Fe Brewer is an English teacher in an 11-18 school in Leicestershire. Fe is the Litdrive Regional Advocate for Leicestershire, a coach, a CCT Network Leader, an assessor for her local SCITT, a member of her school’s Extended SLT and the writer of her school research and CPD newsletter. She is a passionate supported of good quality research-informed ITT and CPD.

‘The way of words, and of knowing and loving words, is a way to the essence of things, and to the essence of knowing’

John Dunne.

As teachers, we all know that reading is a wonderful currency. It is something we trade in every day; if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve used your reading ability to ‘buy’ qualifications, jobs, cultural capital, . There is also a chance that when you invested in reading, your ‘returns’ included a healthy life satisfaction.

To us, reading is an incredibly worthwhile currency that we invest in and profit from almost daily.

There are, of course, students who are entirely unfamiliar with this ‘currency’ of ours: those students who come from  that do not have single book in the shelves or are perhaps among the 1 in 4 KS2 children who, in 2016[1], exchanged their World Book Day token to buy their very first personally owned book. Maybe they are the children who start primary not knowing how books ‘work’ and have even tried to ‘swipe’ them. While we may be a nation of great literature, children are reading ‘less than ever before’[2]

And we cannot escape its importance. Rather topically, Amanda Spielman commented this week that,  ‘Maths and English are the most important vocational qualifications’[3], and only last week TES published an article on readers with low literacy levels struggle more in Maths exams than English exams[4]. Studies also reveal how important reading is for vocabulary development and empathy, and how it can lower levels of stress, loneliness and depression[5]

Faced with students and subcultures like this, what can we do? How can we possibly change this culture? How can we make reading matter to those who see reading as an entirely foreign currency?

Make reading an expectation: praise those who meet it.

In our school, every Key Stage 3 lesson starts with 10-15 minutes of reading. In my classroom, every lesson starts with praise – the first words that I utter in my lesson as ‘well done’ or ‘thank you’ to students who have their books out and are reading. I go through the register and ask for page numbers, which should have moved on from the previous lesson. This allows me to monitor students’ progress through their book, but also gives me the opportunity to praise them for reading every single lesson.

I often have students who were disengaged readers at the start of the year asking me, ‘are doing page numbers today, Miss?’, and want to proudly tell me how much they’ve read. When they complete quizzes, I ask what their score was and praise accordingly. A quick win.

Celebrate Progress

You can never go too big when celebrating progress – and progress for everyone, not just high achievers. We have ‘million word’ badges and an ‘honours readers’ club, and rightly so, but every reader is recognised for their achievements. We use the Accelerated Reader programme which allocates students targets based on their reading age, and every 10 weeks their progress is updated. I go through summary reports with my classes, and those who have made progress colour in the next box on the class chart, usually to a round of applause. We have reading ‘loyalty’ cards which can be exchanged for a hot chocolate on Friday break times and the total number of words read by each year group is also published in our school newsletter.

From the top to the bottom

If you’re lucky enough to have a sixth form, utilise that pool of role models. A number of our sixth formers every year undergo basic training and are deployed help to support our weaker readers. It’s a really efficient way of getting students to read aloud in a supportive setting without having knock-on effects to teacher workload, but is also incredibly beneficial to students. Younger students get a reading buddy, someone to talk to about their reading, and someone who will support and invest in them. The sixth formers find it rewarding and it offers them volunteering experience. Perhaps most importantly, it sends the message to those students that reading matters and there are people willing to help them achieve.

Make reading an everyday part of life

Much like Tom Bennett says to ‘immerse’ students in expectations and examples of good behavioural norms, we should immerse students in reading too. I’ve seen this done in a number of ways: ‘I am currently reading…’ posters on doors and email signatures, photos displayed in corridors of teachers reading; teachers joining in with reading sessions. It can be teachers visiting the book fair, or mentioning the books they received as Christmas presents, a chat with students as you stand on duty in the cold, maybe swapping recommendations. When I collect page numbers from my students, I include mine too; sometimes I race students to finish, often on the pretense that I want to read the book they’re currently reading (which, in fairness, I often do). And who among us Twitter users could forget those inspiring ‘over the summer I read…’ slides shared by teachers on the first days back in school? In short, the more we identify ourselves and our students as readers, the more cultural the expectation.

Be part of the club

It would be easy for us to enjoy a separate reading world to our students, but I’ve found that sharing a reading space, and sharing reading books has been really powerful. Make an effort to visit the library with your classes and spend time exploring books, and make sure you explore books yourself. Last year, I read some of the most popular books from our school library, an incredibly worthwhile experience which gave me more understanding of our readers. Having indulged as they do, I can make recommendations based on the themes, ideas and worlds they enjoy exploring. I also leave post-its in books, little notes of encouragement or recommendations from me to the next reader/s with recommendations or a suggestion that they come and chat to me when they’re done. Recently, a year 7 came to me after being thrilled to find one of my notes and we spent a good 10 minutes bonding over books: a special moment shared because of a post-it note.

Whatever you do, however you do it. Reading is something we all have to work to improve students’ reading. The more we can spread the word about our wonderful currency, the more investments will be made.

Useful links and recommendations:

The World Book Day website: https://www.worldbookday.com/

Some resources and ideas from The National Literacy Trust https://literacytrust.org.uk/resources/?phase=secondary

An incredible article about modern reading habits, from Mary-Ann Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid and Reader, Come Home: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf

A summary of my adventures reading what my students read: https://wordpress.com/view/thelittlebookofplay.wordpress.com

A Department for Education report on reading for pleasure https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/284286/reading_for_pleasure.pdf

[1] https://www.worldbookday.com/faq/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/29/children-reading-less-says-new-research

[3] Quoted on Twitter after her appearance at an Association of Employment and Learning Providers event.

[4] https://www.tes.com/news/weak-readers-struggle-more-maths-english-lit

[5] https://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/why-is-reading-for-pleasure-important.html

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