Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Year of Reading Dangerously, Slowly, Carefully, Accurately

This is part of my TLT talk:

Over the last decade, I have promoted reading in several ways. I have organised book talks, Readathons, themed days, competitions, quizzes, posters, activities and many things to make students read more. And the galling thing is it only made the students who read... read more. They did not help students who didn’t read for pleasure. They were all about PR - to raise the opinion of reading. And, any literacy coordinator worth their weight in gold should see that. Activities like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ are only going to be a PR activity and never really address the reading problem. They are the sequins on a Strictly Come Dancing costume. They distract the audience form the real problem. The dancing. The reading.

For a year, I looked at reading across my school. The main priority I had was KS3. I wanted to study and assess the reading taking place across three year groups. I wanted to disprove, in terms of reading, KS3 was not the ‘Wasted Years’, which according to Ofsted it is. So, for a year, I assessed the reading ages of all KS3 students and compared those ages with their reading age on entry. I then assessed the amount of reading taking place by the students individually. I went ‘full-on’ researcher mode. I collated the data and I dug deep behind the data and came up with some interesting points. The students were assessed using the GL Assessments ‘Group Reading Test’ and I am critical enough to suggest that it isn’t perfect, but it was a starting point for me. The test provided me with data and specific data relating to reading age, inferences and information retrieval. It was a robust system for me to comparing students across a variety of year groups.


Point 1:  The boys performed better in the reading test than girls.

Like everybody in the universe, we are exploring how to narrow the gap in progress between boys and girls. So, it was inevitable that I was going to look at this issue. I discovered that the students with the highest reading ages in Year 9 are boys. In fact, the top 20 students in reading across Year 9 were all boys. This contrasts differently with our Year 9 attainment. The top twenty students in English are female, highlighting a massive difference.

Logic would tell us that a student’s reading age would be reflected in their attainment in English. There may be some other factors in play such as the attainment being based on reading and writing skills, but overall it suggested one thing to me: the reading assessments in English and the reading test assess different things. Often, in English we assess students on reading through critical essays of a text and it is based on their written response to a title or question. Now, before people start thinking I am toying with the idea that I would change an assessment system to favour boys, I am not. Instead, I am thinking about why is there a difference between the two. What is it that holds boys back? It can’t just be the task. Could it be the way the boys articulate their ideas? Boys simplify rather than develop their thinking. They go for the easiest route or explanation rather than sift through the layers of meaning.  When the thinking is limited to multiple-choice answers, this level of simplification is done already for the boys. Therefore, the multiple-choice answers actually hinders the girls, for they could probably see multiple possibilities.

The issue could also be that the multiple-choice quiz made an abstract experience (reading a text) a concrete one. The test was based on the principle that one answer out of the possible four was right and the rest were wrong. This makes things quite concrete and our assessments in English lack that concrete quality. There isn’t one clear answer. Now, if I could help students, ideally boys, move from concrete to thinking to abstract thinking, then I’d be seeing greater levels of progress. This isn’t going to be a simple case of getting students to make interpretations based on abstract thoughts. It is more likely to be getting students to see two or three possible right answers to a question and evaluating the effectiveness of each one.

 Point 2: Often students with the highest reading age failed to score marks for retrieving information.  

This was one of the most enlightening points for me. There are a lot of assumptions made about very able students. We assume they can do a lot of basic things and they do them well because the rest of their work is sophisticated. However, when analysing the different year groups, I spotted one worrying aspect, which will impact on all areas of the curriculum: the brightest students failed to score marks when retrieving information from a text. Perhaps, this is the result of very able students overanalysing the task and thinking that something more complex is needed. Or, it could be that bright students, often girls, are conditioned to interpret and infer information from the text that they cannot simply search and find. In our testing, students with a reading age of 15 years or above lost a possible 5 to 8 marks for failing to find information. Therefore, I think we need to work on the relatively easy task of finding information in a text for able students, which goes against the grain.  

Point 3:  Girls scored higher on inference questions than boys.

