Saturday, 21 September 2013

Reading in lessons: Welcome to our book group.

I turned 50 not so long ago. I mean: the blog achieved over 50,000 hits and I was genuinely surprised. I started blogging a year and a half ago out of a mixture of boredom, frustration and loneliness. How did I celebrate this milestone? Did I bathe in champagne? Did I broadcast it to the world? Did I change my info on Twitter? Nah. All I did was eat a twix. In fact, I ate two – it was a special occasion! Sorry, I am not going to go all mawkish on you and blog like I am writing my Oscar speech.  No, I am going back to my main reason for writing a blog: to share my experiences and things I have done.

When I started blogging, I was feeling a tad bit miffed about the fact that some of the things I was taught in my PGCE did not help me in my teaching career. I was given lots of ‘nice’ tips, but the real stuff was something I had to learn during my time teaching. I had to learn that when ringing parents up it always best to ask for the child’s mother or father, rather than Mr Smith or Mrs Smith. I had to learn that sitting next to a child is better for getting students to work than telling them over and over again to get on with their work. I had to learn marking one paragraph can be more effective than marking seven pages of work.  In fact, NQTs and students you don’t know you were born.  Advice now is pouring out of every laptop thanks to blogging and Twitter. However, I still think there is more to be said.

How miffed do you think the voice was?
Do you think these pieces of advice should be taught to PGCE students?
What would you add to the list?

The one piece of advice is the one I am going to discuss in an INSET session this week on reading.  I wish that I had this advice when I was first starting out teaching and I am a little embarrassed to say this, but I only really started using this advice myself last year.  It is about how we deal with texts in lessons and I think it can apply to most subjects in school.  When you are feeling bogged down and you need some breathing space, get students to have ‘book group’ lesson. Sometimes, teachers hold back a DVD or a video for when they want a breather from the demands of a term, but I found a book group lesson worked. I used it with various novels, poems and non-fiction texts and this week I am going to promote it across the school. Before you think I am peddling this as the latest thing in teaching, I am not. I feel that we often overlook the classics in favour of the new shiny thing.  
 What do you think the INSET will be on?
What does the ‘demands of the term’ really mean?
Do we often overlook the classics?

Anyway, how do I structure a book group lesson? Well, I read the text and plan a set of questions to be read at a certain point in the reading. Then, students are placed into groups, or pairs, and they read together. When they reach a certain point, they stop and discuss the questions. At the end of the lesson, we meet together and discuss what they had thought when discussing the questions. I did this with a Year 8 class and it transformed their ideas of a novel, because they were talking in an atmosphere where there were no right and wrongs. It was a warm, cosy environment to chat and discuss. The lovely thing about book groups is that you can chat and explore a book. This approach helped me unlock some hidden potential that is lost in comprehension tasks and lost in class discussion. It was all about exploring and it meant that I had a low planning lesson and a no marking lesson, which if you are a student or an NQT is a joy.  Once the students have experienced the process first-hand, then they can create the questions for you, and you have even less to plan. That is one of the things I wished someone told me all those years ago.
Have you done something similar?
How are book groups structured?

I did this book group lesson this week and it was a joy to listen to as students experimented with American accents when reading out ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and them discussing what a character really meant when they used a particular word.  We all work hard to create an environment that is positive, but this form of group work works. However, there are some important principles behind this strategy in the classroom and it has something to do with ‘Deep Reading’.

What do the most able readers do when they are reading? My experience, of listening to students read to me, has enlightened me on this. Less able students tend to focus on reading the words out with the hope that they have pronounced it correctly. They have the basics of the text’s outline. The most able students tend to read with varying intonation. So, the question is: How do these able students pick up the tone of the words and, therefore, the underlying meaning of a text? For years, we have had the idea that good readers predict, question and visualise things, but I am starting to think that the questioning element is the key thing. Good readers do not process reading like an automaton and just simply decode things; they reflect and question all the time. I will repeat that: all the time. The problem with how we often teach at the moment is that the questions come at the end of the process. In lessons, we get students to read something and THEN answer some questions. We get students to work through an activity and then answer the questions at the end of this.

