Back Tuesday 8 Jun 2021 3:39 pm

Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils

I’m delighted to be joining, on behalf of EMC, Reading Teachers=Reading Pupils, Cheltenham Festivals’ network of teacher book groups.
main image for blog post 'Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils'

EMC will be running RT=RP meetings for London secondary schools, but there will be groups taking place across the country. Over the course of the academic year, we’ll meet six times. Each time the participating teachers get two copies of a young adult novel that has been carefully selected to ignite a love of reading in KS3 students. The meetings give teachers the time and space to share ideas about the novels with colleagues and explore ways to encourage students to discover the pleasures of reading. The project will be launched in the autumn, but now is the time to sign up (each group can take a maximum of fifteen participants).

RT=RP is a great project to be involved with and has brought me back to a career-long passion: getting young people reading. Every time we run CPD on this at the English and Media Centre and look at the most recent research, we are reminded that reading for pleasure brings a host of benefits for young people’s intellectual development, academic achievement and wellbeing. So what can we do to get these benefits for our students? Some of the current programmes which schools can buy into, with or without school-based reward systems, are quite good at getting pupils to read more books. However, that is not the same as convincing pupils that reading is something that they want to do, with the result that when the programme or the prizes stop, often the reading stops too. Meanwhile, some of the keenest readers actually read less with this kind of system as something they used to do voluntarily for enjoyment is transformed into a compulsory chore. 

It’s the ‘for pleasure’ bit which is hard to instill, and yet the research suggests that it is a crucial element. Reading enjoyment leads to reading more, which leads to reading better, which leads to more reading enjoyment, and so on. You can’t force people to have fun, so here are some suggestions for getting your pupils into this virtuous circle.

Have a broad definition of what it means to be a reader


The more inclusive schools are in what they describe as ‘reading’, the more likely students are to think of themselves as readers and the more likely they are to read. A quick, non-judgemental ‘what have you read recently?’ check-in can show that anything from War and Peace to the report of the match in the free newspaper is welcomed as reading. Or how about an audit of what the class has read that day since getting up: the cereal box, the destination on the front of the bus, the PowerPoint in assembly and so on.

My daughter (year 8) is an avid reader. During a stressful time recently I found the pile of books by her bed included The Snail and the Whale, Slinky Malinki and a couple of other comfortable old picture book favourites. She also reads huge amounts of fan fiction about her favourite Minecraft Youtubers. Most of it is not ‘great literature’, worthy of close analysis, but she certainly enjoys it. And now she’s writing and publishing her own fan fiction and has a tiny group of subscribers who tell her they are waiting for the next instalment. What a great motivation to write! Meanwhile she has been borrowing my Kindle and discovered Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which she loved. 

Think honestly about what you have read over the last six months. What did you read that was really challenging (and freely chosen)? What books or genres are your comfort reads in difficult times? What are your guilty pleasures that you might not admit to in erudite company? We need to welcome a similar range for students. It’s important that we don’t say ‘Why are you reading those babyish books? They’re not challenging you’ or ‘Fan fiction is mostly rubbish’ or ‘Piranesi is an adult book, it might be too scary’ or even ‘Thank goodness you’re reading a challenging book like Piranesi’. 

Making choices and opting in, these are essential elements of the enjoyment of reading. This is where programmes which allocate pupils a reading level can be problematic, with students offered a restricted choice (especially once the most popular books have disappeared from the appropriate shelf). And to reiterate, reading enjoyment leads to reading more, which leads to reading better, which leads to more reading enjoyment. Once students are in the virtuous circle and thinking of themselves as readers, they are much more likely to be receptive to suggestions for more challenging reads. The first job is simply to find what appeals to them, never mind whether it is ‘too easy’ or ‘too hard’, a graphic novel, a fishing magazine, or a cliched rom-com.

