My point is: I have a twenty five minute journey that should take me about fifteen minutes. There are a number of obstacles that stop the journey. It isn’t a simple case of going from A to B. Before you imagine that I am a ‘speed demon’ on the road, I am not; I am just using this idea of driving to make a connection to reading. My daily journey to school is not a stress filled one like that great John Cleese film ‘Clockwise’. Anyway, reading in secondary schools can be a bit like my journey to school.
I am obsessed with reading at the moment. My daughters are currently learning to read and I am part of that process. Every night, if possible, I sit with them as they break words down and read simple sentences. I am seeing the results of what the teachers do in their primary school and I am amazed. Months ago they could only recognise their own names and now they are reading line after line. It has been a speedy process. While helping them, I have thought about secondary schools, and how we help ‘the reading process’. Please note that I say ‘the reading process’ and not ‘reading’. I personally think schools work really hard to promote reading. There are so many great things happening to promote books. Yet, and as recent reports and news stories suggest, there might be more we need to do to strengthen the reading process.
As an English teacher, I have a range of things I do to help reading in lessons. I break down texts. I use different reading strategies. I select texts that are suitable for the students. I explore unfamiliar words and their meaning. I do a lot on the understanding of a text, the subtext, the writer’s purpose and how the reader reacts to a text. Yet, I don’t always do enough on that decoding of words - the simple reading of words and linking them together to work out the basic units of sense. Yes, I do it for Shakespeare and some long winded writers, but I don’t always do it for everything students read in lessons. Why? Because, I assume that they have understood it. This is what I think is an issue we need to address in schools. Our assumptions.
We know with the new emphasis on literacy that writing is important. We are now using our writing mats, our sentence starters, our key words and many other good things. But, what do we do to help students with their reading? This is exactly the question I have inferred from Ofsted when they visit. They will also ask the question: How do they support and develop writing? I am sure they have hundreds of questions, but I like to simplify things. There are a lot of good things people do to help with the reading, but I think that we do assume somethings about how the students read. We assume the words they know. We assume the speed at which they read. We assume how they will understand things. We assume that have a certain level of proficiency in reading, yet we have nothing concrete and explicit to back these assumptions with. It roughly boils down to: they are a level 5 so they must be able to do it.
I have taught a wide range of student with various abilities and there is always that surprising time when they don’t know a word or concept that shocks you or alarms you. In truth, it might also be a sign of me getting old. You could be talking to Year 10 about a court of law and then one of the students asks: ‘What’s a trial?’. You then wonder how this student can watch endless episodes of Eastenders and not understand what a trial is. But, it happens. Therefore, I went back to the beginning with one-to-one reading that parents do with 5/6 year olds. I took my class of Year 9 students and did some one-to-one reading over several months and it made some surprising discoveries.
To put it simply, I sat with a student and got them to read to me an extract from a story. They read a photocopy and I annotated another photocopy where they struggled, broke down words or hesitated. Some were really good and read flawlessly. Some struggled. Some, who I thought would be good, struggled too. It revealed a lot about my assumptions. If they demonstrated understanding at a high level in their writing about a text, then clearly understood the text and everything in it. In fact, that can be far from the case. One extract I read with the students had the word ‘agony’ in it. A very high number of students struggled to read it out correctly. So, what would they normally do in a class? They would have a strategy to cope. In fact, most of our reading teaching focuses on strategies of how to cope with difficult texts. But, do these strategies fix or mask a problem?
At this point, I am going back to my journey to work at the start of my blog. For some of our students, reading is like my journey to school. They have several traffic lights that stop the flow of thought, ideas and understanding. These traffic lights are words that they are unfamiliar with when written down. They also have to face a cyclist on the road. These cyclists are usually those long multi-clause sentences that they have to take extra care with to understand. They have to face a tractor that just stops the journey dead. The tractor is one of those words or phrases that without its meaning you can’t get any further. Take the phrase ‘dejà vu’.Tom was feeling sick as he had a feeling of déjà vu.
Without a teacher, a dictionary or TA, a student will not work out the meaning of sentence; unless they know it, of course. Is it a disease? Is it an emotion? The strategies that we usually employ don’t work in this case.
You could argue that the gist of a text is important, but that isn’t the case when you look at exam papers and text books. Complete understanding is needed for some of the simplest of questions. If students are finding a tractor in every sentence, then their overall understanding is reduced completely. What can we do about it?
We need to work harder to avoid superficial reading in lessons. I could adopt David Didau’s idea of ‘Slow Writing’ at this stage and consider that we adopt ‘Slow Reading’; however, I think ‘Deep Reading’ is far more suitable. Most of the students I read with ( and I have done this with a large number of Year 7s this term as well) read quickly and that is generally fine for most, because they get the overall gist and understand the key parts of the text and then that helps them when they read for questioning. However, some students don’t get the initial gist of a text because of these stumbling blocks. They get a picture with the key parts missing. Then, when they approach the questions they struggle as they have the key pieces missing.
That’s why I am thinking of the following before reading a text:
Traffic LightsThese are the words that they might know and use verbally, but they might struggle to read them.
· Before reading a text, pick the polysyllabic words and get students, as a starter, to pronounce the words and discuss what they mean. It could also make a great bit of prediction. When they read the text, they know the pronunciation and some of the meaning of the words.
CyclistsThese are the long sentences where you often forget what the start of the sentence was about by the time you get to the end.
· Remind students that they have to take more care with the longer sentences. They might have to go a bit slower with these sentences.
· Sentences that have lots or one of these ;/ : / , / ( ) might need to be reread.
· Teach students how to read these long sentences.
TractorsWords that they might not be familiar with.
· Rather than give the word and its pronunciation like the fanfare usually given to the unveiling of a plaque, show them the word and get them to pronounce it. Then correct them if necessary. If we don’t give them opportunities in simple lessons to explore how to say words, how are we going to help them build their confidence at guessing with words that they are not familiar with?
· Give them a short glossary of five to eight words.
· Simplify for the audience.
A PassengerOne-to-one reading. I think we don’t do this enough in secondary. We seem to think reading something aloud in class is the equivalent. I think it isn’t. Personally, I think it can cause more problems than it fixes. It can destroy confidence. Simply, reading to a teacher is so much more effective as it is less public and there isn’t so much of an issue if you correct the student.
· While students are on task, get one student to do it verbally with you. They could read the text and you question them afterwards. The comments they give you can be written in their exercise book as bullet points. This can be done for the full spectrum of ability and not just those that are weak at reading.
Most of these things I have tried myself and others are things I am currently working on or trialling.
There are days when I wish I had a passenger with me when I am reading, especially when I am reading a Shakespeare play I have never read before. Then, there are road works and a traffic jam that is tailed back several junctions.
Thanks for reading,