Are English teachers READING?

The Guardian’s Secret Teacher is always a miserable read and often weighed down by the doleful comments that it attracts every week. This time the unnamed teacher is an English specialist who bemoans the woeful state of English teaching in her school.

She starts by claiming that the English teachers in her school simply don’t read books for themselves. They’ve got no personal, active interest in reading fiction:

Teachers only read the bits of books they have to teach – and even then it’s often one chapter ahead of their students. If there’s a bit of a text they don’t understand or think is boring, they just remove it from the photocopied version before class. It means that teachers are effectively editing texts, and some are not familiar with reading entire books.

(I understand her essential point but would counter that any teaching of a text is an act of editing and selection of material.) I’ve noticed that some – older – English teachers read but the younger generation (and here I sound like the old fart sitting in the corner of the staff room) don’t seem to read as much or restrict their diet to teen fiction or popular fiction like 50 Shades of Grey. She also claims there is a lack of knowledge of modern literature by English teachers and uses the removal of Of Mice and Men from GCSE courses as exposing this weakness:

But its removal revealed the gap in our subject knowledge. How many other 20th-century novels do we have resources for and experience of? God help us if the government ever removes An Inspector Calls or Animal Farm.

Worryingly, she also asserts that:

In every school I’ve taught at, English departments refuse to use their meagre budgets on new texts, opting for photocopies of extracts from novels and plays instead. We don’t read entire novels at all any more until students reach GCSE, at which point they react with utter horror. The prospect of suddenly having to read a whole book is quite daunting.

My experience has been similar – but I’d argue this is more to do with the lack of high-quality comprehensive anthologies of texts that can be bought by English Departments. When I was Head of English I never bought textbooks because they were quite empty of content, relying instead on large-sized text and fancy page design. I always inherited stock cupboards fully of shiny sets of textbooks that must have cost thousands that were never used.

Where I disagree with the writer is that children are contemptuous of books themselves. That’s not my experience of 20 years as an English teacher. If books are brought to children as exciting, valuable, worthwhile experiences then children are engaged by them. Sometimes it’s straight away, other times it takes a little time. I’ve never taught a class that hasn’t enjoyed reading a novel. This year I’ve read two novels with a Year 8 group, Heroes by Robert Cormier and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. Both books have gone down a storm with lots of children reading ahead, asking to take the books home and expressing their enjoyment of the novels. (They have – worryingly – claimed that their previous teachers never finished books because they ran out of time and needed to start a new topic!) Of course, 99% of this is that they are both decent books for younger teens. But the “golden” 1% is how I approach reading as something vital, developing and something I do myself for pleasure.

She says that the attitude of adults is a factor – as is workload which doesn’t give enough time to teachers to read for themselves.

The biggest factor that I think affects reading in school is the way that it has become de rigueur to disapprove of spending time reading in lessons. Senior leaders in school will shake their heads if they see an English lesson where most of the time is spent reading a book – especially if the teacher is leading the reading. Sometimes, interrupting a chapter with unnecessary questions, discussion or tasks, breaks the flow of engagement and enthusiasm. It frustrates developing readers.

There’s also the other factor – which is my usual rant – about how senior managers and even English teachers (really the younger ones) have confused Literacy with English. But, in my guise as grumpy old English teacher, I could go on about this for hours…

Most of the comments are the usual to-and-fro but the top-rated comment by ID4545570 (Anna), offers some positive alternatives in establishing a reading culture. She mentions Accelerated Reader and the adoption of Kindles – but the her most interesting suggestion is taking a “flipped” approach to reading with secondary-aged children:

Dear Secret Teacher,

I’m very sorry to hear that this is the case in your school but it does not need to be this way! As the comment thread here testifies, it is far from the norm in most English departments and I’d like to offer mine as a model of how things could be. When I took over as Head of Department just over two years ago there were some elements of the culture you suggest (over-use of extracts and a reliance on the ‘tried and tested’ texts that had been on the curriculum for years) but the new 9-1 GCSEs offered an opportunity to change this.

I introduced the Accelerated Reader scheme, negotiated 3 hours per week of tutor time to be given over to silent reading and worked with our (incredible) Librarian to replenish Library stock by having book sales of older stock and, luckily, by securing some extra investment from management who understood what a sound use of their money this would be long-term. I recently undertook a whole-school survey of teachers’ reading habits which we completed together during INSET time, prompting some brilliant discussion about current reading; some of our keen staff readers have also set up a book exchange in the staffroom. There are posters on all teachers’ doors with their current reading book displayed on and, following on from the staff survey, I delivered interactive quiz-style assemblies to each Key Stage to get them to guess which teacher matched which reading profile, again promoting teachers’ reading interests to students.

