The Scottish Government and Reading for Pleasure

IMG_0603This week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a new venture to encourage  primary-aged kids to read for pleasure. Part of her Government’s ongoing – and as yet unsuccessful – attempt to enhance literacy and narrow the attainment gap, children in primaries four to seven will be encouraged to read as many books as possible and write short reviews to win prizes for themselves and their schools. As one who has blogged, tweeted and presented at Teachmeets, on the importance of reading for pleasure, I’m delighted that this has been placed, to an extent, centre stage of a literacy push. I do worry slightly about the competitive element though.

The First Minister’s comments on reading for pleasure echo mine exactly: “Research … shows that reading for pleasure is crucially important for children’s development, and I hope this scheme goes a long way in encouraging Scotland’s young people to see reading as an important leisure activity as much as a school one.”  That we place reading for pleasure at the heart of any literacy development is vital, especially in the early years, if we are to develop life-long readers, and anything we can do to encourage that must be seen as a positive step. From experience, however, I think there may be some flaws with this venture.

Where it begins to fall down for me is the added burden of the book review. I’m not wholly against writing about reading but I think we open up areas of real difficulty for some kids if we mesh something which we present as being for pleasure with something else which has its own pitfalls. Writing book reviews, long or short, can be a wonderful experience for kids who are confident readers and writers. For reluctant readers, who we spend a lot of time encouraging and finding books for, the thought of writing at the end of a book can turn them off reading forever. They are faced with all of the issues they have with literacy: now hitched to something which was supposed to be about pleasure remember.

I also have an issue with choice. To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, writer of ‘The Book Whisperer – as I do time and time again – in order to create lifelong readers we must provide three things: time, choice and love. Closing down the choice of reading material to a set list chosen by adults is a potential disaster. Kids like to read books recommended by their friends. They may be terrible in our eyes but, with reluctant readers who we simply want to read, nothing should be off the table at first. Then, perhaps, later on we can start to push books their way. Book choices should not be limited to what adults think they should read.

However, despite these concerns, I welcome the Scottish Government’s new focus on Reading for Pleasure. I love the fact that Nicole Sturgeon is talking publicly about her favourite children’s books. We should all be doing the same in our classrooms and in our homes. I perhaps worry though that in order  to take this forward someone felt that it should be made into a competition. So one kid can read ten short books while another reads one long doorstopper: who should get a prize? If you teach kids you’ll probably know that reading for pleasure is not as big a disaster area as we are lead to believe. However, for those who are still reluctant readers we need to get this right.

First Minister’s Reading Challenge

My Reading Year – Part Two January 24th

The snow is bucketing down outside and I’m under a blanket. I’ve got Salman Rushdie’s new novel besides me and, while I am supposed be going to the football this afternoon, this sounds like a much more attractive proposition. Being back at work changes my approach to reading as, naturally, I have less time. Tiredness as much as anything means I read less during term time. Finding space is a priority. However, I’m getting through the Christmas books with a vengeance.

There was time when I was deftly jumping through Magic Realism – from Rushdie to Garcia Marquez to Eco – throwing paperbacks behind me. Confidently debating the merits of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ or ‘The Satanic Verses’. Unfortunately recent reading has caused me to think that my brain is turning to mush. I have to keep flipping back when I find myself lost in a world I’ve no idea I’d entered. While set in New York, Rushdie’s book was less familiar to me than the plague ridden streets of Shakespearean London.

Book Three

shakyShakespeare’s Restless World – Neil McGregor

This book is a blast: fascinating from start to finish, it, like no other book I’ve read, prepared me for teaching Shakespeare in  a better way than ever. By telling the stories of objects discovered from the period, he paints a beautifully frightening image of what it was like for those who may or may not have gone to see the plays of  this young upstart that everyone was talking about. Through the political and the social history of the time, we are taken on a journey which is at times terrifying and at others mesmerising.

It ends with a wonderfully moving story from Robben Island, during apartheid South Africa. A rogue copy of the collected works of Shakespeare was circulated amongst prisoners. The inspirational quotations they highlighted to each other will bring you to the point of tears.

