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Teacher confidence is crucial to reading, says HMI

TEACHERS need to have their confidence boosted if standards of reading in primary and early secondary are to be improved, a leading HMI said last week.

Ernie Spencer, who has national responsibility for English, told a national conference on reading in Bellshill: "To achieve very good teaching we need to increase the professional confidence of teachers in understanding their reading aims and develop the enjoyment of reading for pleasure.

"There should be an in-depth pursuit of meaning and detailed analysis related to understanding information, ideas, stance and attitudes, and to how the author has achieved purposes and effects by choice of words and structures.

"This should be followed by justified evaluation of what the author has succeeded in doing. There must be discussion of all these elements among pupils and between teachers and pupils. This requires judicious selection of pre-packed resources and worksheets."

Figures showed that 61 per cent of primary schools had good attainment levels in reading and 13 per cent very good; in S1 and S2, the figures were respectively 50 per cent and 10 per cent.

Mr Spencer congratulated North Lanarkshire for its new reading materials, which were launched at the conference. But he added that effective staff development should be a collaborative effort, including the tendering process for new materials.

Patricia Wilson, primary language adviser in North Lanarkshire, also identified professional confidence as a major factor in raising standards. "The main thing about the pack is that it should help to create empowered, able teachers. Hard work is not the problem for teachers. It is a clear message they need. Twenty years of worries will not go away, but with much clearer guidance we will go forward."

Teachers were under too much pressure and were not having any fun, Ms Wilson said.Through no fault of their own, they were worksheet driven and had no time to read to their class or to experience quality time. Teachers should be trying to put the joy back into reading. A key element in this was to ensure that children read one short novel a week in class.

Colin Harrison, professor of literacy studies in the School of Education at Nottingham University, warned against an elitist approach and stressed the importance of children being allowed time to read in class in order to develop reading fluency.

"Many people become teachers because they care about reading and understand that enjoyment of books and making books available is valuable to every pupil," Professor Harrison said. "It is potentially demeaning and insulting to teachers to put an emphasis on skill development and functional literacy if, in doing this, we set lower goals than the teachers would set themselves.

"To suggest by implication that the majority of students need functional reading skills and that there is a kind of elite who will become sensitive readers is fundamentally wrong. There is a danger of that when we have a big push on reading and an emphasis on skills."

Teachers sometimes felt "vulnerable" if a headteacher came into the room and children were sitting reading. "It is absolutely crucial that children are allowed this time and are reading something which is reasonably approachable. You can only develop fluency in reading by reading."

Teresa Cameron, a primary 3 teacher at one of the schools involved in producing the North Lanarkshire pack, said: "It gives us a framework to work within, to develop skills that have been neglected and to build on these skills as the children move through the school."

Her colleague Linda McDougall, a primary 4-5 teacher, said the pack filled a gap in teaching and in children's learning.

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