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Wednesday 26 January 2011

Shhh...I'm Reading...

There is something which scares me more than a generation of illiterate kids sitting in my class; and that is the very real possibility of them being alliterate. A generation of kids who can read but choose not to do so. This is why I think it is absolutely vital that we spend more time focusing on encouraging a love of reading at the expense of almost everything else we do as teachers.

I wrote last week in my blog, ‘There’s More to Life Than Books You Know but Not Much More’, about how much the realisation that I became an English teacher because of books changed my way of thinking and my everyday practice. The positive responses I received have encouraged me to say more about what I do to encourage Personal Reading.

I see my classes for four periods a week, five in Fifth year.(16,17 years old)  I must ensure that I cover a load of stuff in our yearly planner, touching all the bases in Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening while ticking all of the Curriculum for Excellence boxes; so I know how much of a commitment I am making to Personal Reading. That is, free choice reading. But what do I expect back?

  • I expect every child to read and respect the reading space of others. I do this by creating a reading environment. For the first ten minutes of EVERY period, students enter the room quietly as they see me reading, usually leaning against my classroom door as they walk along the corridor. They quietly get out their books and start reading.
  • Every S1 and S2 child (11 to 13 years old) has a specially prepared bookmark. On this bookmark, they set their own targets each week. I ask them to think about how many pages they can read in ten minutes in class, multiply it by four, for each class, and then double that. This gives the poorer readers a realistic target; the better readers see this as a minimum and usually know how much they can read in a week. Targets must be met and bookmarks are signed weekly by a parent. Works perfectly after the first couple of weeks for 99% of my students.
  • Once a week we write in Reading Dialogue Journals. Much of my Sunday is taken up with responding to Journals; but if I want them to commit to reading they need to be aware that I am committed too. Every child starts with the same three questions.
1.    What is your book called and who wrote it?
2.    Why did you choose it?
3.    What has happened so far?
As the weeks pass, I respond individually to the direction each reader takes. That way I can participate in dialogue with every student, asking them to think about certain areas, clarify others. My responses usually take a three questioned format. I ask them something about Writer’s Craft; I ask them something about how the book relates to their own lives; finally, I ask them to summarise this week’s reading or make a prediction.
  • You should know that Book Reviews are a waste of time and serve no purpose; therefore responses to reading, if there really needs to be any, should be fun and creative. Think of your own reading; the first thing you do when you finish a great book is to go and write about the character, setting and what you’ve learned from it, isn’t it? What about Book Tweets. Great fun, a really difficult task for kids to spell and punctuate well at times, believe me. On the other hand, they make great Wall Displays.

One of my greatest pleasures in teaching is when students who are no longer taught by me come to me for book recommendations. It doesn’t happen too often but, when it does, it reminds me that what we do with reading does have a lasting effect on the pupils we teach. Think about it: if the only individual reading your students do is ‘Close Reading’ exercises – and hey, if they cannot do them well, then give them more – can we really complain when kids claim that they ‘hate’ reading. The next time one says that to you – and they will – ask them why; and without resorting to the ludicrous claim that it will benefit them in the future, what are you doing about it?

A great book you really must read on this subject  is by Kelly Gallagher, an American Educator, and it is called 'Readicide' for obvious reasons. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  1. Wow! I'm so glad Bill Boyd aka The Literacy Adviser led me to your blog - so many great ideas - and that's just in the first post I've read! I have to say though, that if more was done in Primary schools your job would be a little easier. Many schools still rely heavily on "reading schemes" instead of using "real books". To inspire reading we need to offer inspirational material...sadly "reading schemes" are anything but...

  2. Thanks so much for your comments. I do sometimes get the feeling that I'm constantly playing catch up at secondary school and the damage may already have been done. Not really blaming Primary teachers as they work so hard on so many other things. Totally agree about so called reading schemes. Yuch!