My secondary school, like many, has time dedicated to reading. Each week a 20-minute tutor time slot is reserved for silent reading. At first I joined them, enjoying a rare moment of peace in my busy schedule to read for 20 minutes. However, after a few months I noticed that many students weren’t really reading. Their behaviour was impeccable: they were silent, and their books were open, but they weren’t actually reading.
Most students weren’t getting a current read out of their bags, instead borrowing one from my classroom bookshelf or the library box. I noticed that they borrowed a different book each week, opening it at a random page. Some didn’t even turn a single page. It was so frustrating – I looked forward to this time each week and couldn’t understand how they wouldn’t be grabbing this opportunity that I was so grateful for. Can you tell I was a naive NQT?
While many people will have their bogeyman of choice to blame for this phenomenon (video games, mobile phones or academic pressure), it’s likely that the issue is a complex one and indeed may simply be a normal part of being a teenager. But it’s part of our job as teachers to try and get children reading more, or at least prepare them to exit the literary-wasteland of adolescence as consumers of books again.
Over the last three years I have experimented with ideas to improve engagement in reading within my vertical tutor group. I started by introducing a “book review” slot where I, or one of the rare keen readers would share a book review with the rest of the class. However, after a few the volunteers dried up, until a suggestion was made that we could also review music, or films or TV shows. This worked well and the reviews came thick and fast, but by the end of the year I realised we hadn’t reviewed a book in months and we were just pushing Netflix shows on each other.
Next I tried reading along to an audiobook. I borrowed a class set of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ from the English department, and for a year we read along with Stephen Fry’s brilliant narration. It took us a year but we did it – and the boys hated it! My suspicion is that 20 minutes was never long enough to get into the book, but the boys really didn’t enjoy it and said they didn’t find any of it funny. Instead of creating a class of enthusiastic cult sci-fi readers, I was left with a feeling of guilt that I’d ruined Douglas Adams forever for 25 kids. Though a couple have since told me that they did check out the film and enjoyed that, so perhaps Adams’ reputation is not unsalvageable.
This year’s experiment has been a little simpler and the most successful so far. Each week my tutor group spend the 20-minutes sat in silence while I read to them. To avoid the time issue, each week I pick a chapter or passage from a different book. As a science teacher, my classroom library is rich in lay science texts, but also has a smattering of biography, history and sport. We’ve read Bill Bryson, Ben Goldacre, Matthew Syed, and Randall Monroe. We’ve read about the moon landings, the periodic table, the UK’s most remote island communities and a black woman from Maryland called Henrietta Lacks. I’ve even read some poetry.
My dream would be for a student to borrow the book, and watch them devour it over the next few weeks; that has not happened…yet (seemingly my naive NQT optimism has not yet dried up completely). But the next best thing has happened; they’re asking questions after I’ve finished reading…“what happens next?”, “who wrote that?”, “why did that happen?”
While I might not have got the book in their hand, at least I have piqued their interest, at least they know these books exist. At least they have been exposed to literature and know what they can find when they are ready to start reading again.
Bill Wilkinson is a secondary science teacher in the UK