The good thing about the reading test used is that I am able to identify where students performed well in an area. Looking across the year groups, 13 of the top 30 Year 9 students scoring highly in inference questions were boys. Based on the tests, we can see that girls tend to be better at reading inferences. However, these thirteen boys are very interesting. In fact, as I have taught the majority of them, there is a lot I know about these boys. They are not the boys you would pick out in a line for being the best students in the year group. In fact, these students are in the middle of the sets for English. They are the boys with a sense of humour. They are the boys with often terrible presentation of work. They are the boys who you have to push to complete their work. They are also the boys that we want to improve in terms of progress because they are underperforming. Yet, here they are achieving a skill that the best readers do well. It shows me that boys’ reading isn’t the problem. It is something else.

Now, the findings and these points led me to these following points. Boys and girls generally read differently. Boys’ reading is often precise and technical. Girls’ reading tends to lack the technical precision, but they are often more astute with their reading. Boys when reading are better at finding the information whereas girls are better for finding the meaning. Ideally, we want students to be strong at both aspects – information gathering and implied meaning. I feel that whole novels are important for developing this understanding of implied meaning. A lot of boys in our school make three or more years progress in reading age and I think this is a result of reading whole novels. It is important that students read non-fiction text to develop their ability to process information.  

I now have a picture for my school based on this data. I have an idea of each year group’s reading ability and the weaknesses. Based on this information, I have an idea where to put my efforts. The students who need inference support. The students who need to work on information retrieval. The data is a diagnostic tool. It is now up to me to work on this information and retest to see if there has been progress.

What improves reading in students? Reading. Nothing fancy – just reading. Reading harder, tougher books. Students reading out aloud. Students reading in silence. Students reading for prolonged times. What is the biggest thing for improving reading in school? Making sure there is good quality reading taking place, is the answer. The process of reading is a largely mystical one. We often attach emotion to the reading process, but it is a process. If we attach emotion to the process, we cause problems. We make it about the experience rather than the process. We want to improve the process. The experience is a personal thing and it is something that varies from student to student. By us forcing our view, based on our experiences, of reading on students we are clouding the waters. We are making students see the process and the experience as one and the same thing.

We have three meals a day. We eat. Some meals we enjoy. Some we dislike.  I enjoy Dominos’ pizzas. I could eat pizzas all day. I love the experience of eating pizzas. I hate breakfast because I don’t eat pizza then. Yet, I know I eat to keep me alive. I understand the process is more important than the experience. If I focused more on the experience, I’d only ever eat pizza. Forget the process and obsess over experience and you will have a student who reads when they want to. I am reading all the time. I am using the process all the time. If that process is repeated and continued all the time, I will get better at that one process. A focus on the process is more important than a focus on the experience.

Our approach in our school is focused on the process. We get students to read in tutor times. We get them to read in cover lessons. We get them to read in lessons. We get them to use the process again and again. We get them to log their reading. We get them to write down how many books they read. And, next term I am emailing parents of children who haven’t read a whole book in term 1 independently. It will not be a stern letter, but a nice letter explaining the importance of reading. We need to look at the process and look at improving the process, but first we have to look at the physical process of reading.

We expect our students to sit several exams in Year 11. Exams where they have to concentrate on one topic for longer than an hour. What will help build a student’s concentration over time? Reading. We need to build and train students to concentrate. Reading is concentrating for a given time. Pick a class, I dare you. Ask them to read in silence for twenty minutes. Watch the students. See who pretends to read. See who reads intently. You can see the students who will underperform in the future exams. And, we are not talking about students who cannot read. This is why we need to work on developing and improving the process and that will only happen when the process is repeated continuously.

I am a dad and I have watched the progress of reading in my daughters. I read with them daily. It isn’t rocket science. If you repeat the process daily, they get better. My daughters are much better reading this year compared to last year as a result of constantly reading. In secondary schools, there are students who need our support reading, but the majority don’t. They just need a context for the reading process to happen. Sadly, in this day and age they don’t have the environment for reading at home, so that’s why reading in school is important and vital. Schools need to look at where reading happens in school. Build the process into the school routines and the experience of reading will develop.  

Thanks for reading,


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