What keeps me awake at night - My great expectations for reluctant readers

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

"What can we do to help DarrenSharon?" Occasionally parents will ask such a question hoping there is an easy answer. Read, I tell them. Encourage the activity of reading for pleasure, develop a reading culture, visit libraries and read together. Confident readers have wider vocabularies and they have a greater awareness of the possibilities of the written word.

But I needn't bother as there is this tacit understanding: "No, the television or computer will not get switched off in favour of such an arcane and frankly ridiculous activity."

With 30 years of experience under my leather-patched tweed jacket, I astonish my colleagues with tales of my early years in teaching when I read from a single text to engaged classes.

In addition, we had silent reading lessons as the basis for discussions about reading experiences, about exploring responses in a variety of ways. Above all, in those pre-national curriculum days, we read class sets - lots of them. It was the shared class activity that rooted our developments in speaking and listening, and writing.

How I weep for reading. How technology has rendered it apparently worthless in our current world of instant gratification. How the curriculum has made the reading activity a stick for prodding pupils through the next attainment hoop. Pupils can emerge from the GCSE treadmill having read as few as three novels.

Alarming as this situation is, it is not this which keeps me awake at night. No, my current insomnia stems from my own optimism. After talking about various books which I had once enjoyed and which had gone some way to shaping me (honourable mentions here to Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird), I issued a summer reading list to my Year 8 class. In the face of protest, I hurriedly assured the pupils that this was an optional exercise, but if anyone did want to share responses my school email was available.

Happy that I had done my bit but not expecting many replies, I headed for a walking holiday, only checking my emails some three weeks later. Which was when I found that one particular pupil had read Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Her major enthusiasm though was reserved for Great Expectations: the gallery of characters presented by Dickens, his descriptive skill and the tantalising ambiguity of the ending. Do Pip and Estella stay together, or not? What did I think?

What I think is that, on her return to school, this girl should encounter a reading curriculum that can take her from the wind-blighted Yorkshire Moors of Cathy and Heathcliff to the class-ridden prejudices of Pip's London. She should have an English teacher who can continue to make suggestions and who can counter her hypotheses; someone whose holiday reading list matched hers.

Is this enough to cause sleepless nights? Certainly it is, as I ponder that, while it is all too easy to blame modern phenomena for the decline of reading, some bright-eyed kids occasionally remind us that we must address the impoverished reading curriculum and banish any torpidity from our classrooms.

The author is a secondary English teacher from the north of England. To tell us what keeps you awake at night email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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