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It's up to you to make reading a lifelong love

Little, it seems, divides educators as passionately as phonics: the word is now so politically charged it may have become the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented aspect of language education.

But whatever you think of it as a teaching tool, there now seems to be general agreement that there is a need to teach above and beyond phonics to improve and develop pupils' comprehension - even, and perhaps especially, at secondary school level.

There is little use in being able to pronounce words if you don't fully understand their meaning. To appreciate the messages of Tolstoy and Shakespeare, for example, one needs higher-than-average literacy skills. Then there are the languages of maths and science, with lexicons so vast they almost qualify as a modern foreign language.

But how do you persuade pupils to read difficult material outside their comfort zone? Some will find extended reading of novels and non-fiction an exciting way to develop their perceptions of the world. Others, however, may find the same notion confronting.

Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the book Outliers: The Story of Success, believes much will depend on the influence of family and external factors - but also on the impression made by teachers. He quoted studies that showed children in some US inner-city schools from disadvantaged backgrounds progressed more rapidly than their peers from wealthy families during the school year but lost ground over the holidays. His hotly debated solution is to practise a specific task for around 10,000 hours, something he based on a study by psychologist Anders Ericsson.

In many countries, the responsibility for understanding textbooks and literature is placed firmly on the shoulders of the learner. In Britain, thankfully, we are turning that on its head. It means more responsibility - even a greater burden - for teachers. But getting pupils to spend thousands of hours at home with a book means teachers need to engender a love of reading, and creating that will involve more than just phonics.

Jo Knowsley is acting editor of TESpro @tes.

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