For my own Literacy and Language MA research this year, the school bought a set of Kindles to engage the most reluctant readers in Year 8; the results of the research suggest that legitimising the use of e readers within schools can do much to prompt reading (findings which could perhaps be extended to adults within the school).

But it is within the classroom itself that the reading culture has changed most dramatically. I insist, from Year 7 upwards, that all students read every text in full BEFORE studying it in class. We therefore operate a flipped learning model whereby we issue students with the texts that they will study in the preceding term and their homework during that term is to read the text, completing a reading log to record key events. We offer abridged versions of some of the more difficult texts (when we ask Year 9 to read ‘Frankenstein’, for example) but there is still an expectation that the full text will be read eventually. Critically, teachers model this for students and during our silent tutor time reading, we all sit and read with the students (as well as in our fortnightly ‘Library lesson’ that each English class has at Key Stage 3). We have found that this works really well and most students do manage to read the full text, including those who have previously been reluctant. In Year 9 we bulk-buy copies of each of the three GCSE set texts (to keep costs low) and then ask parents to buy the copies for their child (we buy them for Pupil Premium students). We have found that this encourages students to take care of the texts (since they belong to them) and it means that the copies they are reading are brand new, giving them a more enjoyable reading experience than having a tattered old copy with twenty years’ worth of scribbles in the margins. We only have approximately 100 students in each year group but have managed to get the cost for all three texts down to £14 which we have found that every parent is more than happy to pay for.

I would urge you to work with others in your department and your school to look at how you might carve out time within the school day to allow for reading and to think about using some of the initiatives I’ve outlined to develop a reading culture that encourages independence, breadth and engagement.

Of course, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to do any of this since my undergraduate degree was in Philosophy…

Yours, in hope that you can turn all that negativity into some positive action.

And, later in the comments, talks about using Google Classroom and the ways that form tutors and senior leaders have been involved:

Hi Seth,
Thanks for your comment. On balance it’s been a fairly easy process but this has been helped by the fact that we have had a school-wide shift towards flipped learning-style homework over the last few years with teachers across the school making regular use of Google Classroom in order to disseminate reading material and notes prior to lessons for students to read and also via the use of platforms such as ‘myPEexam’ which operate on a similar basis. This has meant that students understand why they are being asked to learn in this way much more readily and can see the benefits of doing so across a range of subjects.
Of course, there have been those who are reluctant to read and I’m pretty sure that there are still a few hardcore rebels who will be sitting their first Literature exam on Monday having never really read the whole of Animal Farm but then, if you will excuse the pun, you can lead horses to water… One thing that has also really helped has been getting the tutor team on board and senior managers: I have made sure that they know which text Year 10, say, are supposed to be reading during any given term and they are then a great extra support in making sure that students are reading during tutor time and chasing up those who aren’t. Having a fortnightly Library lesson also affords the class teacher the chance during the ‘reading’ term to check regularly which page students are up to so that they can chivvy along any who are a bit slower in reading.
On the whole, this approach has been really helpful in opening up time in the classroom for discussion, debate and the honing of analytical skills rather than spending hours just reading through texts. We certainly haven’t perfected the technique yet, but the gains so far would make me recommend it to anyone without hesitation!
Finally, in terms of context (and before anyone lambasts me and says that we are obviously a middle class grammar school), we are a small school (500 on role) in a rural location with high proportion of PP students (and LAC) and, historically, have had a pretty poor reading culture in the school. We participate in the NLT reading survey each year and the number of reading books that students say they own at home is normally, on average, between 5 and 10.
I wish you luck in your efforts to promote this approach to reading in your school: do let me know if there is anything further you would like to know!




Year Zero!

Aggggghhhh! I’ve had to restart this blog… Earlier in the week I noticed that I couldn’t log in and it was giving me an “internal server error” which I guessed was down to some plug-in not being compatible with a WordPress upgrade. Try as I could I just couldn’t resurrect the poor old education blog. So – like a phoenix from the ashes – it has returned.

(One thing I’m not going to do is to bother making this site fancy at all. Six months ago I spent an afternoon making it look neat with some cool graphics. Not this time. Bare bones. Bare bones.)