“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.”
Reading seems to make us smarter. Here’s Keith Stanovich explaining why:
For most people, this is uncontroversial. We talk a lot about the power of books and the need to get more children to read for pleasure. But how do you get students to read for pleasure? I have no idea. Neither does anyone else, not really. This is an endemic conundrum which troubles all teachers and parents. But it’s a bit of an odd question when you think of it: how do you make someone enjoy something they don’t enjoy? There are lots of expensive ‘solutions’ out there, all trying to give students some sort of reward for the time invested in reading books. These solutions are great at producing graphs showing how much reading is being done but they’re hopeless at showing whether someone is enjoying reading. Maybe we’re asking the wrong question?
We know enjoying reading matters (or at least we’ve found some correlations between reading for pleasure and attainment. Take a look at this from the National Literacy Trust 2013 annual survey:
But how frequently students read also correlates stongly with attainment:
If we have no control over what students enjoy, we do at least have some control over how frenquently they engage in different activities in schools. Maybe the question we should be asking is, how do we get students reading every day? In a packed timetable, his is still difficult for schools to deal with, but it’s a lot better than asking how we can make them enjoy reading. So, how long should we get them reading for? Does the length of time they spend every day with a book matter?
Apparently it does. It’s widely believed that 2o minutes a day appears to represent some sort of magic number. This paper by Nagy & Herman, is widely cited as a source:
I’m not really sure quite how The Children’s Reading Foundation extrapolated these figures, from Nagy & Harman’s 1987 paper. What the paper actually says is this:
If students were to spend 25 minutes every day reading at a rate of 200 words per minute for 200 days out of a year, they would read a million words of text annually. According to our estimates, with this amount of reading, children will encounter between 15,000 and 30,000 unfamiliar words. If 1 in 20 of these words is learned, the yearly gain in vocabulary will be between 750- 1,500 words, or between quarter and a half of an average child’s annual vocabulary growth. (p.26)
The argument is that although ‘just reading’ can appear inefficient, many more words are learned through ‘natural’ reading than through explicit vocabulary instruction. My view is that vocabulary instruction is important, but so is reading books. It shouldn’t really be an either/or proposition, but if you’re only able to do one, maybe 25 minutes a day of reading will result in more vocabulary learnt as well as the potential for enriching students’ cultural capital through finding out more about the world.
So now our question becomes, Ho do you get students to read for 20-25 minutes a day? This hard but now we’re on to something measurable. We can use this as a yardstick to see how we’re doing: are we managing to get children to read every day? Are we managing to set aside 25 minutes a day? The answer might be ‘no’, but at least you know what you have to do to improve.
A number of schools have opted for a Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) approach. Like many school programmes deigned to make children enjoy reading, this can backfire. Sitting in silence and reading at the drop of hat might be fine for people who already enjoy reading but it’s not so great for those who’ve learned that reading is boring and difficult. There’s always a group of children who spend most of the time looking for a book and then hold it upside down while teachers scurry round being the reading police. This is unlikely to foster a love a reading.
But, many years experience of teaching unruly children has taught me that when all else fails, reading aloud is the one thing that’ll pacify them; we all seem to love being read to. Now obviously this doesn’t have all the advantages of the type of decoding practice Stanovich was discussing in the opening video – he’s absolutely right about the need for fluent, automatic decoding skills – but it does get children to enjoy a good story. So, here’s my idea: instead of trying to make children enjoy reading by making them read independently, why not read to them instead?
In several schools I’ve worked with over the past couple of years we’ve experimented with various versions of this. Bascially the formula is as follows:
- Decide on a rolling programme of reading slots to occur at different times over the timetable. So, for instance, on week one you could stipulate that that DEAR has to take place Monday P1, Tuesday P2, Wednesday P3, Thurs P4 and Friday P5. Then on week two the pattern might be Monday P2, Tuesday P3, Wednesday P4 etc. In this way curriculum time is not being taken from the same lessons week in, week out and resentments are minimised.
- Choose a book and buy a copy for all members of staff. In one school I worked with the book chosen was Treasure Island. The thinking was that this was a text with high cultural capital but would be likely considered too difficult or irrelevant for children to choose to read independently. You choice doesn’t have to follow the same logic but in a secondary school spanning students aged between 11-16 this was deemed appropriate for all.
- Break the book into 25-minute sections and let teachers know each day how much they are expected to read (e.g. pages 19-27) and every day everyone in the school will be reading the next installment of the story.
There’s a lot more you could choose to do if you felt it appropriate – you could point out key vocabulary to share with students or suggest a few comprehension questions – but I think just reading is a good starting point.
Here are a few teething problems schools have experienced:
- Students aren’t interested in the book. This was a big problem with Treasure Island as the story has a pretty slow start. It took a few weeks to generate sufficient interest for students to want to know what happened next. Top tip: consider the choice of text very carefully, but don’t be scared by ‘hard’ reads.
- Some members of staff can’t be bothered to read. For the first few weeks, some teachers couldn’t see the point and found excuses for not dropping everything to read the next section of the story. Initially, students weren’t that bothered either, but as the story gained momentum and it became clear that most staff were reading, students began to complain and demand that they got their reading fix. This pretty much policed itself very rapidly.
- Some students bought copies of the book, read and ahead and spoilt the story for others. I really couldn’t see this as a problem – in my mind this was job done – but it’s amazing how seriously we treat these things. It’s important to remember that we’re trying to get children to enjoy reading, not punish them for their enthusiasm.
Over the course of about six months or so, every student in the school experienced having a classic book read to them and, almost universally, they really enjoyed it. It’s not a panacea, and it’s certainly not a replacement for teaching students how to read fluently and accurately, but does help give them the knowledge that reading can be enjoyable when it’s give such prestige within the school community.
So, what do you think? Worth a try? I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone who’s tried something similar or is interested in giving this a go.