I’ve already written here about the small group reading intervention we introduced at Thomas Cowley last year. Hackney Learning Trust’s ‘LIT’ programme, underpinned by a reciprocal teaching approach, has made a huge difference to many of our students. Having revisited Hattie recently, I shouldn’t be surprised by this – see below where reciprocal teaching appears in his summary of ‘influences’ on attainment (Appendix D, from ‘Visible Learning’).
However, we now know that last year’s progress in reading extends well beyond the LIT intervention group. Obviously, there are exceptions, students who have not begun to close the gap and we will have to look closely at these individual cases. But I refer in this post to average gains in reading age. The fact that, once retesting of the entire KS3 cohort was complete in June, we found that most students had made more progress than would normally be the case. Many, significantly more.
Excited by this, and wanting to celebrate the work of Janet Dixon, our Head of English, Mark White, our recently appointed librarian and also the enormous strides made by particular students, I created a film for assembly. If you watch you’ll see that Janet begins it by outlining some of the factors that she believes have made the difference. I explore some of these beneath the video.
I love the ending; ‘Never give up’. The link with growth mindset is clear – these students have progressed through effort, through repeated reading practice. And so have dozens of others, not featured in the film. But what has triggered this greater effort? This willingness to read, read and read some more?
A key factor must surely be the twenty minute silent read at the start of every English lesson to which Janet refers. I have to admit, I wasn’t at all keen on this idea at first. My own experience of this approach as an English teacher was negative, on the whole. I was fully aware that there was pretend reading occurring and I used to have to police the classroom in a way that made it impossible for me to convincingly model absorption in a novel. However, Janet had been persuaded by other Heads of English who claimed that silent reading, little and often rather than for the traditional whole lesson, had transformed attitudes to reading in their schools. So we trailed the strategy.
It’s been a highly successful experiment. We now have data proving this, but the power of the approach was palpable long before we dished out the GL assessments. There is no restlessness during silent reading in English, no students listlessly gazing at books held upside down, no fishing any old paperback out of the book-box on the way into the room. The atmosphere is intensely focused. Students are absorbed in their reading such that I always find myself tiptoeing when I enter – or intrude, more like.
Before you consider this approach for your own setting, though, I’d like to suggest a few essential pre-conditions. First, you do need excellent teaching assistants who can withdraw struggling readers. There’s plenty of research and indeed common sense is enough to tell us that these learners have nothing to gain from silent reading. They need to read aloud and they need feedback. So ours read Rising Stars’ Superscripts in guided groups, which they love. As SENCO, I banned reading around the class long ago because of its potential to embarrass struggling readers and to ruin the experience for everyone else. This is very different; struggling readers are not just willing but excited to participate in the reading of engaging plays at the right level of readability.
Another pre-condition is a well stocked library and a knowledgeable and determined librarian. If you watched the video, you’ll have seen ours described as a force of nature. He really is. We’ve had Accelerated Reader for a few years now but too many students haven’t engaged. Mark simply won’t allow this. He makes it his mission to find a book, within the right AR reading range, for every KS3 learner. Whether it’s an interest in football, computers or chickens (yes, we do have a student who talks about little else), Mark will find the book. He also shares the AR secret with students – what ZPD means, why the right level of challenge is so important to progress in reading. His background is in the newspaper industry, not education, but he’s quite clearly an instinctive growth mindset practitioner.
Another prerequisite is that all English teachers are on board and absolutely clear about their bottom-line expectations. At Cowley, every KS3 student must read at least twenty pages a day. This is monitored – no spreadsheet is necessary; English teachers just move quietly around their classrooms, recording page numbers. Some of the ground is covered during the twenty minute classroom read, the rest is homework. Obviously, AR quizzes then check comprehension and Mark intervenes when necessary.
Again, and I know I’m coming across as a hopeless woolly minded liberal here, I wasn’t sold on the twenty pages a day idea. It was the thought of being dragooned into reading that I had misgivings about. Would our students develop negative associations? Would ‘reading for pleasure’ become ‘reading because I must’? These were my concerns.
Clearly, I was wrong to worry. The reverse is true. Many of our students have discovered reading for pleasure simply because the choice of whether to read or not has been taken away from them. Subsequently, we have developed in our secondary modern setting a vibrant reading culture. Our students now read independently and talk about authors and books like they never did before. I regularly amuse myself on a cold, wet lunchtime duty by asking them what they are reading. They can always tell me. And do you know what, if it isn’t Jane Austen or Charles Dickens yet, I don’t care at all.