Can reading really be fun?

The National Literacy Trust says children who own a book are 15 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age, but I guess what they mean is children who own a book and read it.

If children, young adults and adults are going to read, well, anything (debate between screen and books for another time), then they need to want to. Encouraging reading in the context of lessons can be difficult enough. But if we return to my age old metaphor of reading as swimming, if you thought you would drown, would you get in the pool and paddle just for the hell of it? Probably not.

A student of mine – who is motivated and determined and puts her all in to her English Lit work – once told me that she didn’t know what to do with the books on her course, but that she’d read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because it was funny. And I feel like we don’t put enough emphasis on the fun of stories, or the thrill of discovering new things. Mostly when I read, if you take out the tomes I get through for my research, I read to relax. I don’t read thinking about themes or language devices (although I am prone to the “that’s a really nice sentence” feeling). I read just because I’m interested in the characters, or the story.

So here’s a thought for Christmas homework, if you’re still setting it. Challenge everyone in your class to find something – a page in a magazine, the first few pages of a book snuck for free in a bookshop (because let’s not forget books are expensive and a luxury) – that they enjoy. Anything. Everything. And don’t ask them any questions that analyse it when they come book – except maybe, why they liked it. Maybe then, some of our scared swimmers might dip a toe in the water and find it’s nice and warm after all.

Thank you for sticking with me since I started writing this. Every time someone reads or likes a post it makes me so happy, so thank you.

Merry Christmas!

Helen x

What does “I can’t” really mean?

I teach a wide range of students. I cover Entry 3 to Level 2 Functional Skills in my day job and I tutor GCSE in my spare time. My students are all really different, but there are a select few who have something really common. At a certain point – some as soon as they see the activity, some at least after having a cursory glance at it – look at me and say “I can’t do it”.

We’re taught as teachers not to listen to can’t. There’s no such thing. If you try, you can. Does this sound familiar? I’ve used similar tricks with my groups. “Use a dictionary to look up the words you don’t understand and see if you can do it then”. Sometimes it works, but there are still those students that sit and stare at something you know they can do, because you’ve prepared it based on something they’ve already done well, and say “I can’t”.

I’m ashamed that this blog post has taken me so long to write, because it also means that the realisation behind it was far too long coming. I used to work in a mainstream secondary with SEN pupils, and now I work with students with far more diverse and complex needs. And what they’ve taught me is: I can’t means I don’t believe I can.

This has changed how I handle “can’ts” in my classroom. Instead of “try”, my first reaction is now “what can’t you do”, so that the students can break that initial fear in to smaller chunks. Then we can work on that small chunk and, in the end, they usually find they can.

Better approaches

I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of weeks about Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to social justice. At the heart of his idea is that, in topics such as economic development, we should consider human beings, not other, external, markers as the outcome. The concept of justice for Sen is one of every human being having the opportunity to be and do the things that are important to them.

Which of course made me think about education. Really, is there anything more core to what we do as teachers than wanting our students to have the opportunity to do what is important to them?

I’d argue most teachers want to encourage students to achieve this, but what we often find ourselves striving towards instead is a series of arduous – and sometimes arbitrary – academic targets.

In the UK, our system is driven by targets. Our schools are measured by league tables. Our teachers are judged on their classes’ exam results.

But maybe there is a better approach to target setting. For students with an EHC (Education, Health and Care) Plan, their targets per academic year are often set according to their long and medium term aspirations – in other words, according to the things they want to do or be.

Perhaps in the first term of meeting new students, if we found some time in our squeezed schedules to build a rapport and find the answer to those questions: what do you want to do? What do you want to be?, we could incorporate them in to students’ targets, in to lesson themes, maybe, God Forbid, in to the curriculum as a whole.

Now wouldn’t that be a better approach?