Here’s how we spread the joy of reading

Getting students to read for pleasure has a proven impact on attainment – but we all know that this is easier said than done. Here, English teacher Scarlett Potticary explains how she used research to develop a strategy to spread the love of books, based on daily reading time and teacher modelling
5th April 2019, 12:03am
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Here’s how we spread the joy of reading

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/heres-how-we-spread-joy-reading

Most schools recognise that getting children to read for pleasure is important for developing confident readers. Most schools recognise that reading for pleasure is also linked to numerous other academic and social benefits. But most schools, particularly in the secondary phase, struggle when it comes to actually doing anything about it that works: how, as a school, can you ensure that reading for pleasure happens?

This was the question we asked ourselves at Bedminster Down School. We have an above-average number of students receiving pupil premium and we recognised that a lack of reading for pleasure was impacting these students more than their peers. So I embarked on some action research, as part of my master’s degree, to find out what the best method of supporting reading for pleasure actually is.

So what did I find out?

Numerous factors play a part in reading for pleasure: access to appropriate materials; family influence; instruction from teachers and parents. But what is clear is that daily time for reading in school, with support, can make the biggest difference to whether children actually do it in their own time.

So, we set up a research project, focusing first on key stage 3. We decided to start each English lesson with five minutes of reading. This was supplemented with a fortnightly library lesson, in which students read for up to 30 minutes, had time to discuss their book with their teacher and had time to select a new book to read in the coming fortnight.

My action research aimed to ascertain whether this had any meaningful impact on how much reading for pleasure pupils did both in and outside school.

The first step was to analyse reading periods to ascertain whether the pupils were fully involved with their reading (eg, tracking words with their finger or if they were silently sounding the words), participating (eg, easily distracted by peers or my movement around the room) or disengaged (eg, whether the book was consistently upside down). I collected data in two ways: circulating and making notes, and through recording a number of my lessons.

What I found was a disparity in the data: pupils were far more engaged in the recorded lessons. Why might this be? Well, when the lessons were being recorded, I did not have to monitor the reading, and thus I was sometimes able to read my own book. When I asked the pupils why they thought there was a difference, they pointed out that when I was reading, they did it, too.

Essentially, teacher modelling was the difference. It makes intuitive sense that, in order for us to best promote reading in our schools, we need to show our students that we love to read, that we value reading and that we read regularly, too. In addition, pupils have such a keen sense of what is right, what is wrong, what is fair, what is not. Why should we not practise what we preach?

The second stage of analysis was to see what impact the five-minute reading periods had on reading for pleasure outside of the classroom. Focus groups indicated that students were more likely to read at home as a result of the introduction of the model. One pupil claimed that it encouraged her to read more at home because five minutes of reading consistently reminded her of how “great” her book was.

That comment was key, I think: that girl’s five minutes of reading had an impact because it was the right book for her. If it was not, would the same impact have been accomplished? I have my doubts. Clearly, book choice was crucial.

Third, I tried to ascertain if increasing the amount of allotted reading time would have an impact. Again, through focus groups, pupils claimed they needed more time. After discussion and reflections with my academic tutor, I realised that such a short period of time could be deemed “tokenistic” in order to tick that box of “daily reading”. That does not give the message we want about reading.

In response to these critiques, more time has been devoted to reading this academic year: the start of a fortnightly double lesson begins with 15 minutes reading. The feedback from pupils has been that this feels much more worthwhile and it increases engagement with the book, so the above cited benefits should be greater.

However, we cannot hide the fact that whether it was five minutes or 15 minutes, the reading periods did not work at all for some pupils. There were children who sat with their book upside down, some who stared into space, some who simply went through the motions. We are aware we need to do more to combat disengagement.

We are currently trialling reciprocal reading to try and get more children engaged: during these tasks, students read to each other and ask each other questions on their text.

Such practice has led to some really lovely outcomes, such as children leaving the classroom discussing their books or asking each other to borrow “that book you read me”. But, again, this practice is unlikely to be a catch-all.

Likewise, I am not blind to the fact that allocation of reading-for-pleasure time does have an impact on teaching. It can squeeze the time you have for pre-teaching a new topic or checking pupils’ understanding of previous topics. It can also feel like it gets in the way of learning.

And sitting reading your own book can be tricky when pupils are asking questions or you have resources to prep for the next phase of learning. I confess, I did not always manage to sit down with my own book while the pupils read theirs.

But this project does show that creating time for reading is important, that it can have an impact on how much pupils read for pleasure, and that it is possible to do it within a busy timetable. It is a good foundation from which we can build.

Will we ever get every child reading for pleasure both in school and at home? It’s important we at least try to hit that goal.

Scarlett Potticary is an English teacher at Bedminster Down School, a secondary school in Bristol

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline “The story of how we spread the joy of reading books”

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