Writing Rivers

I originally saw Jon Biddle‘s excellent Reading Rivers report on the Open University’s Reading for Pleasure website. It stems from an idea originally explored by Pamela Burnard (2002) whereby the ‘river’ was used as a reflective tool to represent key musical experiences. It was then further explored by Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges (2010) with secondary readers and more recently, of course, developed into a tool for primary-aged children to explore their reading preferences and habits. Reading Rivers allow teachers to relect upon the reading repertoires of children in their care, as well as to review their exposure to different text types at home. It enables teachers to learn more about the diverse interests and everyday reading practices of children beyond the classroom environment.

I used Reading Rivers myself at the start of the school year to learn more about my new class. It’s essentially a creative task whereby the children make a visual collage of all the reading and texts that they encounter within a given time period (e.g. 24 hours or a weekend). The children can be given the option to cut and stick photographs, snippets of articles or train tickets, print off pictures of book covers or magazine logos, or even simply draw images to represent what they have read. See this example below by a Year 5 child:

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I assigned Reading Rivers as homework during the first week back to school after the Summer holidays. It was a brilliant opportunity to get to know my class and their reading identities. The children shared their rivers with the rest of the class, allowing them to identify others with similar interests and preferences. I also completed my own Reading River and shared it with the class so they could also understand more about my identity as a reading teacher.

The reading rivers allowed me to reflect on the reading practices and interests of the children and it gave invaluable insight into their reading engagement at home, their reading habits (e.g. online, tablets, kindle) and preferences, which could then be acted upon. For instance, we introduced a magazine corner and invested in more poetry for our book corner as this was something which didn’t appear on a single river!

Subsequently, I found myself wondering how to find out more about their writing practices. There is always a huge amount of focus on promoting reading for pleasure, but I’m keen to give the same weight and importance to writing for pleasure too. During early development, children mimic the language that they see and hear, later on in their childhood they are read to (hopefully!) with regular bedtime stories at home… but how often is writing modelled to them by others? How often do they write for pleasure at home? If they are writing at home, what are they writing? This is a question I was keen to delve into with my current class so I set about tweaking the Reading River concept and so the Writing River was born!

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It gave some invaluable insights into their preferences as writers (often to type rather than scribe) and the different forms of writing they encountered at home. We had everything from ‘secret diaries’ and short stories, to birthday cards, shopping lists, reminders on post-it notes and letters to family, in addition to typing whatsapp messages, song searches on Spotify and movie titles into Netflix. We even had some children practising their writing in other languages, including Chinese scripture.

These activities certainly increased my own awareness of what it means to read and write and it enabled the children to reflect on how important the role of literacy is in our daily lives. It’s a simple, yet incredibly effective way of gaining helpful insights into children’s daily reading and writing routines, but also (perhaps more importantly) for the children themselves to make the connections between their home and school literacy practices, as well as writing for pleasure and purpose.

Later this week, we’ll be sharing our Writing Rivers with each other and discussing our writing habits outside of school. We’re also encouraging parents and the wider school community to engage in an online social media campaign entitled #WeAreWriters by sharing snaps of themselves writing at home.

2 responses to “Writing Rivers”

  1. Hi Sadie- Ace blog I agree these are rich tools for understanding children’s literate identities and practices beyond the classroom. For info it was the Teachers as Readers project back in 2010 ( OU and UKLA) that adapted Gabrielle’s PhD R Rivers to primary – Jon shared his classes on the OU site ( he is a member of the Teacher Advisory Team) and they have since gone viral!! Let’s hope teachers can use Writing Rivers too to learn more about children’s real writing lives as you are!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My sincere apologies! Credit where credit is due – it’s an excellent tool for delving into children’s identities as readers and writers. Thank you!


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