Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Reading Jigsaw and the Purpose of Reading in Lessons

I have done it; I went against my better judgement. For weeks, I have been agonising over whether I should buy a Kindle or not. I love the smell and feel of a paperback, but I have been frustrated with the lack of access of some paperback books and how some books are now only available as ebooks. Or, waiting for a paperback to be published a year after the hardback. So, I took the plunge and bought one. Subsequently, I spent five hours playing around with it until I got bored and went back to my trusty paperback.

If I am honest, I bought a Kindle for a particular function: I purchased one so I didn’t have to cart loads of books on holiday. It will also store my classics so I can dip in when I need to check something, or prepare for teaching a story, poem or novel. The purchasing of a Kindle has made me think about how I read. What do I read for pleasure? What do I need for school? What do I want to waste time with? What do I want to read when I have a few spare minutes? My reasoning for buying the Kindle (other ebook readers are available, you know) is that it must have a better function than the bookcase I have at the moment. For a start, it holds up to a hundred books. Also, it allows me to purchase other books instantaneously. Furthermore, it allows me to browse things quickly and between texts effortlessly. I no longer have to cart a huge box of books, with the mere hope that I will find a few minutes where I could read one.

At the moment, I am concerned with the function of reading. I said in my previous blog that I am concerned with the way that reading is viewed in schools. The emphasis tends to be on the emotional enjoyment of texts and we, often, neglect the function of reading. Why do we read? What is the purpose? We usually stress the importance of writing clearly and accurately in lessons, as it will help a student get a job; but do we really stress how vital it is that students can decode a word or follow a large text from beginning to end? Do we say to students that if they get a word wrong they could cost a business money? Or even cost a life? Do we? We don’t say these things, if we are honest, because the writing is visible and the writing is fairly concrete. We can comment on writing and accuracy because they are quite clear. Reading is a totally different matter.

We make students plan their writing by thinking about the audience and the purpose of a text. We guide them to craft and structure a text and we take them through a series of logical steps to achieve the desired product. We support students so much with their writing that it could be said we give them too much support. What do we do for reading? We… ummm….errrr….ummm…make them read on their own or out loud in a class. We might mention a strategy like skimming and scanning, but, really, what do we do for reading?

When I think of what teachers do for writing and I think about reading, I am shocked. We don’t do enough. We model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise, redraft writing, and with reading, we just do it. It is as if we expect them to read competently in Year 7 so that we can focus on the writing. After all, isn’t that what the exam really assesses? Obviously, the two are closely linked, but I do think we neglect one and favour the other. Why? Because it is easier. We should model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise and redraft reading. The principles should be applied to both processes.
The demands of a new curriculum and new exams should be an opportunity to address this balance. Now, some have seen this as an opportunity to add more academic tomes to the curriculum. However, like most things, I feel that an emphasis on highly academic texts makes the bright brighter and the less able more alienated. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the benefit of teaching less able students novels written by Charles Dickens, but harder doesn’t, in my opinion, always mean that you will get progress. It can get the switch off factor.  Yes, challenge students, but the teacher should balance the teaching so that the student is challenged and supported when they need to be. It is a fine line. I sit on the fence for this one. The sign, for me, of a good teacher is knowing what text to use, at the right time, with the right group and with the right activities. It is about making the right choices with all those different variables. That’s why I am not completely against texts that are harder and more challenging, or against using some of the populist books that people use like ‘Of Mice and Men’.  

Reading is like a jigsaw puzzle. The things we see in lessons give us an idea of the student’s understanding of a text. It is fragmented, broken and sketchy. The job for us, as teachers, is to pull those bits of the jigsaw together and work out what the reading strengths and weaknesses of a student are. This year, I have spent hours reading with students on a one to one basis and it has really opened my eyes to what students can and can’t do. Standing at the front of the class and marking a student’s work has masked what a student can really do. You only get a true picture of a students reading through talking and questioning them on a one to one basis.  During tasks in lessons, the questions I have set haven’t elicited the answers that show what the student can do, or show effective reading skills. The questions haven’t helped me to judge the reading skills. In fact, the questions are based on the APP assessment focuses and they are worthless when it comes to understanding the reading. Surprisingly they don’t even match up well with some of the reading skills tested at GCSE, such as distinguishing facts and opinion, following an argument or comparing effects in a text.  At least GCSEs move away from feature spotting, which is what the APP focuses lead to.

I think, in my school, we will look at demystifying reading. It is a process and a skill, and I think we should remove emotion and enjoyment out of it. I will still promote reading, but I will look at the process in lessons. How we use it? How we assess it? How we plan for it? Already, we have a writing mat in each classroom that helps with the idea of demystifying reading.  On the mat it has three sections: 
What am I reading for?
What reading skill should I use?
What if I am stuck?
Under the first title is this:

What am I reading for? 
  •  Finding information
  • Learning something new
  • Revising my knowledge
  • Developing my knowledge
  • Learning something different about it
  • Exploring how others see it

This is a guide to the purpose of reading a particular text. You’ll note that the focus is all about learning and knowledge. If the teacher makes this explicit, then the purpose of the reading in the lesson has a strong sense of meaning for the students. They know what they are doing and why they are doing something. If they see the value of a process, the student is more likely to treat it differently. The dreaded comprehension task is often dragged out in lessons, but if staff, hopefully, use these purposes when explaining a task or in brackets next to the question, then the students will be  guided more with the reading process. Give students more direction in the lesson by saying why they are reading something.
At the moment, this is all in the development stage. It is there in the classroom with the writing mats, but next year we will make this reading purpose explicit in our teaching. The end result, hopefully,  will be students that are more confident at approaching texts in lessons who develop their confidence at reading for a purpose and avoid skimming the text to find the answers – isn’t that what most of us did when at school. Students still do it now, but maybe this might help them. Making the reading have purpose is paramount to improving reading. Reading is complex and it doesn't just happen. We need to be careful as teachers to not over assume what a student can do or can't do and use reading effectively in lessons to direct and help them improve their skills.
As I said before, we should model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise and redraft reading. By looking at the purpose of reading, we are helping to model to students how to read. Read with the purpose in mind.

The next blog will focus on task setting for reading.

Thanks for reading,


 P.S. I pray to the god of paperbacks tonight and ask for forgiveness.



  1. I like this and you are correct - there IS an elephant in the room but when Guidance send you a memo saying X is not to read aloud in class it limits how you check their ability! (I hate sending the kid with a SfL teacher for paired reading to the library as they're missing the group dynamic that helps them more...) I also like the reading mat - we have lots of different writing mats (report format, poster etc etc) but little or nothing for reading. Could you stick a better quality picture up - the current one's very fuzzy and can't be read. Some good ideas here - thanks.

  2. Thanks, David. That does too. How will children like these develop and improve their reading unless we actively do something? I will put a clean copy of the document when I can find one.



  3. Really interesting to see you exploring this.
    You say "We should model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise and redraft reading." I say that is what good Librarians do in schools when they are given the chance. My son was ambivalent to Biff and Chip but needed to check the TV schedules! He certainly understood the functionality of reading and went on to become a voracious reader.

  4. Thanks. Yes, librarians are good for supporting this, and I agree with the 'given the chance' bit. I feel we need a joined up approach across schools. What does the librarian do that I can do too? More people saying the same message.

  5. And enjoy your Kindle AND 'real' books, as I do. Life is rarely about "either/or" I find!