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“What will become of us and our students?”

A period of enforced remote learning will be tough to deal with, but it could at least give teachers the space to try a potentially powerful approach to reading improvement

  • “What will become of us and our students?”

As I write this, the world is shutting down. Things we’ve always taken for granted may not be available for much longer. Secondary schools have been closed and exams have been cancelled. What will become of us and our students?

One possible way forward is to consider the findings of a small research study undertaken by Jo Westbrook and colleagues at Sussex University. The headline finding was that ‘just reading’ – increasing the pace at which whole narratives were read – improved standardised reading scores by an average of eight months, and an average of 16 months for the most disadvantaged students.

Too good to be true? Perhaps not – it stands to reason that the more children are read to, the greater the range of vocabulary they’ll encounter and the more knowledge of the world they’ll pick up, allowing them to make sense of unfamiliar texts.

A faulty assumption

Traditional approaches to improving reading have involved spending curriculum time teaching comprehension skills, such as inference and analysis, in the hope that this will make students better at making inferences and analysing texts. But this is based on a faulty assumption – in reality no one, no matter who good a reader they might be, can make an inference about something they have no knowledge of. Everyone would struggle to analyse something they knew nothing about.

If you doubt me, try making an inference about this passage from Finnegan’s Wake:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe totauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Unless you know a lot about James Joyce and his approach to writing, this is probably beyond you.

Of course, we need to treat the Sussex University study with appropriate caution, but there’s good reason to think that getting students to read suitably challenging fiction will have a positive effect on a range of educational outcomes. When we’re in the hurly burly of school there’s relatively little time for ‘just reading’, but a period of enforced absence suggests a potentially profitable way to proceed.

Netflix versus reading

Admittedly, there are a few barriers. Would schools be expected to buy copies of texts for all their students to take home and read? Even if the cash was splashed, would students really give up Netflix to spend time reading? Experience suggests not.

One way around these problems could be for students to listen to novels, instead of having to read them themselves. Teachers could choose a book they considered worth reading and record themselves reading it. Assuming that the students have some kind of internet access – their phones will be more than sufficient – all they’d be required to do is tune in to whatever platform was deemed most appropriate and listen to the recordings.

You obviously won’t be choosing Finnegan’s Wake. The best kind of book would be one slightly above the level of the books you enjoyed independently when at secondary school; maybe something like Treasure Island or The Count of Monte Christo? (The novels chosen for Sussex study were The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Now is the Time for Running.)

To replicate the success of the Sussex University study, teachers would also need to assign questions to help students understand the plot, engage with the characters and learn any unfamiliar vocabulary. These questions could be posted online, with children invited to submit their answers electronically. You could also organise a forum of some kind where the questions can be discussed.

This is a far from perfect set of suggestions but as Voltaire put it, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, the latest of which is Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap (Crown House)

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