A Cold Read: Getting Through the Big, Hard Books!

Right, we’ve got seven weeks to get through Romeo and Juliet with Y11, interleaved with some poetry and Language Paper 1 revision, oh and we’re going to have to prep them for a mock in week five, and fit in some time to support their college application letters, and I’ve got two students who had long term absence last year who will also need to catch up on Jekyll & Hyde…
The complexity of teaching English should not be underestimated; in my first three years of teaching, I never finished reading a whole book or play with a class in the time I was given. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but I would guess that many English teachers experienced similar things early in their careers. We are constantly pushed for time, therefore have to make some often quite painful decisions about what to keep, what to cut, what to skim and what to explore in depth. It’s really difficult to gauge how quickly a group of students will be able to read a text, coupled with the fact that the ‘big’ texts we teach as part of the GCSE specifications are often the most significant challenge for the disadvantaged and culturally poor students in our classrooms. Many of these students have less experience with reading (and completing) long books and, for some, the huge fat tomes and canonical writers like Dickens and the other Victorians on the GCSE specification seem like an impossible mountain to climb. It is the job of an English teacher to make this feel manageable and, ideally, enjoyable!
In addition to all of this, we then have to balance the age old dichotomy of knowledge versus skills; ‘teaching a text’ must mean that students understand plot, character and themes, but also that they are able to write about them intelligently and in a way which ultimately fits someone else’s idea of literary criticism – we must meet the exam spec. So: teach the text, get them to enjoy it, teach them how to write, how to pass the exam, and do it in a strict time frame…
If reading for pleasure is a gentle stroll on an easy footpath, planning a text for teaching is like preparing a mountaineering expedition with thirty reluctant teenagers. Doing a cold read is how we can scale that mountain and get everyone back alive.
What is a cold read?
A cold read is where you preface the teaching of a text by reading the whole thing just for plot understanding in one go, without doing any real teaching or literature ‘stuff’. If I have seven weeks in Autumn Half Term 1, I will start by spending roughly five hour’s worth of lessons getting through the text with my class at speed. This is important because all the literary ‘stuff’ such as structure, development of characters and themes can only be really understood and studied fully if students know the whole text first.

Doing a cold read means that students have a sort of road map for studying the text; they understand wider character journeys, overriding messages and themes, and are more easily able to pick up patterns, tension, climax and moments of shift in a text. If we return to our mountaineering metaphor, it’s the difference between just setting off and hoping for the best, and having a bird’s-eye-view of your climb from a helicopter before you start.

Top tips for doing a cold read:
1. Be brutal in your planning
Go through the text and prioritise which parts you will read in full and what you will skip. Remember, you will be able to return to teach the important things in detail – the cold read is just about students understanding the story! (See the Romeo and Juliet example plan below)
2. Edit the text
If Act 3 Scene 4 is only important from lines 50-83, that’s all you need to read! Skip the rest – you can come back to it later!
3. Use film and audiobooks
Using film and audiobooks can be a brilliant way of getting through key scenes and chapters quickly and in a way which is memorable for students. Use of film needs to be judicious and well planned, but can be very useful if you select clips carefully. When teaching drama in particular, using film or audio plays is key because students need to appreciate the text as a performance, not just words on a page!
4. Notes and summaries
Get students to write brief notes alongside the cold read just to record simple details. You might do this as a quick set of quiz questions after some reading or watching to aid long term memory retention (see my blog on memory here: https://funkypedagogy.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/memory-and-recall-practical-strategies-for-a-linear-world/)
If you have chosen to skip a section of the text, you might choose to provide a brief summary of what has been missed (see example below for Romeo and Juliet)
5. Use a knowledge organiser
Using a knowledge organiser to help students to see all the content they have to learn for the text is very powerful (see this blog by @Joe_Kirby for a good explanation: https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2015/03/28/knowledge-organisers/). It aids their long term retention of key facts because you have already helped to categorise the information for them. Once you have done your cold read, you could also use a blank or partially completed knowledge organiser as a high impact homework to promote recall.

You can find an example format of a cold read uploaded to the resources section of Litdrive here:


Jennifer Webb is an English teacher and Assistant Principal for Teaching, Learning and Staff Development at Co-op Academy Leeds. She tweets @FunkyPedagogy, writes a blog: funkypedagogy.wordpress.com, and enjoys speaking at conferences and organising teachmeets. Jenny is currently writing a book on teaching English Literature to culturally poor students which will be published in 2019. When Jenny isn’t at school, she enjoys learning from her two year old son.

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