I think I’m on fairly safe, uncontested ground to claim that kids who can read better tend to do better in their GCSES. Whilst this seems obvious in English, I think the same is probably true across the whole curriculum. Indeed, there was an EEF report at the start of the year suggesting that improving reading comprehension may well improve Science results. We also have subjects like Drama where (perhaps controversially) some GCSE specifications have a written element comprising as much as 70% of the course. If we feel that strong readers are likely to cope better with these demands, there is a clear imperative to make sure students can read well.
The correlation between reading ages and GCSE results seems pretty clear in my school. Out of curiosity, I asked our central team to send me a scatter graph of last year’s year 11 cohort, plotting reading ages against average grades. I won’t share the graph here, but the results confirmed what I had previously thought, with a few notable suggestions:
- To average at least a ‘4’ in all subjects, the minimum reading age required was about 11.
- To average at least a ‘7’ in all subjects, the minimum reading age required was about 17.
With this in mind, trying to nurture and develop a student’s reading ability is not just about making sure they can cope with the demands of the new English GCSEs; it’s about helping them develop in every aspect of their studies. Beyond this, it’s about allowing them to leave school with sufficient command of language to take a part in society without being marginalised by the inability to read.
I’m afraid I don’t know any quick and easy fixes to the problem of reading, but Kenny Pieper’s book on Reading for Pleasure is and excellent place to start. Having read this in the summer, I was determined to try out some of the excellent suggestions with my year 9 group. These are the three main routines I’ve established:
- We start every lesson with silent fiction reading for 10 minutes.
- All students have a reading journal where they keep a record of all the books they read.
- We use reading journals to record ideas about our reading and to occasionally add diary entries.
So, what can you do in 10 minutes to improve reading? Here are my observations so far:
You can talk more about books. Every single year 9 lesson I talk to my students about books. What are you reading? Did you finish that other one already? Oh, Paper Towns? Jane read that last week, you should chat to her. If you like that try The Fault in our Stars. Another Darren Shan book? How may is that now?
I love these conversations, and have them every lesson.
You can know what your kids are reading. Because I am spending much more time talking about books, I am learning more. I have read more YA fiction than I might normally normally. I know more about the types of books that 13 year olds want to read. I am more effective at recommending books.
You can improve attitudes to reading. Out of interest, I sent my year 9 students a survey to complete asking for opinions on how we start lessons. The vast majority of students (about 90%) commented positively on the way we start lessons. They feel it is calm, that it means they read more than they might normally. They don’t feel it is a distraction from the main content of lessons. They like keeping a record of the books they have read. Anecdotally, I have noticed that when we have English at the start of the day, many students are in before the bell reading.
You can make reading seem normal. Year 9 is the first year at my school that students don’t have a dedicated library lesson. Typically this means that students stop getting into the habit of bringing books into school. I would go further and say they start to form the opinion that reading is only for younger students. Now my year 9s have a book every day. They visit the library. Of course we talk lots about how important reading is, but mostly, it is about reading being a normal thing to do. On world book day, I casually asked students to discuss their favourite books of the year. Using their reading journals, every student was able to take part in the conversation. 15 minutes later and I had typed up a list of recommendations to share with the whole year group. It was a lovely collaborative, inclusive conversation.
This of course is just the beginning, and certainly not enough on its own to fix the attainment issues I raised earlier. But it’s a start. Next year I will be looking at ways to share this approach, certainly across the whole of year 9 and hopefully across the whole school.
Thanks for reading,