Tom sits cross legged in the library. He’s not a reader, never has been, and I can see that this is difficult for him. Not merely that he doesn’t like reading or doesn’t like the book, even finds it difficult. It’s difficult because he really wants to please me, his new English teacher, in the first week of his new term, in his new school. He wants to like it, he really does and he concentrates hard not to move his lips as he reads. He wants to read Lemony Snicket because his friend liked it and he watched the movie over the summer, quite liked it. But Tom was probably representative of hundreds, maybe thousands of kids going through the same thing that week. What have we done to him?
As an English teacher, it breaks my heart to see kids like Tom who, for no real fault of their own, perhaps victims of circumstance, have missed the opportunity to fall in love with books. I’m certainly not blaming anyone but a system which appears to have failed him. For what greater gift can we give children than the ability to read well.
He’s had seven years of school and he is sitting, hoping that it will click into place for him. Until that happens he’ll feel excluded from an amazing world, a world his friends inhabit comfortably.
He won’t wander the corridors of Hogwarts or through Rivendale with Bilbo Baggins; he won’t climb through the wardrobe into Narnia or fight alongside a young James Bond. Something about that doesn’t quite sit right with me.
I came back to school about a month ago after the holidays and, as I’ve been thinking about reading strategies again, I returned to the work of Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller, both inspirational teachers of reading from the US. I’d always thought of myself as a strong promoter of reading in the classroom until I read these two. Perhaps the difference is that they saw developing a love of reading as the number one job of an English teacher. Until I read about their work, I had never really thought of it in that way. They made me totally re-evaluate my approach to personal reading in the classroom.
As Donalyn says in her glorious book, ‘The Book Whisperer’:
‘Reading must be an endeavour that
- has personal value to the students
- students themselves as capable of doing (Are they discouraged by reading failure in the past?)
- is free from anxiety (overstated or over tested?)
- is modelled by someone they like, respect, trust, and want to emulate.’
I learned from ‘The Book Whisperer’ that I had to be involved in my students’ reading; not just at the end with a hopeless review or a terribly busy poster. These things serve no purpose whatsoever. We need to be by their sides as they encounter confusion or want to share their excitement or laugh at the funny bits. They want us to do that. Too often we don’t.
Reading for pleasure seems to be the first thing that slips off the desk when the pressure is on; but, as English teachers, we must not forget why we are there in the first place. We loved reading and books and talking about reading and books. What happens to us? Why do we very often forget the one thing that got us where we are? As Gallagher states:
‘When schools deprive students of the pleasures of recreational reading we end up graduating test takers who may never read again for pleasure.’ (Readicide. p.45)
We need to follow up our beliefs in Reading, not let tests and deadlines take over. If your students are only doing reading which is tested – either in essay form or Close Reading – then they will begin to see that for what it is and stop reading altogether.
The new Curriculum in Scotland states that it is the responsibility of all to promote reading:
“Level 3 Literacy
I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response.
I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”
I need to do better. I need to be better.