"Read, my child. Read."

Friday 28 April 2017

Watch the short video below of civil-rights campaigner and congressman John Lewis accepting America's National Book Award for young people's literature last year.  He won the award for the third volume of his graphic memoir, March.  

A short clip like this can have an big impact on students, especially when put in the context of civil rights and the personal empowerment that can come from reading and education.  

In my previous blog post about keeping Literature alive as a subject, Why Choose Richie Cunningham over the Fonz, I mentioned the importance of creating a culture of reading in your High School. Creating an environment where all students are encouraged and expected to read independently is probably the single most important role of a High School English department.  This won't just happen by stating this as an expectation or by occasionally reminding students and their parents that they should be reading more outside of school.  It will only happen with a concerted and united effort from all teachers in the department, giving students the time and space to read during their English classes, as well as making sure they have access to a range of books in the form of classroom libraries.  

Regardless of IB course selection, there is enough research and evidence to tell us that students who read regularly perform better academically in all subjects, not just English Literature, while experiences such as those of John Lewis remind us of the wider importance of reading: that it is something that can bring personal pleasure, autonomy and the development of qualities such as imagination, creativity and empathy.  Stephen Pinker describes literature as “empathy technology” and recent articles such as these - ‘How Literature helps us understand the other’ and ‘Reading Literature makes us Smarter and Nicer’ - lend further weight to arguments for the intellectual and emotional benefits of reading.  

In our department, we made the decision to really push independent reading four years ago and the difference now in terms of our students' attitude to reading, as well as how much they read, is truly significant.  This does not mean, of course, that they are all choosing to take Literature at IB, but the numbers remain healthy and the question of “how many texts” they have to read for their IB course no longer arises as often as it once did when they are making their choice in Grade 10.  This decision, to put students’ independent reading at the heart of their High School English experience, has been the most important change we have made to the way we teach English.  Perhaps you already have this culture in your school but, if not, here is a list of suggestions to help promote independent reading in your school:  

1. Create time and space for students to read:  we use the first fifteen minutes of every class for independent reading.  It is an expectation that students come into class, find a seat and open a book.  We have begged and borrowed sofas and beanbags from various people in order to create comfortable spaces for reading in every classroom.  It is a very calm, focused way to start class, which students (and teachers) really appreciate.  

2. Invest in classroom libraries: we use a significant part of our budget on this, with each teacher ordering a selection of books for their own classroom library, often after some discussion of requests and recommendations from their students.  If money is tight, then ask students and parents for donations, trawl second hand book sales etc, do whatever it takes to get a good selection of books in your classrooms. 

3. Book talk:  use the fifteen minutes of independent reading time to conference one-to-one with students about what they are reading, aiming to speak with two or three students each class.  Not only does this reinforce the expectation and make students feel like you have an interest in them beyond academics, it will also enable you to get to know your students far better, as readers and as people. Run regular book talks: talk to students about what you are reading, get individuals to talk to the class about books they have read and would recommend.  Just making books part of the daily conversation really raises the profile of reading.

4. Give students role models: starting with yourself.  Despite the impression they may give, most students do listen to their teachers and if you recommend a book I guarantee at least one fo your students will seek it out. In addition, get older students to talk to younger students.  We had Grade 12 readers talk to Grade 10 about their reading lives and how important they felt it was they had maintained these, despite the pressures of the IB.  Play them the John Lewis clip above; show them articles such as this interview with Barack Obama about the importance of reading in his life; put quotations about reading up in classrooms or in corridors, for example:

"Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over." 

5. Appeal to pragmatism and self-interest as well as idealism: as English teachers we can get a bit dewey-eyed about reading which can be counter-productive when it comes to persuading more reluctant and cynical students about why they should read more. Therefore, quotations such as those by Neil Gaiman and John Lewis above should be balanced with some more factual information such as the following:

“Earlier this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the strongest indicator of the future success of a child was not which school they attended or whether their family was wealthy, but if they read for pleasure at 15.”

The Times, November 13th 2013

We also got our University advisors to come and talk to Grade 10 about what universities expect from students in terms of reading, both in terms of seeing evidence of independent reading when looking at applications and interviewing candidates, and in terms of the weekly volume of reading for all university courses, something students need to be prepared for.

6. Communicate with parents:  we send a letter every year to parents of students joining High School in Grade 9 as well as those about to start the IB in Grade 11. In the letter we include information such as the above as well as outlining our expectations for all students to have independent reading lives.  Most parents are delighted to have this in writing and see this as an important partnership between school and home.  We send the letter just before the long summer break, with links to our library's suggested reading lists and also include this quotation from Richard Allington:

"What we know is that children who do not read in the summer lose two to three months of reading development while kids who do read tend to gain a month of reading proficiency...This creates a three to four month gap every year. Every two or three years the kids who don't read in the summer fall a year behind the kids who do.

7. Read Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina and Passion in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle and buy copies for your department.  Use her passion, anecdotes and ideas as inspiration for improving the reading culture in your school.  



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