How do you think students pick up tone?
Is questioning the key element?
Does it really matter when the question is asked?

There is always a big step up from GCSE and A-level, but I do think that that could be partly to do with the questioning of things. I watched an AST teach some A-level class about ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and the questioning in the lesson was phenomenal. Everything was questioned in the text. Every subtle aspect was broken apart so that the students and teacher had fully understood text.  The teacher evaluated the information and credited or discredited ideas based on the information before them.  What did that look like? Well, using the opening paragraph, I will give you an example:

 I turned 50 not so long ago. What does ‘50’ refer to? Can we assume it means age? As this is a first person perspective, can we trust this writing as reliable? Who is it speaking to? When was this written? I mean: the blog achieved over 50,000 hits and I was genuinely surprised. Who read this blog? Does hits mean readers or visits? Can people visit more than once? Was the voice surprise because he thought it worthless or was he surprised in a mock surprise way? Is the voice really smug but trying to hide it? Why use the word ‘genuinely’? Is the voice convincing himself or the audience?  I started blogging a year and a half ago out of a mixture of boredom, frustration and loneliness. Why is the voice so vague about starting? Is blogging something you can start? Is it natural for someone to blog about boredom? What are the reasons for blogging? Is the voice exaggerating for sympathy or are they attempting to be funny? Is loneliness a result of boredom? How did I celebrate this milestone? Compared to other blogs, is this really a milestone? Has the voice achieved anything else? Is this voice male because it feels a need to assert its achievements? Or, does the emotional point about ‘loneliness’ reflect a female voice? Can we clearly ascertain gender from writing style? Did I bathe in champagne? Is it true that people bathe in champagne? How much did it cost? Why would you do this?Did I broadcast it to the world? How would they broadcast it? Are they in a position to broadcast it? Did I change my info on Twitter? Nah. All I did was eat a twix. In fact, I ate two – it was a special occasion!

There are obviously loads of questions that I have missed or haven’t addressed; however, I think you can see my point. As an adult, I have made this questioning process a subconscious one. I, we, do that all the time. My head is full of questions. The problem comes, I think, is when we look at what we do with reading texts. We focus on doing the reading first and then get students to look back and question things. On one hand that is great because they can see the whole picture. But, on the other hand, it does mean that complex understanding needed to fully understand the task isn’t provided at the right moment. The right question at the right time is very important. Five minutes late and it is lost.

I have blogged about reading as being a journey here. But, if we don’t address the questions at the start of the reading journey, then we have lost sight of the full journey. Yes, they might be able to pick things up, but the full understanding isn’t there. I think we need to build students up to ask questions as they read. This can be internally, verbally or in writing, but we need to build this up. Admittedly, I have been guilt of not focusing on questioning during reading, because I have been so concerned with heads down reading in silence.  However, maybe I am not preparing students fully. Yes, I do lots of questioning before reading a text and I do tonnes of questioning after, but now I need to do a bucketful during.    

Thank you for reading the blog,

P.S. Learning from my mistakes t-shirts, key rings, plates and badges will be available soon.


  1. Always enjoy your blog, Chris. Although I trained as an interpreter and translator originally, I now work as a copywriter - so I'm interested to hear how you approach the task of capturing your students' enthusiasm when it comes to English language and literature. In addition to my copywriting activities, I also tutor several local pupils for Higher English, so your ideas are often helpful - many thanks for sharing :-)

  2. PS: I really did turn 50 recently! ;-)

  3. Thanks for that. I think I will blog about that one day. I will have a think about it. Love having a focus to work on. Usually, I struggle to think of what to write about. Watch this space.

    Belated happy birthday,

    Xris ;)

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