As an English teacher, the goals I have for my students tend to be simple: I want them to achieve a great grade at the end of their English experience, and I want them to love reading – now, and forever.
Year 10 and 11 are mostly about the former aim: we work as hard as we can to ensure students “do well” in an academic sense. We need, due to time pressures, to prioritise this aim. For me, this makes year 9 all the more precious. I am blessed to work in a school which trusts me to do what I feel is right for my classes, and what I have decided to do with my year 9 is to invest time in my second aim.
To begin with, reading lists (of which more, later). How can we expect students to know what to read on their own? I didn’t enforce reading from the list, but most students did. I had a wonderful, warm, fuzzy moment a few weeks ago when I realised almost every student was reading a recommended book.
Then, silent reading. Controversial, perhaps (although part of me feels very sad that some people feel that children reading silently might be a bad thing). I started year 9 off with 10 minutes of silent reading every lesson, and one 50 minute reading lesson a week. In my experience, I felt that the main factor holding my students back was their literacy. They were amazingly creative thinkers, but they did not have the deep and fast comprehension skills they needed to succeed academically. I wasn’t going to back down from this: these kids needed to read. (Incidentally, although I experienced major guilt for these extended reading sessions, this was assuaged hugely by one conversation with a fellow teacher at a Prince’s Teaching Institute session, who was also a mother. She told me that her son had once been an avid reader, but now all he did was play computer games. I believe her exact words were: “if I could know he is reading for a solid 50 minutes a week, I would be thrilled.”)
This policy has had its ups and downs. To begin with, it simply didn’t happen. The students didn’t have the will or the ability to concentrate for so long. But over the weeks, something changed. I can’t remember when the shift occurred, but it seemed that, all of a sudden, they were actually reading, and really enjoying their reading. In fact, during the lesson I would catch some reading instead of doing the work – obviously not ideal, but surely a great thing to catch a student doing nonetheless. (Thinking of the alternatives, I would say this is actually pretty amazing. “You! Yes you! Stop reading immediately!” I really never thought I would say those words. Perhaps a sad side-effect.)
Then the students started reading books not on the lists, and enjoying them. And then recommending that I read them – more on this later too.
When I asked my year 9 one jittery session (yes, it still happens; they still find the reading hard at times, particularly towards the end of the day or the end of the term) why they thought we read at the start of every lesson, I received some valuable responses. One student, however, noted that they believed it was “to calm us down so we start the lesson ready to learn.” I hadn’t even considered this, but given the fact that I was essentially curtailing a 50 minute lesson and making it 40 minutes, I realised then that I’ve always managed to get a lot done with this class. The student was right – we begin the lessons in a focused and calm mindset. This only strengthened my belief in the silent reading starter.
But more than that, I really hope that my year 9 students can continue to love reading. These students deserve more than just a cookie-cutter course designed to allow them to have a grade on a piece of paper. English is about so much more than that. If these students can learn to love to read, I will have done my job.