Reading for pleasure is on the decline, and our students are getting even less practice and experience with reading outside of school.
As educators, what can we do to transform our students into confident, successful, engaged readers? Leslie Davis, our former Training Consultant, shares her reflections on classroom practices around Teaching Reading.
When I did my secondary teacher training to become an English teacher, the training around reading instruction consisted mostly of unpacking the stylistic choices of literary authors - we were a bunch of linguaphiles revelling in the vagaries of language, awed by beautiful turns of phrase. I was and have always been a confirmed lover of books who, since childhood, has had a huge stack of books on my nightstand. So, imagine my surprise when I got to my first teaching post and was faced with a classroom full of kids who hated reading. I thought, 'It’s ok! They just need to be taught how to love books! I can do this!'
However, after the first few weeks, I realised 'these kids can’t read'. Not really understanding what that meant or what to do about it, I scaled back my expectations for my students. Meaning well and wanting my students to feel the joy of academic success, I started asking simpler and simpler questions. I thought getting the easier questions right would give them the confidence to want to tackle harder questions. I didn’t realise at the time that I was patronising them - I put them in the role of low-achieving learners and thus they played the part beautifully. Rather than help them to feel like successful readers, my oversimplifications and underestimation of my students only served to drive disengagement. Pretty soon, both the students and I were frustrated and dreading lessons.
I decided to address the gap in my own knowledge with a much-needed Literacy qualification and it has forever changed the way I view reading. One of my big realisations is that as a ‘strong’ reader myself, I wasn’t really aware of the strategies I was using to make sense of the text - to me, comprehension of a text just ‘happened’. I made the assumption that students were doing the same kinds of thinking as me and just not getting the right answers. In my training I realised that I needed to make my thinking more ‘visible’ to give students access to the same tools I used when reading. I needed to understand the strategies that good readers use and figure out how to explicitly teach those to all students. This shift in thinking comes from understanding that comprehension of a text isn’t a product but rather a process, 'something that requires purposeful, strategic effort on the reader’s part' .
How does the explicit instruction of strategies support readers? Read on to find out more …
Recently I was delivering a workshop to teachers and talking about just one of the many strategies that you could explicitly teach students to help them become more confident, competent readers. One teacher in the workshop said, 'But why do you want us to explicitly teach prediction? Everyone already knows to do that. It’s a waste of valuable time.' The short answer is, well … no, they don’t. I responded that most teachers know to ask students prediction questions before reading, but then asked her and the rest of the group to reflect on these questions:
- How do you know that students already know to predict?
- Have you ever explicitly talked about what that process looks like? And the value of predicting not just at the beginning of a reading text but throughout the text?
- Have you talked to your students about how reading is a live process that requires many different kinds of thinking that take us deeper into the text, as well as thinking that helps us make connections with ideas outside of the text? Or do your students just sit there (like mine did), stare at the page and hope that the answer pops out of all those black marks in front of them?
- What did you teach them about reading in that lesson that they can use with another text?
As I go through this process of becoming a better teacher of reading, it is that last question that hits me the hardest. This is why, at the British Council Teacher Development Centre, we decided to write two short 10-hour courses for both the primary and the secondary levels, to support teachers in helping students become competent, independent, motivated readers.
In the most recent How to Teach Secondary: Reading course, I had a participant who really encapsulated the value of solid reading instruction. As part of the course, we did a novel study of the young adult novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio . In the first session, I unpacked for participants the complex thinking that goes into reading and making sense of a text. I taught them how to use the Think Aloud procedure to make their own thinking more visible to students. One participant, Emma*, reflected, 'my daughter hates reading. We are always fighting about how important reading is and she never wants to do it. I don’t get it! I was a real reader at her age and I still am. Why doesn’t she like it?'
The participants went away for a week and at the beginning of the next session, Emma said she had something to share. She had been doing her own ‘homework’ and reading the assigned pages from Wonder, when her daughter asked her what she was doing. Emma explained what she was doing, and told her a little about the book that she had read so far. She asked her daughter if she was interested in reading the book with her and her daughter firmly replied, 'No way.' Emma said, 'Ok, but do you mind if I just read the first bit aloud to you? It will help me with my homework.' Emma’s daughter agreed and Emma started reading aloud, stopping every once in a while to use the Think Aloud procedure to show her daughter how she was making sense of the story as she read. Then something magic happened. Emma’s daughter said 'You do all that thinking when you are reading? I didn’t know I was supposed to do that!' Encouraged by her daughter’s admission, Emma kept at it - she read aloud a bit, she invited her daughter to read aloud a bit. Emma’s daughter got more and more interested in the story and by the end of Week 2, Emma had bought another copy of the book and she and her daughter were reading it together.
During the following sessions, we continued to look at reading strategies for helping students comprehend the text, but we also considered tools to help students understand the themes, to analyse conflicts in the story and to grapple with the complexity of the characters. Emma and her daughter continued reading together and more importantly, continued having conversations about the book.
A major theme in the book is kindness and it is brought forth through the experiences of a young man with a facial disfigurement and the bullying he encounters in school. Through the context of the book, Emma and her daughter had honest conversations about times when they had been less than kind. Emma talked to her daughter about a memory she had from school where she had bullied another girl in class - she talked about her motivation (jealousy) and then reflected on the impact that the experience had both on her and on the girl she had bullied. As a result, Emma’s daughter opened up about some things that were happening in her school, and mother and daughter engaged in an honest and open conversation about what it means to be kind and the consequences of failing to be so. They had conversations about how they could create more opportunities to look for kindness in their lives and to really live that value in their family and their community. This wasn’t a didactic moralistic lesson where a mother tells her daughter what it means to be kind with a wagging finger and sombre tone, but an understanding co-created through the experience of reading a story and making connections to their own lives.
I love recounting this story because Emma created a literacy event in her family and through that event, not only did her daughter start to understand the value of reading but they both grew as people. Emma said that her experience of reading the novel with her daughter not only helped her daughter learn to start to enjoy reading and to be better at it, but it also brought them closer together.
If I think back to my own love of reading, that’s the heart of it for me. Reading is a gateway to knowledge and to be a lover of fiction is be a lover of humanity - to experience the world from different perspectives, to build empathy and connection and to help you understand your unique place in the world and the value you could bring to society. That, for me, is an education.
 Beers, K., 2003. When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do. Heinemann, NH.
 Palacio, R.J., 2012. Wonder, Alfred A. Knopf, USA.
*Name has been changed for confidentiality