I teach, therefore I am.
Five weeks ago in the early hours of a Saturday morning on a cold grey day, I got a coach to Southampton. A COACH. Why? Well I had been asked to present a workshop on Literacy at #TLT13 by the educational dream team that is David Fawcett (@davidfawcett27) and Jen Ludgate (@MissJLud). Saturday CPD is my guilty pleasure; the list of other presenters was impressive and it conspired that Jen and I are long-lost childhood friends. Never mind a coach, I would have hitchhiked from London.
When asked to come up with a topic for the Literacy category I found one word spring to mind: READING. It was the word that I had found myself uttering endlessly at Parents’ Evenings and during conversations with students on their progress. I wanted to explore its essential connection to literacy and I had made efforts to develop activities with a reading focus, which I thought had worked well. The more I thought about the subject – and it also came at a time when I was working on developing a whole school reading programme for my school – the more the word ‘endlessly’ began to haunt me. Reading as a way to improve literacy is not a new idea, yet despite the repetition of this message it seemed that it was not being heard.
Even amongst educated adults there seems to be a gleeful pride when uttering the phrase “oh I don’t read”, as if it is a badge of honour. I could see that ‘reading for pleasure’ had started to sound empty; like a glib remark to make when you didn’t want to set any homework. Thinking about this I realised that the same is true for those of us who aren’t natural mathematicians; I remember times when fellow arts students and I have disdainfully talked about how we weren’t particularly numerate. Even now, I wonder how I would feel if asked to put maths into all my lessons, or to run mental arithmetic as part of my form time. If I was told it was useful and that it was school policy, I’d probably do it but without passion or interest (and thus it would die for my students). So I wanted to stop assuming that just saying reading is really, really good for you and is fun would be enough to convince others. As I truly do believe that reading makes a difference; I owed it to my students and colleagues to spend some time getting to know the details behind this assertion; evaluating the work that I had already done and considering new approaches. This was a process which spread over several months and only really started to crystallise as the first term at ELSS got underway. Thus my workshop was born.
The research that I bandy about when discussing reading come from the National Literacy Trust research report on reading for pleasure. For me the key areas of this report were those which focused not only on the joy of reading but on how it influenced students’ academic achievement. As a Head of Department determined to provide a programme with high aims for my pupils; I wanted the hard evidence to back up my instinct and personal experience that reading could do this. I found this part of the report particularly inspiring:
It’s a point that I’ve probably asserted before but not articulated, yet it fits with the central aim of my school; to push students from all backgrounds to achieve academic excellence.
The report also looks at research surrounding the importance of parental important and how schools can in some respects make up for that by ‘Reading for Pleasure’ programmes but also need to try to engage parents. In conversation with my pupils about their favourite memories of reading, the majority of them talked about having been read to by their parents or reading with their parents at bed time. It struck me as rather sad that this was a pleasure taken away with age, that for some reason we stop doing this despite the fact that being read to continues to be a wonderful experience no matter what our age. The NLT report points to a YouGov poll, which ‘showed that only 40% of parents to 0-12 years old read to their child every day/night’ and that only 21% of parents of 9-12year olds specifically read to their children. Presumably after the child reaches 12years old, no-one even asks their parents? I once saw Michael Morpurgo speak at Kings College London and he talked about his teaching past, where he introduced a story-telling half hour for his classes; not only enhancing the experience for his students but also providing the context in which he became a writer. I haven’t formulated a plan to overcome this, but it has made me ensure that we include this story-telling element within form and lesson time. These cheering Tweets from @stephenlockyer who had attended the workshop, made me hopeful that I’m not alone in thinking this is important.
After exploring research about reading, I went on to discuss some of the approaches that I had been using at ELSS to provide opportunities for engagement with reading beyond English lessons. Firstly pupils are expected to have a reading book on them at all time – it is part of their school equipment; as essential as a pen. This means that reading can take place at any given time or spare moment; from the canteen to the tube! We also run targeted whole school reading and have appointed reading representatives within the school:
As a school we’ve also invested heavily in technology; pupils each have a Nexus 7 which they use in lessons and at home. This allows instant access to books for our pupils, who often find this more engaging than print versions. Pupils are able to scan in e-books from the library straight onto their own tablets. This links up with the research about how ownership of books can also be a powerful motivation for pupils to read for pleasure. Since the workshop, using technology to transform the reading experience rather than simply enhance it is something which I have become increasingly interested in; I presented on this at #DigITfest and am now working on it as part of the Edtech Accelerator programme (@Edtechincubater). In particular, I’m interested in its potential to harness the talk around reading, more of which later. In the workshop I considered the benefits in general of these conversations:
We ended with a great discussion around these different aspects and activities, including the tensions between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards of reading; which are also detailed in the NLT report. I reflected on the fact that this is just the beginning of our work on reading. At this point, it is important for me that I ensure this becomes a deep and meaningful part of our school rather than a selection of gimmicks or a sparkling project that gets abandoned as the school grows. This film of my pupils discussing reading gives me the hope that we have at least started in the right place and inspires me to keep going!