We all know the scary stats when it comes to reading. The National Literacy Trust state that 3/10 teenagers read independently, 54% prefer television to reading and 1/17 would be embarrassed if they were caught reading. Yet as English teachers, we know how important reading is. It is integral to supporting academic achievement. We know it helps to foster excellent vocabulary and enhance grammatical structures BUT, EVEN MORE IMPORTANTLY, it engenders qualities in young people such as compassion, tolerance and empathy for people and situations entirely different to their own. Much needed considering the current climate.
In November I was concerned about our students’ reading. I asked my Lit Co-ordinator if I could investigate the data that AR had generated and discovered from that that 79% of our Year 7 students, 73% of our Year 8 students and 86% of our Year 9 students had reading ages below their chronological age and 43% of our Year 7 students, 18% of our Year 8 students and 20% of our Year 9 students had taken a reading quiz. It made for depressing reading. And despite reading novels in class, our students expressed attitudes towards reading such as ‘I don’t do reading’ and ‘I’ve never read a book in my life.’ Something had to change.
But change doesn’t happen overnight and I am a big believer in planning so I realised that the transformation of our school with reading at the heart of it would take some time. I decided that in year 1 it was all about promoting reading, fostering a love for reading in our students to get them reading in the first instance.
So I began to read about reading and one of the first books I came across was ‘The Book Whisperer’ by Donalyn Miller. One of her first recommendations was that in order for students to read we need to capture their interest. She says:
‘In order to make personal reading recommendations to my students, I need to learn about their past reading experiences and their interests both in and out of school. I mine these surveys for nuggets of information that will form the basis for book recommendations. Students may not be able to describe what types of books they might like to read, but if I have knowledge of their personal interests, I will be able to find books that match a topic they enjoy.’
At the start of January, I issued my students with an interest survey (link below) and it was really interesting to ‘mine’ these surveys and find out more about my students’ interests, hobbies and ideas. I think these interest surveys should be kept in the library for the librarian to easily access so that when students declare that they do not have a book or can’t find anything they would like to read, we have more chance of recommending something successfully to them.
Next we introduced DEAR (or our literacy co-ordinator, Martin Gardner did). We went wholesale on it with a big launch. It’s an interesting concept with the argument being that if students read for 20 minutes a day, their vocabulary will significantly improve. I always find it really interesting when a new initiative is launched as you always get those members of staff who don’t buy in and don’t contribute. This is especially true when you have a huge disparity with regard to curriculum time, which I understand. You can, when in a position of responsibility, waste a lot of energy trying to convert those people. Instead, I prefer to celebrate those who do buy in and I have found, as a result, that this in turn can lead to a trickle of people buying into any initiative. During one of the first launch weeks, I went around the school with my camera and caught DEAR in action. The pictures I took were shared with staff, with thank you messages and then shared on our website. Celebrating staff and groups who contributed to the DEAR initiative. Maths is one department that can be hard to convert – not for us though. We have an amazing Teach Firster who reads avidly with her class every lesson, something Ofsted picked up on ‘Pupils regularly read privately at the beginning of English lessons for a short time, but this is also true of other subjects where this might not be expected, such as mathematics.’ The most important aspect of DEAR though, for me, is that no matter how busy you are or how much you have to do, you also ‘Drop Everything And Read.’ You won’t realise the impact this has on the students in front of you but it really does. One day, I got my book out to read whilst my students were reading and one of my year 9 boys turned round to me and asked me if I was reading a new book. He then announced in front of the whole class that I read really quickly because he had noticed that I had read 5 books in a short space of time. This led to a discussion about reading habits which was really interesting. Students notice everything. As an NB to this, I only read teen fiction during term time. Why? Because I need to have conversations with my students about reading. When you can share your experiences of the books they are reading, reading becomes so much more alive for them. Regularly being able to talk about the books you have all read together fosters a growing love for reading within your classroom.
Modelling our reading is fundamental. How can we expect students to buy into our reading philosophy is we don’t promote ourselves as readers first? To that end, every classroom and every member of staff has a ‘I am currently reading…’ poster. Every member of staff needs to have one to show that they are part of a wider reading community.