Book Four

Salman Rushdie, Two YearsTwo Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days. – Salman Rushdie

It’s been many a year since I’ve dozed off, dribbling, on a train. Lost in the magical world Rushdie has created – and I mean lost. Not in a good way – I’ve struggled through this one, not really knowing what the hell was going on. Number three in Danial Pennac’s the Rights of the Reader is ‘The right not to finish a book’ and I was seriously tempted on many an occasion with this one. Then I would be sucked into some beautiful prose, pages long. And then the blur; and the sad reality that I’m not the man I used to be. As much as I loved and lived ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, I could care no more for Magic Realism. Thank you,  Salman, you’ve been great.

I’m not even sure that I’m pleased that I persisted. I should live by Pennac’s list more truly.

Next time: It’s funny when you create a pile of books, with a specific order. The nature of other people’s recommendations mean you’ll never stick to it.


My Reading Year – Part One. January 9th

I’ve never being one for serious New Year’s Resolutions but I always vow to read 52 books in any calendar year. I often don’t achieve that – last year I spent two months reading ‘War and Peace’ – but I think if I can read 350 pages a week I’ll have a good go. A reading life is one of habit and and consistency so, perhaps, if I write about my reading, I will begin to recognise patterns which I can use when encouraging my students to read for pleasure in their lives.

Book One

storm‘Storm Breaker’ (Alex Rider Book One) – Anthony Horowitz.

How can we recommend teen fiction to kids when we don’t read it ourselves? This book has been about for ages but I picked up a copy over the holidays and gave it a go. I grabbed ten pages here, another ten there. In coffee shops, waiting in the car. When you have free time on holiday it highlights, more than anything, what makes you a reader. Actively finding even five minutes to get through a couple of pages, I was frantically searching thorough a packed out Glasgow City Centre for somewhere to sit down, eventually discovering a quiet corner in Waterstone’s. Well, not exactly quiet but I did a good job of cutting everything out for ten minutes.

It’s a real page turner. It’s poorly written: full of cliched set pieces and stereotypes. The action never lets up. A lifetime of reading Fleming’s Bond novels and some le Carre highlighted every ingredient Horowitz has used, causing me to sigh cynically on every other page. But, when I was twelve I would have loved it.

Book Two

habit‘The Power of Habit’ – Charles Duhigg

What makes a reading life so varied these days is the remarkable number of ways in which you can access books. This one was on my kindle and non-fiction. Quite coincidentally it is concerned with changing habits and I chose to read it January merely because it was next on my list. I hate to admit that I read non-fiction in a different way to fiction. It seems to be more dense at times and I have to take time to focus on every fact. I often rush along with fiction and, on occasion, will flick back to find out about a character or event. My kindle is in my pocket so I get through this one reasonably quickly. Recently in the press it has been reported that kindles sales are crashing as quickly as they rose. It seems the humble book is triumphing after all. Many of us never doubted it. I still carry mine everywhere though. You never know when you’ll have a reading emergency.

Duhigg’s book is superbly written, intricately researched, but slightly repetitive in places. I loved the opening section on recognising the nature of our habits. Cue, Routine, Reward. It got me thinking about how we develop habits as readers and how that might  work in classrooms. What is the reward for a reluctant reader? How can we convince them that there is one?

Book three is Neil McGregor’s ‘Shakespeare’s Restless World’, recommended by @JamesTheo. It’s astonishing so far.

Next time:IMG_0774

Gulp! Five Years On…

Back in the day, my first opportunity to have my writing in print came in the highly regarded, award-winning match day magazine -programme to you and me – of the great Partick Thistle. Fortnightly, more or less, for about six years, you could read about my childhood memories of watching my team, or ponder over the creative ways I could liken that week’s political events to the experience of being a Thistle supporter. All good things come to an end though. And my page had to come to an end too. I’d written about every memory, every experience, every possible thing I could. I stopped because I couldn’t possibly continue to force things on to the page. Better to let someone else have a go.


From then on I concentrated on teaching. I began blogging exactly five years ago – Gulp – with the intention not of sharing my thoughts, but of expressing them in a way in which I could formulate and clarify my own ideas. While I was on Twitter, I hadn’t thought of the links between that and blogging, or how they could complement each other. What I did discover was that there was a whole new world of people who had things to say and things to share. Our school context didn’t cater for that. I wanted to write but hadn’t factored in the CPD possibilities.

I’m a much better teacher than I was five years ago so I suppose the blog title is an appropriate one. I’ve connected with hundreds of great people, many have become good friends. Blogging has opened doors for me that nothing else in my professional life has come close to. I’ve been invited to write articles for many other publications, been invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and Teachmeets. However, like my days as contributor to the Partick Thistle programme, I am coming to the end of the line with this. I’ve said as much as I have to say.

