How can we help secondary school students read for pleasure and improve their reading skills? #GdnBLReading

7 July 2017
Blue Door Press

Yesterday I spoke at the Guardian Education Centre for a conference on Reading for Pleasure in the secondary classroom. The Guardian’s literary editor, Claire Armistead, kicked off the day by explaining that we need our young people to enjoy reading and to read whole texts which are not part of the curriculum; she pointed out that many students just read bits of texts rather than complete books, and rarely read outside the syllabus. Her brief introduction was followed by an eloquent and moving talk given by the Young Adult novelist, Sita Brahmachari, who talked about how she grew up in the Lake District, the child of an Indian father and English mother, and how she felt none of the books she encountered spoke to her until she came across I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It was an epiphany for her; the novel enthused her so much that she has not stopped reading since. Her son was a reluctant reader in his teens until he read Kevin Brooks’ work; after that he was addicted to Brooks’ high-octane, action-packed narratives. For me, it illustrates the key importance of motivation in reading; that’s why, as you will see, I included a “motivator” in one of my group roles.

Sita also spoke about how Dorothy Heathcote’s work in motivating students to enjoy drama and texts is really important for her; now sadly too neglected, Heathcote championed the need for children to bring their own stories into the classroom and to use personal objects to stimulate storytelling, discussion and learning. Sita described movingly how her first award winning novel, Artichoke Hearts, was based on her mother-in-law who died prematurely of cancer. During her talk, she illustrated her points by bringing out objects which were both precious and symbolic to her such as a necklace, a bag and shoes. The talk will live with me for a long time because it was so rich, compassionate and creative.

I started my session with a 3 minute mindfulness meditation, explaining that I have found it really helps students enjoy reading more if they are relaxed but alert. Many delegates told me they liked this calming moment; there was something very beautiful about us all taking a moment to do nothing and just concentrate upon ourselves breathing, becoming aware of our bodies and the fact that we are living beings…

I then spoke about Reciprocal Reading and George Orwell, handing out a series of flash cards (see below) and asking delegates, when they had a pile of cards, to rate the most useful reading skills when reading a review written by George Orwell. Many delegates rated summary skills as the highest, but others said that asking questions of a text, or working out how you felt about it, was significant too. I followed this exercise by asking them to read George Orwell’s review of Zamyatin’s ‘We’ — proto-type for 1984 written by a Russian living in Soviet times; they then had to pick the most useful technique again; many delegates changed their thoughts about what might be the most helpful skill to understand and appreciate the review after reading it. This was interesting, and I pointed out the crucial importance of getting students to be “meta-cognitive” and “think seriously about their thinking”; to review what skills are most appropriate when responding to a variety of texts and tasks.

Some delegates felt that the review was far too difficult for Year 9/10 and believed that teachers should explain it to their students before asking them to read it. I responded to this by saying it is very important to challenge students, to see what they can do, and give them the skills — such as skimming and scanning — to decipher bits of very difficult texts. This is what Reciprocal Reading (RR) is about, getting students to enjoy reading stuff which is outside their comfort zone by understanding the processes that help them read and understand. I am passionate about getting students to improve their reading and that’s why I am putting my resources on the internet under the Creative Commons licence (free to use); I have called my cards ‘Creative Reading Flash Cards’ because although many of my ideas are taken from RR, I have adapted things to suit what my research indicates works well:

Creative Reading Flash Cards by Francis Gilbert on Scribd

This is the PowerPoint I used:

Reading Orwell Review of Zamyatin’s ‘We’ by Francis Gilbert on Scribd

My succeeding workshop drilled down into more detail about how Reciprocal Reading (sometimes known as Reciprocal Teaching) might be used to teach Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. I explained how you might use group roles to nurture better reading and better understanding of the processes of reading in your students, giving out these role playing cards (see below). I stressed how the questions/tasks on each card are the same, but with different emphasis for each question/task; this is because I want students to understand that the same skills need to be used again and again. I also explained how and why I adapted the existing roles for Reciprocal Teaching to develop my own roles; I believe that the roles of Predictor and Clarifier are a bit restrictive; everyone in the group needs to do these things and you should not restrict one person to doing them. These are the role playing cards:

Creative Reading Roles by Francis Gilbert on Scribd

This is the PowerPoint that accompanies the presentation:

Using Reciprocal Teaching to read Dulce Et Decorum by Francis Gilbert on Scribd

I played this video to model how RR might be done with Owen’s poem:

Feedback was positive and motivated to put up this blog sharing my materials. It’s an ongoing conversation and this blog should inevitably be a starting point; all of these techniques need to be used critically by teachers, who must use their judgement as to what is working and what is not. There are no ‘silver bullets’ with the teaching of reading, but having an understanding of how we learn to read helps.

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