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Writing's on the wall if children don't read

Geoff Barton finds himself surprisingly agreeing with Michael Gove

Geoff Barton finds himself surprisingly agreeing with Michael Gove

I agree with Michael Gove.

Five words I hadn't expected to write. But look at what our education secretary said after visiting some of Washington DC's charter schools: "Here, kids at the end of primary school are expected to read 50 books a year. We should, as a nation, be saying that our children should be reading 50 books a year, not just one or two for GCSE."

A predictable and patronising volley of responses from Britain's literati ensued, ranging from the sour to the splenetic. Most made political points about library closures.

What they didn't do was explain why, in a highly literate society, our expectations of children's reading are so low. To most of us in education, reading matters a lot. Many of us cannot travel on a train without having a book with us. Most of our own children, I suspect, will read lots of books because that's what people like us do. We are paid-up members of the literacy club.

In his book Why Do I Need a Teacher When I've Got Google?, Ian Gilbert quotes the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report that says being an avid reader at school is more of an advantage than having educated parents. A new schools guide by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) shows that "reading a variety of literature independently by the age of 15 is the single biggest indicator of future success, outweighing negative factors such as socio-economic background or family situation".

Yet it's not happening, as Ofsted's January 2011 report Removing Barriers to Literacy bleakly showed: "For the past five years, the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals gaining five GCSEs at A* to C, including English and mathematics, has remained stable at around 28 percentage points below that of those not eligible."

Why would we in the literacy club want to keep our poorest children on the outside? That is what seems to be happening and why Michael Gove's "50 book" challenge may be the jolt we need to question our priorities.

It doesn't mean a knee-jerk reaction of mandating 20 minutes of silent reading a day across the school. That's possibly the worst response we could make. Ofsted's gloomy report into English (English at the Crossroads, 2009) highlighted the negative effect of "silent reading lessons" (or, as my son described them, "silent let's-pretend-we're- reading lessons").

Here's why. If you come from a background where books don't matter, where it would be unthinkable to witness an adult sitting reading a book - and the NLT reports that one in three children in Britain doesn't own a book - then silent reading lessons will merely associate reading with control and passivity. They will make reading for pleasure even more alien, far removed from the sociable world of conversation and book groups many of us deem central to reading.

Instead, let's reflect on whether we are explicitly teaching reading and actively promoting reading.

It's relevant because we are in that nail-biting no-man's-land between courses ending and exams beginning. In secondaries, we're all playing GCSE pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, frantically predicting which students seem secure in maths but not English and vice versa. I get wheeled out to work with these CD borderline students in various schools. Like some demented horse whisperer, I try to train them up to get their C in English. They duly trot through exercises and snort obediently.

And I'm struck each time by the gloomy realisation that, after 11 years of compulsory teaching by conscientious teachers, around 40 per cent of England's 16-year-olds struggle to get a grade C. What's needed for a C can be summarised in three ingredients: use paragraphs, write in sentences and be boring. As soon as you stop being boring, you are likely to get a B.

Reading plus high-quality speaking and listening will help these students become better writers. Thus we need to remind ourselves that "every teacher in English is a teacher of English" (George Sampson, 1922). So if I'm a teacher of, say, history, I have to take responsibility to teach my students how to read and write and speak like a historian. That's not about literacy; it's good teaching.

Next, we need to make sure that the library is brimming with great fiction and poetry and that there's a buzz about it. School libraries should be places that are vibrant, where reading is a social act and a natural part of being human.

And, finally, we need to show why reading matters, with all of us reading aloud more, talking about books, helping youngsters from book-free backgrounds to become similarly hooked.

Michael Gove is right on this one. We have a duty to heave open the doors.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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