Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Force is strong in you – I can see it from the blood test.

The point where I lost interest in Star Wars was when they tried to rationalise the Jedi powers. As soon as a character mentioned that stuff in your blood made you a Jedi, I lost all interest in the series of films. Part of me died. As much as I try, I cannot get excited about the new Star Wars films. The trick has been revealed and the magic has died. A simple bit of exposition rewrote a complex aspect of a series of films.

Every school is different. A different location. A different set of teachers. A different set of students. A different set of influences. Like Star Wars, the magic is lost if you try to rationalise what makes your school unique, different and one of a kind. The soul of a school is lost when you rationalise it based on a series of numbers. The data says this. You see feelings don’t get a look in when you try to rationalise things. We feel that it is this. Yes, but the cold, hard data says this. You can rationalise and evidence facts, but you can’t rationalise feelings. I have a warm glow about my school at the moment after several days of fun activities. Can I pinpoint what it is? No. Can others feel it? Yes. Step into my school on an average day and you’ll feel it. But, can you evidence it? No. Well, unless you have a magical ‘feelingometer’.

A school is more than its parts. However, the problem with education all too often it is the sum of its parts being measured. But the glue, the magic, or the tiny creatures that hold a school together isn’t measurable. Yet, when we want to improve things, we look at others and look for the magic ingredient. We look for the critters in the blood that will create the magic. The truth is, is that there is nothing simple about schools. When we start to understand this, then maybe things in education will improve.

Let’s take reading. I loved David Diddau’s recent blog on reading. Please take the time to read it. In it, he explained some of the approaches one school is taking to tackling reading. Their approach is interesting and it is one way of dealing with things. But, and let’s be clear on this, it isn’t a ‘wholesale’ idea. It is an idea for one school based on the school’s DNA. It’s blood. Therefore, I thought I’d share the approaches to reading that my school uses and some of the plans for the future. They are based on the DNA of my school. Therefore, they might not work in your particular context. However, the more strategies we expose, and share, the more chances a person has to finding the combination of strategies that will work.

Reading Point 1 – Cover  
We have been doing this for a while now, but like most things we need to refresh it a bit. We often use cover lessons for private reading. The first twenty minutes is dedicated to silent reading. It helps to calm a class down and get students ready for work, but also it helps with the ‘pants-where-is-the-cover-work’ moment and ‘what-on-earth-are-they-expected-to-do’ feeling you get at the start of a cover lesson. This reduces the amount of planning by 50% and it makes cover have a clear purpose. We support this by having some book boxes in the classroom.  

The curriculum is full and finding time for reading is a challenge for all schools. Many students don’t read at home, so we have to get clever with how we use time in schools. Instead of cranking up the DVD player when students when half of the class is away on a trip, get the books out.

Reading Point 2- Transition
In primary schools, the reading culture is often superb. That is often lost in the transition phase between primary and secondary school. This is partly due to the different contexts of teaching. Students are taught in one classroom in primary school and they are taught in several classrooms in secondary school. I tend to read when I am at home, but I don’t take a book out with me when I am shopping. Why? I cannot get into the zone for reading when I am moving from one place to another very quickly.

We need to be clear about the status of reading. I spoke to Year 6 parents about reading in our introduction evening. I informed them of the problems we face, as parents and teachers, with reading and how reading habits change in teenagers. Plus, I also informed parents of the demands of the new curriculum and GCSEs on reading. I told parents that reading at home is a powerful tool in helping a student succeed.

Transition work has always related to writing in my school. We have asked students to prepare something for some writing in the first week or we have asked students to write at home. This year, I wanted the focus to be about reading and make the message clear about reading. That is why all our Year 6s have been given a sheet and on it they have to write down what they have read over the summer. Their English teacher will be reading them in September and they have an opportunity to impress them.

I am getting students to see the importance of reading. I think students know how writing is important, but the reading gets forgotten. The parents and the students will get to know now how important reading really it. Like all things in education, I am a PR agent. This time my client is reading.

Reading Point 3 – Reading logs
Reading logs are nothing new and original. They are often used in primary schools, but secondary schools rarely use them. One of our focuses for next year is homework and I often tell parents is that reading is part of the homework we expect students to do in English. I tell parents that students should be reading for at least fifteen minutes a day. I say that again and again.

This year we are making English homework booklets. It will contain pages for spellings, research, vocabulary, sentences and pages for reading. We are going to get students to write down the reading they do in the week. And, we are making parents aware of this. Again, we are making the message that reading is important clear. I will probably text parents termly to make sure students are completing their reading.

The teachers will sign the reading booklets once a term and the best booklets will receive a reward.

