are questions that each generation can do well in, for example a nursery rhyme round for very young children, social media questions for teenagers and for the oldies perhaps music questions that relate to their youth. When it comes to the answers, be generous with close answers 😊 You can style your quiz however you like, but here are some ideas:
Books category: the opening lines from famous books (Amazon’s look-inside feature will help you here).
Music category: Name that song (just play a small section) or guess the year that … song was No1 in the charts, etc. (Make sure you have a broad mix so every generation has a chance to win.)
History category: Dates of coronations or wars or how long a war lasted. For example, do you know how long the One Hundred Day War really lasted? (I’ll give you a clue – it wasn’t 100 days!)
Geography category: What is the capital city of… or name a country that has a live volcano, or questions around rivers, etcetera.
Animal category: What is the collective noun for… What is a baby … called? Name an animal beginning with the letter …
Personal category: you can have some great fun with this. Questions such as “which family member did a cartwheel whist eating popcorn and had to go to A&E go get it removed from their nose?” (That was my daughter by the way!) Keep it fun and light – don’t shame or humiliate anyone.

Silliest Face: No explanation needed! The children will be brilliant at this, but watch out for those weird aunties!

Fastest Finger First: A quick fire round of questions. (Prep needed.) The game host asks a question and the contestants type the answer into the chat. Whoever answers correctly first wins. These are usually general knowledge questions. The host should be aware of the age and ability of the contestants.

Truth, Truth, Lie: Again, let people plan in advance. Each person takes turns telling two truths and one lie about themselves. The contestants guess which is the lie and type A B or C into the chat. One point to each correct guess.

Plan your Zoom games in advance, not only will the fun run more smoothly, but it will add a bit of excitement to the days leading up to Christmas day too. Share out the hosting by allocating a different game for each household to host. Make sure everyone knows how to use Zoom and has their wifi sorted – the silver surfers might need some over the phone instruction.

As you cannot hand out a physical prize, they can take the form of promises instead, such as a hot chocolate with the full works at your local café when you’re allowed out, or the host of each competition can send a certificate to the winner in the post. It’s all up to you. The main thing is, you will have had fun with your family on Christmas day! 😊