Reading Fast and Slow

In Teaching English by Alex Quigley0 Comments

Reading too slowly?

The movement towards a ‘slow education‘, encompassing deeper, richer learning experiences, is surely the antidote to our assessment driven, checkpoint laden curriculum. In my previous post I explained that we should slim down our content-filled curriculum to maximise the opportunities for reading. More reading is surely a rallying call every teacher, not just English teachers, would happily herald. I do, however, have reservations about how we go about teaching reading, both in English lessons and beyond.

Few things in my professional life give me more pleasure than the special experience of reading to, and with, my English groups. When I think about my time at school I can start to piece together fragments of those rapt moments of whole class reading which no doubt kindled a love for school that resulted in me becoming a teacher. When I now teach the class reader I enjoy it immensely and I love it when students groan when we have to stop reading and they have to do some ‘real work’! I do, however, have a sense of conflict with the nature of reading and studying the ‘class reader’.

I think about how we naturally read at pace and at our own volition; how the process is slowed down by ‘study‘. Then I wonder about the paucity of reading many of our students experience (boys are in particular danger of falling significantly behind in terms of reading for pleasure and reading attainment – see here) beyond the annual ‘class reader’, and whether we are killing a potential spark for reading. I then come to thinking about how we can balance the slow study of reading with the pleasure of natural fast reading .

I teach in a fantastic English and Media faculty where we value reading and in a school that tries hard to foster a reading culture. The library does some great business, with a good proportion of our students; students read regularly in form time; last year we undertook our own ‘Big Read’ fundraising, whereat we raised thousands of pounds. Our strategies are not an OFSTED tick-box, but a value system, supported whole-heartedly by our school leaders who understand the real value of reading.

We clearly value reading. we want our students to be ‘word rich’ – with all the attendant benefits that brings. Still it never feels like we are doing enough. It feels like a truly Sisyphean task at times. In our department we ensure that least one novel is read a year at KS3, with much poetry and shorter reading besides. We are aiming to slim down our content, deepening and slowing down the assessment process to enhance the learning – and we are looking to cram as much reading into the curriculum as possible. We know the importance of reading for pleasure and being word rich.

What becomes crucially important is how we can boost ‘real reading‘ for many of our students who only read that one ‘class reader’ a year.

For the legion of students who don’t read habitually (and evidence from the National Literacy Trust indicates a perennial decline), the reading we facilitate is paramount. Yet, reading a novel over the course of six weeks, and studying it within an inch of its life, can drain the pleasure away from reading for many students. E.D Hirsch even argues that this provides little boost to long term learning and knowledge building (I debate Hirsch’s views at length in my previous post).

Don’t get me wrong, most English teachers work brilliantly to stave off boredom and to enrich the understanding of our students, with strategies that also strengthen their reading skills and their worldly knowledge. I would like to think I do a half-decent job myself! Fundamentally; however, we still face the scenario where many students are desperate to read on, but we stifle this natural curiosity to stick to the plan and to teach reading skills

What we need to do is to think of different ways to facilitate reading with students that better imitates the natural state of reading a great novel – that of reading it fast – not pausing for breath, never mind a four day break between chapters! Perhaps, if we unburden our curriculum we can find more space to read in a more rapid way – such a way that encourages the natural pace of reading, a high degree of challenge and more independent and interdependent teaching and learning. We could have ‘reading weeks’ like at university. In my university experience, I learnt more in reading weeks than any other time.

Over a month ago I talked casually to a colleague in our faculty about what she was doing with her Year 9 group at that moment. She was working with visually stunning images when I dropped into the lesson and I was curious as to what the pictures were and how they were being used. It turned out that she was teaching ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. This wasn’t on the ‘official‘ Year 9 plan so I was intrigued.

She had simply taken a two week slot, having found time from our slimmed down content approach (we had dropped a scheme of learning from Years 7, and 9. Believe me – no-one noticed!), and decided to challenge them with the great Orwell novella. She actually taught it to two classes of varying ability ranges. There was no grand outcome – with attendant assessment measures. Simply some initial debate, discussion and reading…lots of reading. By way of celebrating that reading they created this lovely display. All in a couple of weeks. Fast reading that satisfied the pleasure principle of reading much more than our typical approach.

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It struck me how simple but effective this approach was and how we didn’t have to be burdened by the demands of a content driven curriculum – that we could read – dare I say it – for the sake of it! Michael Gove, as I described in my previous reading post, has lauded the power of reading. He has heralded the educational philosophy of E.D. Hirsch, who, as stated in the accompanying post, sees reading challenging literature as the crux of successful English study. I have heard numerous stories of OFSTED being very positive about extended reading programmes, Library lessons etc., which similarly foregrounded extended reading. As the saying goes, therefore, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself‘.

I therefore want to work with my department to construc a KS3 curriculum that not only embraces ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, but one that dedicates ample time to reading – more than we thought possible perhaps. Many of our students don’t have a love for reading, yet that passion that can be so transformative for success in educational settings, so we need to find time to nurture a liking at the very least; help it grow into a passion.

It takes whole-school support (not just financial, but a good book stock doesn’t come for free) from leadership, from a great school library and support from parents if this pleasure is to be grown and sustained. If we could read at least a book a term, a classic a year, in addition to the ‘class reader’, then maybe we could help turn the tide towards reading for pleasure? I am conscious that doesn’t seem overly ambitious – but we would hope it would be the tip of the iceberg for more and more reading for pleasure.

As English teachers we must reflect on our KS3 curriculum. We must reflect upon our priorities. Yes, there are a multitude of factors outside of our control which inhibit reading for pleasure, but we can only control what we control. The precious curriculum time we possess must be used to engender a pleasure for reading wherever possible. I, for one, want to review how we can read more than ever, without waiting for the official sanction from Michael Gove. In fact, I could end with his very words which echo my sentiments exactly:

“There is one must-have accessory that no one should be seen without: a book.

Books complement any outfit and suit any season. But far too few of us make sure we’re carrying one. And we certainly don’t follow the first rule of fashion – to work the racks. We’re not picking up enough new books, not getting through the classics, not widening our horizons. In short, we’re just not reading enough.”

Some questions I am asking at the moment about reading (particularly at KS3) include:

– How do we best balance ‘fast‘ and ‘slow‘ reading?
– What is the best approach for the pedagogy of fast reading?
– How do we space out reading throughout our curriculum to ensure students develop their reading skills in the optimal way?
– How do we ensure students read at least three extended books a year within curriculum time at KS3? Hopefully encouraging many, many more.
– How do we create a broad and engaging book stock to satisfy our ambition? How do we personalise a range of challenging reading material that is in the ‘zone of proximal development’ for our students?
– How do we get parents to support and engage with the process of reading?
– How do we bridge the knowledge gap between their reading at KS2 and KS3?
– How do we maximise our whole school approach to literacy to complement the drive for more reading? How do we get students to read more books that complement other curriculum subjects?

 

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