Hopefully, the process will make explicit to parents, students and teachers how much reading students do. Let’s see the conversations in parents evening, because that will be something I want mentioned by staff. The booklet will be our record of how much they do.

Reading Point 4 – Points
Again, I have stolen something from primary school. We have used a number of incentives to promote reading such as events, competitions and quizzes. We have used a number of different reading resources, but I think simplicity is the key.

Every book a student reads will be logged in the homework booklets. However, each book will be given a score out of 10. The higher the score, the more challenging the book. The teacher will decide the score and it will vary from student to student. There will be no charts charting the score of each book. Teachers might suggest a book is a ten, but there will be no hard rule to the scoring. This should be very easy and quick for teachers to do.

Each term we will produce a leader board of scores and at the end of the year there will be prizes and I might even consider certificates for level of readers.

The process is simple, but it feeds into a particularly masculine aspect. A challenge. Turning the reading process into competition. Plus, it makes the quantity of the reading and quality of the reading at the heart of the process.

Reading Point 5 – Books
We have always used the Bookstart option of buying students a book. It has been a great opportunity to promote reading, but I don’t think it has always helped our weaker readers to develop as readers.

This year I am going to use the money for something different. This year I am going to buy a new set of books. The purpose of these books is to build and create enjoyable reading experiences.  We have six sets and six terms. Each set is going to be given the book at the start of a term and they have to read it by the end of term. The reading will take place at home.

Geoff Barton made a very good point about the sociable dimension of reading. It is a sociable thing. I often talk to people about books I have read and listen to their book suggestions. With this set of books, there isn’t going to be any ‘work’ about. No book review. No drama activity. No essay. Not a single thing that can be classed as work. It is a book that students are reading. The only thing I want is it to be a social activity. We are going to look at building opportunities to get students to talk about it. Get sets to discuss the book after they have read it. Get them interested and engaged.

The hope is that this can be done with other year groups, but this year I am going to start it with Year 7s. One more book a year and another brick in the wall of their reading experience.

At the moment, I am looking for something engaging and enjoyable. I want the whole experience to about reading enjoyment so that it will inspire them to read more. That’s why I am probably going for a David Walliams’ book. Before you shudder at my choice, the same students will also study parts of Dickens in the year and the opening of ‘Jane Eyre’.

Reading Point 6 – More books
There is money, very little money, within budgets to support students such as pupil premium and KS2 transition. I am considering making rucksacks of books for these students. There is such a thing as book poverty. It is not uncommon for a student to live in a house with no books. How are we going to instil a love for reading when they cannot read? Libraries are an important place, but the home is where the heart is. That is why I am looking to buy books chuck them in a rucksack and give them to the students. For thirty pounds, it is amazing what I can get.  

There are hundreds of great books out there and putting a few in a bag could be a personal library that they can dip in, when they want something.

Oh. And I am not going to make a big song and dance about it.  Nobody will know. Just the student.

Reading Point 7 – The Opening / Articles
This was done with the Carnegie book award in another school. The school made all the students read the opening chapter and then got students to judge the best on the opening. We tried it this year.

Often there is time in tutor time to do some reading, but all too often that reading can be directionless. This year I am going to photocopy article and opening chapters from new novels. The students read and discuss them in 10 minutes. Will this inspire you to read the rest of the book? Do you agree with the writer? Both these questions form the basis of the reading. They allow for a high level of engagement as students search the text to support ideas.

Therefore, we are going to use our library for the texts and get students to engage in these short reading tasks. It gives students opportunities to read a variety of texts. Students need help finding the right book. This is just another way.

These are just a few strategies I am using or will use next year. A lot are general PR stuff. However, they do not work unless everybody is part of it. If staff are on message, then the school is sending students the message. The more students see that reading is important, the more likely they will treat it as important.

Staff will know that…

·         Students must have a reading book in their bag at all times.

·         Students will read at the start of most cover lessons.

·         Students must read at home several times during a week.

·         Students’ reading is being monitored.  

·         Students will get points for every book they read.

·         Students will be given reading opportunities to read often in lessons and especially in tutor time.

·         Reading is something that must be discussed and talked about.

Not one strategy is the key. Something here will hopefully develop and improve the reading of students. But, I am not going to search for the magic in the blood. I am just going to throw a lot of magical things and use the Force. For the Force is strong in reading, my friend.

Thanks for reading,



  1. I personally liked going through your solid points on this topic.

  2. I also like these solid points on the chosen topic and agree wiith the author of the given article. Something here will hopefully develop and improve the reading of students. I am about to write my paper, so I will have to leave now! Good luck!


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