There could be a radical solution to the perennial complaint of English teachers that their charges simply aren't reading enough difficult books to improve their grammar and comprehension skills; give the pupils their English exams earlier – half a decade earlier, in P6 (when they’re aged about 10) if that isn't too soon.
There’s a serious point: according to this year's What Kids Are Reading report, this is the last stage of education when pupils choose to read books that are beyond their reading age. After that they seem to go into reading paralysis, each year falling behind their 10-year-old selves.
Not only are the younger ones shaming their older siblings in the complexity of their reading matter, the comprehension of what they are reading is also better. It feels like an evolutionary trick; just when young brains should be capitalising on a healthy diet of challenging literature, they move on to other leisure activities of, shall we say, a less intellectually beneficial aspect. If only teenagers were physically and emotionally attached to their books instead of their phones, the skills developed through reading regularly – better comprehension, a wider vocabulary, improved grammar and spelling – would have a powerful impact on exam performance.
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On the surface, this might not seem necessary, as pass rates in English tend either to go up year on year or stay the same. However, in Scotland, this is in part because the literature element of both National 5 and Higher is now easier to pass due to the introduction of the “Scottish Text” question, which allows pupils to answer a question on a text in front of them, rather than through recall.
Getting teenagers to read more books
Furthermore, the What Kids Are Reading report, which was published last month, notes that “non-fiction readers are also seriously under-challenged, especially in secondary school where boys choose male-dominated books". This might explain why the Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation section of English qualifications, generally based on a newspaper article or other piece of factual writing, is traditionally considered to be the most difficult element of the exam.
The report's author, Professor Keith Topping, of the University of Dundee, recommends that both schoolteachers and librarians should be better at encouraging pupils to choose more difficult books, as well as creating a space for children to suggest their own favourite books to their peers. Perhaps schools and libraries in Scotland could also learn from their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
Primary pupils in England, Northern Ireland and Wales continue to read more difficult texts until the end of P7, a year after their Scottish peers, and in secondary school, lower-school pupils favour more challenging texts. The majority of Scottish teenagers who were included in the survey chose young adult novels such as Buddy by Nigel Hinton and Skellig by David Almond, as their favourite book, whereas in the rest of the UK, young people voted in numbers for the more adult novel Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. We need to look across borders to work out how to improve reading.
Parents also have a role, although this can be challenging. Whilst at parents' nights I might suggest that encouraging their children to read more difficult texts might yield benefits, I must admit that I am not sure how to do this myself. Whilst my 11-year-old child has around four novels on the go at any one time, I have to bribe my teenage son with rewards to keep him reading new and challenging texts. Even with the pay rise we look like getting here in Scotland, I’m not sure our salaries would allow this to become widespread practice.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland