It has long been recognised that ‘literacy’ is not simply the responsibility of the English department in school. Most of the discussion surrounding reading in recent blogs has (rightly) focused on primary school and the teaching of phonics. There has, however, been very little discussion of what we should be getting pupils to read at secondary school (with noteworthy exceptions from Jo Facer’s blog and Katie Ashford at Michaela Free School). I wonder how often we think in much detail about what pupils are reading in school, outside of their English lessons. In particular, how often do we talk about what non-fiction books pupils ought to be reading? Here are a few things to consider.
(1) What are they reading in lesson time?
English teachers think carefully about what books they get their pupils to read in lessons. As I understand it, it is not at all uncommon to read hundreds – if not thousands – of words in an English Literature lesson, even at quite a young age. I suspect that this is not the case in many other subjects. Consider, for a moment, how much reading a pupils does in a biology lesson. Or how much reading they do in a geography lesson. Or even in a history lesson. Textbooks in these subjects work on the basis that less is more: pupils will learn the content better if it is reduced down to simple sentences that condense the necessary information into as few words as possible. I am just not convinced that this is the case.
This is not to suggest that senior leaders should suddenly start judging lessons on how much reading there is: in some subjects (such as mathematics) this would clearly be inappropriate. But take something like PSHE: how much are pupils reading in that lesson? The issues covered in those lessons are hardly dry, and this could be an ideal opportunity to get pupils reading more. How much are they reading in a foreign language? I was blown away by Barry Smith’s French teaching at Michaela Free School, and one thing he does not do is simplistic one-line phrases: even in bottom set, I saw pupils there reading a whole paragraph of French, and translating French into English, and English into French.
Part of the problem is a lack of decent books for school subjects: most textbooks resemble collations of worksheets rather than books worth reading. I increasingly find it surprising, however, that we’re quite happy getting pupils to read several pages of prose in English lessons, but not in other subjects. Why is this? And is it not time we should do something about it?
(2) Are they reading in form time?
Quite a few schools get pupils to read in form time, and I think it is a very good idea. Form time is often dead-time in schools, a grey area between a pupil’s free time and his or her lesson time. Form tutors often need to deal with one-to-one issues in form time (regarding attendance, behaviour and so on), and getting the rest of the form reading would seem a good use of time for everyone else. But I have often found form-time reading to be poorly run (including in my own form groups). Are pupils reading something that is stretching them? Are they reading something different from what they read last time? Perhaps they are staring at a page as a way of avoiding doing anything, conveniently taking the whole year to read the same book (I did this in Year 5 until my teacher finally noticed). I would argue that schools can be more direct here in ensuring that pupils use form-time reading to the best possible effect.
(3) What are they reading out of school?
I think it would be wrong to be too prescriptive regarding what pupils read outside of school time. It does always strike me, however, that pupils who seem to get the most out of school are those who also read widely at home. This is not an usual wish: see David Didau’s blog post on this. This needs to be part of a conversation that takes place between home and school. Parents often want to know what their children should be reading at home and we should capitalise on this as early as possible (before teenage apathy kicks in!). At the very least, schools should be providing parents with recommended readings that go beyond the curriculum, both in terms of fiction and non-fiction. At best, it would be good to see schools doing everything they can (such as by running reading prizes or book clubs) that get pupils reading a wide variety of books.
This is, ultimately, all aspirational, but I think we owe it to children in schools to have high aspirations for them. I would see the range and variety of books a child has read as being at least as important (if not more so) than the exam grades they get, and of course the two are intricately connected.
So here’s a challenge. Do a little survey in your school, and find out how many words a pupil is expected to read in each of their individual lessons. Include lessons like PSHE. The results might well surprise you.