Book a prize

21st September 2007 at 01:00

The reading challenge: to get pupils back in the book habit. Saira Sawtell reveals how her school turned over a new leaf or two

Just three years ago, I began teaching English at a large comprehensive specialising in technology, with state-of-the-art facilities, but tired, old subject classrooms.

The pupils were not generally keen readers, even the more able pupils seemed engrossed by the sciences and whizzy new technologies.

I wanted to energise reading through integrating the resources centre (or library) more fully into school life. Even with a snappy 21st-century title, the "RC" was more a place to use computers than for reading or borrowing books.

Now reading is very much on the agenda. In the year before I arrived, the total number of books issued was 4,212. After a year, this rose to 6,470, while last year it soared to 9,443. We are now well on target to surpass 11,000 this year, almost tripling the number of books lent in three years.

I started my campaign with a trial library scheme of work, to be taught across the incoming Year 7s. The idea is to catch the pupils when they are new, and get them into the habit of using the library as a place of research and reading for fun.

The first wave of the project takes place once a fortnight in an English lesson, and involves pupils choosing their books.

This is either a free or guided choice, and we sometimes get them to read the beginning of three different books and then continue with their favourite. There is nothing worse than being locked into a book you're not enjoying.

Pupils are given various tasks to do in their workbook. This may be anything from observations to questions; designing a book cover to character sketches taken from the book. We've even had pupils making a PowerPoint presentation on their term-time reading which they've delivered to the rest of the class.

No task is ever repeated and there is not a "sit and read a book" lesson in sight. The lessons alternate between fiction and non-fiction and aim to value a range of texts, from classic novels to magazines, newspapers and websites.

Lessons begin and end with whole-class sessions, and sometimes the teacher will model reading and sit engrossed in a book with the class. The teacher can use this opportunity for guided reading with small groups or put pupils into pairs and get them to take it in turns to read their texts to each other or discuss why they are enjoying their book.

These recommendations often give others good ideas about what to read next. Higher abilities tend to benefit from the discussion with peers while lower abilities enjoy the support with reading for fluency and comprehension.

The second wave of the project sees the idea rolled out to Years 8 and 9. Year 7 now reads while also undertaking research in the library around sport, while Year 8 researches Shakespeare and Year 9 the locality, with cross-curricular links to geography and history.

The biggest growth area is boys' fiction. Reading ages are rising and the beginnings of a reading culture is in sight

Saira Sawtell is subject leader for English at Budmouth Technology College in Dorset

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