Donalyn Miller also recommends the classroom library. This has been incredible and yet it is so bleeding obvious. When I first read this section of her book, I suddenly realised that whilst I have students’ work on the wall and I have learning aids at the front, I don’t have anything that celebrates reading. I also didn’t have any books. Donalyn suggest that you build your own classroom library for your own classroom. After reading this, I bought everyone in the department a bookshelf and promised more bookshelves when those ones had been filled up. I filled my bookshelf up. At first, I felt despondent with this as I realised that students became reliant on it. Instead of bringing their reading book, they would rely on my library for our DEAR time. And every DEAR time, they would be reading a different book. Now next year I have to tackle this BUT one day the magic happened. A student stayed behind after the lesson to ask if they could borrow one of my books and take it home to read. We forget that statistics have said that there are many families without a single book in their house increasing the importance of libraries. I was delighted. And soon after, another student asked to borrow a book and then another.
Now every time I buy a new book for the library, I make sure I read it first and then I spend 5 minutes of that lesson telling them about that book and sharing excerpts with them. I recently did this with ‘One’ by Sarah Crossan and ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’. The next lesson, students made a beeline for the book. And then I realised that some students had been to the school library to take this book out. And then I realised that some students had asked their parents to buy the book. So the importance with the class library is that each book that goes on to the shelf has been read and recommended by you.
I am so fortunate to work in a school where the majority of staff are on board with our reading initiatives and it has been wonderful to see classroom libraries pop up all over the school across the year. PE, Maths, Science and DT have all invested in creating libraries of some sort or another meaning students are engaging with subject specific reading across the school week.
To support students in accessing cheap books, our librarian organises a book fair. This book fair remains in school for a week. Again, I have found it so important that teachers model an excitement about the arrival of a book fair. I made a big deal of it with my students, visited the book fair and spent £40 on books for the classroom library. They couldn’t believe I had invested that amount of money on books for our library and all raced to look at them when I told them I hadn’t read any of the books and therefore I needed them to read them for me to decide how good they were.
To celebrate the reading we do within curriculum, we produce book posters for all the books we read and every English classroom has these books on display.
One member of staff also decided to display the reading of her tutor group by creating book mobiles to reflect the books that they had read.
Our librarian organises shadowing events such as our Carneige reading group. Again encouraging as many teachers as possible to read books on any short list fosters a great discussion with students about the books they feel or you feel are deserving winners and why.
Inviting authors in has been really influential to our students. Over the past couple of years we have had visits from authors such as Marcus Alexander, Tanya Landman and Melvin Burgess. All of these authors have led whole school talks about how they became writers and the writing process but alongside this also run smaller writing workshops. Choosing students who haven’t naturally engaged with reading is a great way to try and inspire them to take the leap. An opportunity to work with a writer really gets them involved in this process.
This year, we went to town on World Book Day and I think days such as these are really important to highlight. Staff and students dressed up, they decorated doors (magpied from Twitter) and baked cakes. All monies raised during the week went to the library and prizes were awarded to both staff and students.
In addition, our librarian also regularly runs competitions for our students. The latest one being ‘Selfie to Shelfie’ in which the students have to identify the bookshelf that belongs to a particular member of staff with Amazon vouchers up for grabs.
All of these strategies have been instrumental in trying to foster an enthusiasm and love for reading in our students. At the start of the year 43% of students in year 7 had taken a reading quiz, 18% of year 8 students and 20% of year 9 students. We end the year with on 91% in year 7, 88% in year 8 and 81% in year 9 – some significant movements. Our AR reading quiz leagues have definitely been instrumental in this. Every two to three weeks, I go on to AR to identify who has quizzed and who hasn’t. I then produce a reading quiz league which is shared with tutors and displayed on tutor boards. This enables tutor groups to celebrate students who have quizzed and passed with success and discuss with students who haven’t how they can go about doing this. Every term, the students who have the highest % are rewarded in assembly and every two terms, the tutor group who has taken the most quizzes and passed is rewarded with a Dominoes pizza party.
So year 1 of our reading journey has been about making reading a visible activity and fostering a love and enthusiasm across the academy for this. In March of this year, Ofsted visited the academy and I was delighted to find this reflection within our report, confirming that we were well on the way to becoming a reading school:
‘Pupils are encouraged to read widely in different subjects and to enjoy reading as a leisure pursuit. Pupils regularly read privately at the beginning of English lessons for a short time, but this is also true of other subjects where this might not be expected, such as mathematics. Social spaces, the new library and classrooms highlight the imaginative escapism of books so that pupils think positively about reading.’
This post is dedicated to the amazing staff and students at The Wellington Academy for making this year a great reading year.