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Reading the riot act

A couple of years ago, I had a sixth-form tutor group, and every Wednesday was "Reading Wednesday" (the advertising industry mourns the loss of a potential Titan, I know). It started with noble ambitions: 25 minutes devoted to silent reading, encouraging the habit of sitting down with extended text and becoming used to its gentle hypnosis, its teleportation from this world to one inside your head, shared with the author's. Reading: the ultimate mind meld.

"Does it have to be a book?' they asked. Casually, too carelessly, I chose what I thought was the more liberal sentiment.

"No, it can be a magazine or a newspaper," I said, envisaging my class trooping in with folded copies of The Times and Vanity Fair under their arms. Probably smoking pipes. Without my knowing, they had drawn a drop of blood and they could smell it like sharks.

"Does it have to be a paper book or magazine?" they said. "Can it be an e-book?" I assured them that all platforms that supported text would be supported by me, and congratulated myself on my grooviness. I didn't realise it, but they had engaged me in an enormous and diabolic game of Guess Who?, only instead of working their way through to the red-haired man with the glasses, they were burrowing down to what they really wanted. "Can we read on our mobiles?"

And they had me. I'd blundered into checkmate. My battleship was sunk. "Er, sure," I said. "As long as it's a substantial piece of text, a long news report at least."

"Sure thing, boss," some of them said. I could hear them mentally high-fiving each other. So, what followed was this: three of them brought in novels of discernment and challenge: Tolstoy, Twain and Woolf. Half a dozen brought books that would do until a real book turned up: Rowling, film adaptations and books about footballers. Half a dozen brought Metro, two brought The Sun, and the rest consoled themselves with their smartphone libraries, no doubt to download Hemingway and Huxley.

But who can blame them? I'd asked them to read, and because I'd abdicated responsibility about what platforms they could use, they did what they habitually did; they read what they normally read.

I've heard that this generation of children reads more than any other, because of higher literacy rates and greater exposure to multi-platform text (also known as the internet). And that's probably true. But another thing that's true is that people are, as they have always been, creatures of habit and will therefore default to what is comfortable. Their task, as they saw it, was to read something, and that's exactly what they did - even if it was the football scores and unimaginative insults on Facebook. My task was to push them harder than they were going to themselves. And I'd fluffed it.

That's why they need us. Not just to suggest, but to coach and nag and help. Who cares if they don't thank us at the time? Who does this job for the thank yous?

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government's new school behaviour expert

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