I’ve never wanted to be a ‘big-hitter’ on Twitter or anywhere else. I’ve never really wanted to leave the classroom. I’ve never really wanted to be seen as an expert in anything. My work with Pedagoo intended to be a way to get teachers talking in a way they’d never done before. We do that and continue to do so. I truly believe that the educational landscape is beginning to change in Scotland and we are a part of that. There are discussions going on in staffrooms – not all but many – which may never have happened before. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.

So 2016? I have two huge events happening in my life this year: one personal, one professional. Potentially game changing in many ways. But I think my blogging days may be coming to an end. I’d like to move into more creative writing – something I’ve done more of recently -so may mix my educational thoughts with that. So this is no big ‘I’m off. So long, and thanks’ speech. I may still blog occasionally. It’s just a realisation that I’ve come a long way in five years and I’m maybe ready to move on to something else. Blogging is a blast and, should you be considering it, get going. Be proud of it. I know I am.

Using a Point-to-View Camera

I’ve written before of my strange relationship with my overhead projector. I found it in a cupboard a few years ago, blew the dust off and haven’t looked back since. In my English classroom I use it almost daily to write with kids, to annotate articles and passages and analyse poetry. Modelling writing is the best way to share what you know; the teacher struggling over a sentence here, a word there, develops a culture where everyone is entitled to be messy and change and develop their own work. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you go back and think about them and correct them.

A few years back, however, I purchased a small Point-to-View camera for the purposes of taking photos of sections of written work and placing them on the class blog; a good example of an essay introduction or some clever analysis or the perfect answer to an exam question. It worked well for a while then I drifted away from it and it ended up in a cupboard. Another piece of tech bites the dust. But perhaps not. I recently stumbled across it and thought I’d give it another go. This time, if it doesn’t take, I’ll get rid of it.Slide12

This week I’ve been using it as a visualiser, connected to my macbook. I spent most of a lesson talking my way through a practice exam paper, sharing every thought as I went through the passage and questions. I talked about the things I should highlight, the order in which I should address parts of the paper – for example, I always advise having a quick scan of the questions before even reading the passage – and helpful ways to uses codes or marks to highlight key language points. All the time, I’m using a pencil to point things out and underline.

And while was a bit wary of how it would be received by this particular class, as I had a glance up I noticed that they were scribbling away furiously. They were noting down my thoughts; they were hanging on to every word. Even when I moved over to the trusted OHP to begin to structure answers for them, they continued to focus on the mental process and what they should be thinking about as they answer, rather than the answers themselves. It’s still way too earlier to judge but, from a learning point of view, I’m hugely impressed. It seems to have had an immediate impact.

What I’d like to do, over the next week or two perhaps, is to use it to share examples of excellent work during the lesson. I realise that this is not particularly original – many have done it – but I’m keen to see how the pupils react to that. I don’t know how they’d feel about their work going live but I’d hope that it would help build a more collaborative culture in some of my classes. For now, though, I’m reasonably happy that I’m finally getting my money’s worth.IMG_0711 ipevo

Hello darkness, my old friend…

quietI spent the rest of the day, yesterday, worrying that it was my fault. I’d turned and shushed someone at the cinema because they were speaking right behind me throughout the movie. I’m sorry. It’s a thing with me: that expectation that people should know that sometimes they need to be silent. And hopefully not eat noisily. At the end, the gentleman waited behind to, we thought, apologise. But no. He explained that we were being rude for shushing him because he wasn’t talking, he was whispering. And that was stuck with me: is it me that can’t quite grasp that we live in a society where silence is almost unheard of?

Is it any wonder the children in our classes find silence so challenging, find sitting down to read for any amount of extended time, challenging? Walking towards the cinema in Glasgow yesterday we are bombarded with music: Christmas jingles, street entertainers, buskers. And the buskers are amped up now. Noise is everywhere. Perhaps noise becomes the wallpaper to our lives. And before you assume I’m a just a grumpy old man, failing to deal with the modern world, think about the times in your life when you have complete silence. Even in classrooms, we get to the point where a silent classroom is a ‘boring’ one.

