Fighting for the Right to Read

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.

9 thoughts on “Fighting for the Right to Read

  1. Timely post on a subject very close to my heart as an ex-school-librarian-turned-English-teacher. I came to the new job determined not to lose my love of children’s/young adult fiction and it means I can continue to genuinely show an informed interest in what pupils are reading for pleasure and make some suggestions in class for those who struggle to find something that they think they will like. Reading isn’t about writing a review or reading 10 minutes a night for homework or choosing a book from the School Library in order that your reading record has something listed on it. You are right, it is a school-wide responsibility with champions in both English teachers and School Librarians. When you see novels being selected from stock to be taught in S1 and S2 primarily because there are enough copies of it for a class increased from 20 to 30, and not on merit, it makes your heart sink. What books would S1 and S2 want taught? Do we ask them? In my experience, we lose kids who are reading already by S3, increasing the pool of those who don’t read. In terms of what we do in a Secondary, it is what we do in S1 and S2 that matters most.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mrs B. I agree wholeheartedly. Our reading programmes are so set in their ways. I suppose due to budget constraints but that in itself is tragic. I think it is our duty to keep on doing what we do well. Encouraging kids to read great books. You might like some of my very early posts from January/ February.

  3. Poor old Tom – I know him well…

    Great post Kenny – have never thought about the fact that maybe getting children to love reading is the most important part of my job. You could be right.

    Last year we decided to shift our lower school curriculum so that Yr 7 & 8 would have an hour’s reading a week. Initially we focussed on reading for pleasure and trying to build a reading community, but this year we also focussing on reading strategies. I’ve written about it if you’re interested:

    Cheers, David

  4. This is an excellent post Kenny, you articulate the challenge faced by teachers and also the role that organisations like SBT need to fulfil in terms of making it easier for teachers to take on the active role in their students reading. It’s also lovely to see someone speaking about boys, reading and engagement without pathologising them (this is a pet peeve of mine- we need to find positive strategies to engage people).

  5. Enjoyed this and others in your blog. Thank you. I am where you were a year ago with blogging and a bit over whelmed. How do you keep track of everything you want to follow, do everything you want to do? Scary biscuits!

  6. Thanks for the kind comment. It can seem overwhelming at times, can’t it? if it’s any consolation you do begin to find a rhythm and post things when you’re ready. You’ll find that, if you do your own thing (absolutely necessary when blogging) then you’ll do okay. i look forward to reading your blog in the future,

  7. Pingback: The Learning Spy - Some thoughts on silent reading

  8. Pingback: Never Give Up on a Good Thing | Just Trying To Be Better Than Yesterday

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