Don’t make reading worthy


Sometimes schools hope to encourage pupils to read by telling them that it is ‘good for them’. This is about as effective as telling adults to eat ‘5 a day’. Despite this slogan being officially adopted by the UK government in 2003, people are still eating an average of only three and a half portions of fruit and vegetables a day. We know we should but… 

On the other hand I remember seeing a friend with her young son saying ‘I got you a lovely red apple. That colour nearly matches your jumper! Mmm…Have a smell! Doesn’t it smell juicy?’ He ate it with great excitement. He’s 26 now and a naturally healthy eater.  I think this is the approach we should take with reading, which is to say emphasising the pleasurable aspects. Instead of ‘reading will expand your vocabulary and improve your exam performance’, how about ‘the best way to travel during lockdown is to read a book’? 

Make time to talk about books


How do you come to read the books you read? If you’re anything like me, it’s often because of an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend, or a good review. The slight pressure of having a book group meeting coming up has often encouraged me to read things which I might not otherwise have tried.

When we make space for book talk in the classroom, we allow this kind of organic recommendation and peer pressure to happen for students. If we, as teachers, are familiar with some good reads to recommend, this is also a great help. The Reading Teachers=Reading Pupils project aims to show teachers how to promote productive book talk in the classroom as well as suggesting some great KS3 reads. 

A cornerstone of the RT=RP programme is Aidan Chamber’s influential text Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk. It was first published in 1993, and has been continuously in print ever since. I first came across it as a young teacher through a friend who was a literacy lead in her primary school. Although the Tell Me approach was originally aimed mainly at primary school pupils, I’ve used the principles right up to GCSE and A Level. 

Reading it again now, Tell Me seems as relevant as ever and there are some key principles about how we encourage pupils to talk about books which are worth revisiting. There are also some direct connections with what the experts were saying on our recent twilight on dialogic learning, which Barbara Bleiman has blogged about here.   

Some of the core suggestions for productive book talk are:

  • Agree that everything is ‘honourably reportable’. In other words, says Chambers: ‘the reader must trust that the teacher really wants an honest reaction and that therefore everything can be ‘honourably reported’ without risk of denial, belittlement or rejection’.
  • Share enthusiasms, including likes or dislikes about the book.
  • Share puzzles and difficulties. Work together to make sense of these elements.
  • Share connections and think about patterns, both within the text and beyond, for example connections to the world, or connections to other things you have read.
  • The teacher should encourage pupils to go further with an idea using prompts like ‘tell me (more)’ rather than ‘why…?’ ‘Why…?’ questions can be slippery and off-putting when an opinion is in a fragile, budding state. 
  • The teacher should withhold their own opinion until a late stage in a discussion, prompting pupils to build on and expand their own and each other’s ideas rather than looking for the ‘right’ answer, or trying to guess what’s in the teacher’s head.

I would highly recommend Tell Me, which these days it is published along with another Aidan Chambers’ book The Reading Environment. The Tell Me section is only about 100 pages long, but you may find that it transforms the conversations you have with pupils about books.

If you join our RT=RP programme we’ll be sharing some great books and classroom approaches that really do encourage reading for pleasure – hopefully not just for the students but for the participating teachers too. To sign up for a place on a Reading Teachers=Reading Pupils programme near you, head to the Cheltenham Literary Festivals website. You can find the booking form here

Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils is a Cheltenham Festivals programme delivered in partnership with like-minded organisations including: Beading Teachers = Reading Pupils is a Cheltenham Festivals programme delivered in partnership with like-minded organisations across the UK including Book Council of Wales, Bradford Literature Festival, Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), the English and Media Centre (EMC), Just Imagine, National Literacy Trust, KEAP (The Writers’ Block), Peters, Seven Stories the National Centre for Children's Books, The Reader, Wigtown Festival Company and The Story Museum.

The programme is supported by Arts Council England, Thirty Percy, the Summerfield Charitable Trust and the Unwin Charitable Trust.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

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