It turns out, however,  that the only way anyone develops a love of reading is through sitting quietly with a book. That kids tend not to see reading as something they would choose to do over, say, playing on their consoles, while to an extent being a myth, has some grounds. But how often do we allow them to sit in silence in classes these days? Our desks in groups, our co-operative learning strategies in place, it seems that to look into a classroom and see thirty eleven year olds sitting reading in silence just ain’t ‘sexy’ teaching any more.

The sad reality is that it’s more than likely that half of that class are secretly praying to be sitting in silence. The peace to get on with things, unencumbered by the nonsense of the day, the distractions of the class clowns, the teacher droning. In secondary school, half an hour of hard work, writing in silence, can be a joy. It can provide the only opportunity for me to chat quietly to those who need it most, to intervene on a one-to-one basis.  It’s lovely and calm and, sometimes grudgingly, my pupils really appreciate it.

So, I’m not sure if I can forgive my cinema friend for finding it difficult to distinguish between talking and whispering. Perhaps he genuinely didn’t know. Perhaps whispering is his silence. We all exited to the maelstrom of noise in the busy city centre outside and went about our business. However, I returned to school all the more convinced that we need to provide that space for our pupils. It’s why our libraries should be libraries and not Information Centre/ Cafes. It’s why our classrooms need not always be noisy and collaborative. We think best when we are silent.  We learn best when we are silent. So, for at least some time during our day, let’s be silent.

Roy Race as Superhero – his part in my reading life.

royOver the years, as I read more and more about reading, the history of reading and the development of how we read,  it has become very clear that learning to read is a complex business. That, as a Secondary teacher, I get 30 new kids who can read – to varying degrees, yes, but very rarely any single kid who can’t read at all – is a minor miracle. The complexities of symbol recognition, joining with other symbols to make words, sentences, paragraphs, stories is a result of so many changes in how our brains function that I bow down to the work of my Primary colleagues. Hat tip. You do an incredible job there.

The difficulties we experience at Secondary are not or should not be concerned with teaching kids to read but with teaching them to read deeply and creating readers who will do so for pleasure for the rest of their lives. When they struggle to do that, it is often because they have no real bank of knowledge behind them, no real reading histories to hang new things on to. Part of my job, and a fundamental reason why I do the job, is to help them get there, just as I did a whole load of years ago. And Roy Race helped me to do so.

You see, Roy Race saved me from the hell of School Reading Programmes; programmes so designed to ensure that I was reading while removing all the joy from the process. I saw Tom Sherrington use this clip at #TLT14 last year but I think it applies equally well.


I’ve discovered through reading ‘some’ research – I’m very wary of every saying ‘the’ research – that programmes like Accelerated Reader increase reading at the time but, once the rewards are taken away, reading actually decreases compared to those who don’t use the programme. But I digress slightly. I want to talk about Roy Race as Superhero. Why is he a  superhero? Well:

  • he was generally mild mannered and loved, during the day,
  • he put on an unusual outfit when he jumped into action
  • he performed miracles nearly every time it was required and
  • he would routinely defeat the evil enemy, sending them back to where they came from.

And he, as much as anyone, turned me into the reader I am today.

‘Roy of the Rovers’ – and for those youngsters who are unaware of this, it was a fabulous graphic novel from the seventies and eighties – would fall through my letterbox every Saturday morning. My dad would shout up to me: ‘Who’s Ray of The Ravers’ is this?’, EVERY SINGLE WEEK just to annoy me but I’d bound down the stairs for it anyway. It had my name on the front and, over the years, I’d build up a perfectly ordered collection which sat on the corner of my room. And I think it was that ownership, that identity with something which was mine and mine only which helped me on my way to being a reader.

What I’ve found over the years is that if you can give kids ownership of what they want to read, no matter how hard it is to find out what they like, then previous negative attitudes to reading for pleasure being to change. Asking parents to subscribe to magazines, with their child’s name on it, means they begin to develop their own wee collections and begin to build a reading history. Reluctant readers often don’t have reading material at home and sometimes library books, while a good start, are not enough.

The difference between instruction, which we should leave to the experts, our Primary colleagues,  and building readers who read for pleasure is that it can be long old slog to embed those habits and the knowledge to develop those habits. We struggle and search and sometimes battle to find the right book for the right child. Gabriel Zaid says: ‘To write, publish, or distribute a book is like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea: its destination is uncertain’ It is my responsibility to find that child’s ‘message in a bottle’