What are our pupils reading?

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.

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9 Comments on What are our pupils reading?

  1. Some interesting points discussed her. Thank you.

    I would not want students reading in my lessons for the sake of reading. Some parts of the lesson require critical input and for me this critical input can come from a textbook. My students access digital media of many kinds as well as textbooks and I would not like to see it any other way.

    Reading is often an inefficient way for students to access information and I try not to let developing a student’s level of English distract from my lessons.

  2. I would say that, in primary schools, children are reading far less because of the following factors

    At home:
    1. Computer games
    2. Anti-academic attitudes
    3. Lack of books or access to books

    At school:
    1. Anti-knowledge attitudes and requirements to prioritise teaching of ‘skills’ (knowledge more likely to come in packets of prose).
    2. Lack of textbooks = lack of exposure to prose. This is the biggest one I think. What does the child do when they’re a bit bored? In the past, you’d flick through the textbook. Nowadays, children just chat to each other.
    3. No opportunity to simply read in silence
    4. No class readers, instead book ‘extracts’
    5. Use of IWBs, iPads and tech in general involves reading less and watching videos/pictures more
    6. Lack of reading of own work. This is because group-work and group seating plans means that children are encouraged to ‘learn from each other’ (I see it as just chatting), so they’re less likely to be concentrating on reading what they’re writing. I find the quality of writing massively improves when children write in silence, but Ofsted/SLT etc hate this.

  3. As a parent I can highly recommend the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides as a source of non fiction books that are inspirational for children to read. I’ve used them with my children from a very early point (about 6 years plus) but I can see that they would appeal to KS3, and there are various guides, at various levels of complexity. These guides cover literally all subject areas, and are often very useful for extending a child in an area of interest (for instance we have recently got into some of the mineral, rock and crystal guides and the one on WW2). You can get hold of second hand copies online very cheaply. I would also highly recommend the ‘How it Works’ magazine series, which covers scientific, geographical and technological subjects in adult level detail, but in a way that also appeals to teenagers.

    Personally I wouldn’t want school telling me or even advising me about what to get my child to read at home – I know my child and his reading habits much better than school does, plus I can rely on the latest Bookpeople offerings for new books. However, I can see that a list of ‘great books for teens’ would be very useful to parents who perhaps didn’t have a lot of access to information about new literature. We really are in a golden age of YA fiction, and there are literally tons of great new books out there to devour. (There are also ‘old favourites’ being reissued, for instance my younger child has just read the entire oeuvre of Enid Blyton.) We’ve also done books like Animal Farm, and tried him on some older stuff such as Treasure Island, but I don’t feel any great need to push the old school ‘classics’ at the moment, especially given that many of them were written for adults and not for children, in the days when ‘young adult’ literature did not exist. In any case, he’s far too busy reading the ‘classics’ of the future. 😉

  4. It was only my last year of teaching I really got into the concept of ‘language arts’ and based all my PSHE teaching around books: both fiction and non-fiction.
    So we read ‘A Long Way Gone’ about child soldiers, (Un)arranged Marriage by Bali Rai, 50 facts that should change the world, and Immigrants:Your Country Needs Them.
    The problem for me was that you get almost zero budget for PSHE teaching, so getting a class st of books is out of the question, which meant we ended up doing chapters, or they had to listen to me read, or I tried photocopying snippets (worked okay for 50 facts but couldn’t be done for stories).
    We also looked at PSHE topic of conflict via Romeo & Juliet with year 7 – and used the prologue as a way in.
    It was a *much* more successful way of doing things compared to previous years.

  5. I’ve introduced a ‘core reading programme’ in which pupils must read three substantial books during the year. They take multiple choice tests on them before being issued with the next one. The titles include retellings of great legends by Roger Lancelyn Green in years seven and eight, through some Robert Louis Stevenson in year nine, then on into Austen and Tolstoy in years ten and eleven (‘Cossacks’, not ‘War and Peace’ – although that’s on the extension list). There is also a Shakespeare play to read each year.

    You make an excellent point about the quality of textbooks. We have some old non-fiction Ladybird books at home (I recently tweeted a photo of a page about village church buildings), and I would say the quality and seriousness of the writing is better than most modern textbooks I’ve seen. I despaired of British offerings, and ended up getting literature textbooks from the US: I’m using the McDougal Littell ‘Language of Literature: British Literature’ for an overview of literary history.

  6. Lesley Watts // 23 October 2015 at 19:34 // Reply

    If you feel there is not a great deal of discussion about what secondary pupils are reading in the teaching blogosphere, then perhaps you should talk to your school librarian, or follow some librarians on Twitter. Whilst school librarians spend a good part of their working lives encouraging reading for pleasure, we realise that this, for many children, includes a heavy dose of non-fiction. We are happy to compile reading lists and advise on suitable resources to suit different age ranges and ability levels. I have recently worked with our History department to buy a wide range of books focussing on the two World Wars, for Year 10 students researching for their Extended Project Qualification. This meant buying books on topics such as animals in wartime, code-breaking and the work of women, to name but a few. I agree that it can sometimes be a challenge to find a book of the right quality at a suitable level, but it can be done. Someone mentioned Dorling Kindersley in the comments; they are excellent but there are other publishers and organisations doing sterling work in providing attractive information books for young people. The School Library Association has an annual information book award which highlights some excellent books http://www.sla.org.uk/dwl.php?doc=iba-2015-poster-a4-front.pdf

    I agree with your point about ‘… 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.’ Sadly, I think although that is true of a good education, it seems to be getting easier to achieve exam results without having read many books at all. Whether this is the fault of the curriculum or something else entirely, I don’t have enough evidence to decide.

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