On 17th October, I travelled to Southampton for my second year presenting at TLT. I was talking about reading (not much new there), and, specifically, how to read. Reading, of course, is at the core of what we do as teachers; and not just as teachers of English. More and more in my new role, I’m coming to see that reading may be the only silver bullet in education: beautiful in its simplicity, obvious in its impact.
The reality is that our strongest readers read the most, and our weakest readers the least: the exact opposite what we need to see to close the gap between our best and worst performing students. This is not only true in their home lives, but also in our classrooms. Anyone who has ever asked for volunteers to read (including: me; guilty as charged) is advantaging those strong readers, and further denying reading from the weakest.
The gap in reading is not just a practice gap: it is also a knowledge gap. When we take our weak readers out of subjects to teach them reading skills, we are denying them that subject-specific knowledge that will enable them to make sense of a wider variety of texts. With the new strengthened GCSEs, students being able to read rigorous subject matter independently is essential.
Of the three stages of reading, decoding, comprehension and fluency, I said the least about decoding, instead pointing people to the awesome Katie Ashford’s blog, where she gives plenty of great advice on how to deal with students who cannot decode. It is clear that too many students slip through the decoding net at primary school, and we at secondary school lack the expertise to bridge that gap. This is evident in my experience in even years 10 and 11; last year I taught a student who would auto-correct unfamiliar words, as she didn’t know how to decode and hadn’t been properly taught phonics. She would autocorrect so many words, she couldn’t then understand the sentence, so for example: ‘Alison leapt up bracingly from her meal’ she might read aloud: ‘Alison led up braking from her meal’, which makes absolutely no sense.
Comprehension entails understanding what is written. Using Willingham’s examples from his excellent book Raising Kids who Read, often reading contains an inference gap: ‘Trisha spilled her coffee. Dan jumped from his chair to fetch a cloth.’ Expert readers automatically see how the first sentence impacts the second; novice readers might see these as two separate and unconnected events.
Interestingly, though, the gap between those from low and high income backgrounds manifests itself after the decoding has been taught, because comprehension, the second stage, is largely predicated on background knowledge, which our economically advantaged students have in abundance (usually from wide background reading). Using Hirsch’s classic ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run,’ I explained that readers with high levels of knowledge on a given topic do better on tests which supposedly only test their reading ‘skill.’
And yet we are still persisting in believing our weak readers simply need more training in generic reading strategies, often withdrawing students from subject lessons to teach reading in isolation, and then wondering why their reading is not improving. In fact, the optimal way to close the reading gap is for students to gain a broad knowledge of subjects across the curriculum.
So clearly, we need to put reading at the heart of our lessons. Yet this is not an easy sell. Citing my own trials of getting students to read aloud (ranging from outright refusals to early tears), I later that evening found there were many out there who considered reading aloud in class to be cruel: (
I welcome those challenges to this idea. It is all too easy to do whole class reading badly.
Indeed, it is absolutely vital to consider the emotional impact of such a policy, and the way to make it work in your individual classroom for your children. Running a class where every child reads aloud is difficult, make no mistake about it. It depends on excellent pedagogy and the creation of a warm, safe environment. It requires constant vigilance and tight management. But, crucially, it is possible.
Why read aloud with students, if it is so difficult? First, so we know they can read. I’ve heard of too many teachers at KS4 finding out their students can’t read to not put this top of my list of reasons. Next, so we know they are listening during the lesson – the knowledge you could be asked to read at any time undeniably focuses the mind. Also, reading aloud helps us as teachers to check for understanding, something impossible when students are reading silently at their own pace. But finally, because reading aloud is probably the most enjoyable thing you can do with a class.
One recent example: when year 7 went on their ‘outward bound’ trip, I was the lucky teacher of history with three periods to fill for those ‘left behind.’ A mixed group of around 18 students of vastly differing ability, I didn’t want to press on with the planned lessons, but also didn’t have a bank of ‘rainy day’ history lessons as a first year teacher of this subject. In my desperation, I photocopied about 30 pages of Gombrich’s History of the World (recommended to me in the summer by both Daisy Christodoulou and Jonathan Porter) and threw together some comprehension questions. The first lesson was fine, but I was really concerned about the double: two hours of pure reading and writing. And guess what? It’s probably the best lesson I’ve ever taught. No joke – I wish someone had come to see it. These children were utterly, utterly engaged in a way I’ve seen only rarely, in the most remarkable teachers’ classrooms. They adored the stories, and their curiosity led to a wonderful class discussion and some impressive paragraphs.
It was not always thus. Previously, I would use ‘guided reading,’ where my students read at different paces in groups, thus ensuring no misconceptions could be ironed out, and again advantaging those strong readers. Moreover, I previously did not read aloud well to students, as I have written about here.
So, I was held back by my own low expectations, and it was the children themselves who set me on the right track: they wanted to read, and they seized that moment to show me they could do it.
But how can we do it every lesson? Here, Doug Lemov has the best answer I’ve found with ‘Control the Game.’ I went through each of the components of this: be vague about how much children will be reading, keep the reading duration unpredictable but short at the outset, move swiftly to the next reader with limited words (‘Stacey, pick up’, or, in my class, ‘Stacey’) and take over and model reading of tricky passages. At the start of my time in a new school, I tweaked this: we did snake around the class, for two weeks in fact. What was lost in terms of students checking out and not following in this two weeks was made up for, I think, in that it set the expectation that every child would read in every one of my lessons. For unconfident readers, they got used to this expectation with the predictability. It also gave me two weeks to suss who was going to push back on reading, and deal with them individually. (Interestingly, my year 10 middle ability class proved harder to get reading than my year 11 set 7 class, who frequently bound into my room shouting ‘are we reading today miss?’) Only once the whole class was secure in reading (and only a sentence each time) did I move to selecting students, but even now they are only reading a sentence, though I am moving away from that.
The implications of this kind of teaching are that teachers need to spend their planning thinking more about the questions they will need to ask students to ensure they have understood, along with which vocabulary students will struggle with and how they will gloss those words and check students have learned them.
From the mechanics of reading I moved to the motivation: reading is highly emotional, and I shared methods I’ve written about extensively on this blog in the past to build a reading culture in a school, such as sharing one book, sharing reading lists and delivering reading assemblies.
Once again, I would like to thank my warm and encouraging audience, who indulged me in my anecdotes and engaged with the ideas with gusto. Much love also goes to those who listen and challenge in the room and after: it is only through such thrashing out of the ideas that we come closer to being the best teachers and professionals we can be.