How important is reading anyway?

How important is reading anyway?

First of all, apologies for the little hiatus from this blog. I went on a little autumn holiday for 2 weeks and since I got back a mix of family things and PhD work has kept me from giving it the time I should. But I hope I’m back now, with updates on Tuesday, Saturday or, if I’m particularly productive, both.

My first mini study for my PhD has been in to students’ perceptions of the importance of reading. I work with students 16+ who are all taking English for the second (or third, or fourth) time since school. Many of them have myriad issues with reading and for some, they feel it’s a skill beyond their grasp.

Which led me to think about how important students feel reading is versus how important it actually is in the “real” world. There is no doubt that being able to read opens many doors, and is a skill needed to access many areas of life, including health care and employment.

But I would hate my students to feel that, because their reading skills are lower than average, they’ll never manage to get a job or achieve success in life. When I ran a focus group as part of my research, after we had finished with the main questions, we talked about jobs that didn’t need reading on a daily basis. If you have the level of skill needed to apply for the job and complete the recruitment process, if you can make sense of your bank statements and bills, there is no reason you can’t do that job, have a happy work life and have a happy home and family life.

I put a lot of emphasis on understanding the difficulty of reading and helping students progress, but I think it’s also important to recognise that, once students have mastered basic literacy skills, maybe for them, that’s enough.

Close reading and why it matters.

I teach a lot of reading. Reading comprehension accounts for about 50% of most of my lessons, for many reasons. The first is that it’s the area most of my students need to develop in order to pass their exams. More importantly, I think it’s the skill they most need to develop in order to have successful futures.

But there’s a difference between reading and understanding the main point of something, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it, and understanding what that means and why it’s important.

Close reading has been my focus in my lessons for about two weeks now. I started a new job in September and this is week 6 with my new classes. The difference between reading for gist and reading for meaning is a big one to them, and not a skill that comes easily.

But it might be one that helps them the most in the future. I’ll give an easy example: mobile phone contracts. We’ve all been there, tried to switch deals to find out that we can’t until a certain date without a fee, and most of us will admit that we’re in that position because we maybe didn’t give the contract the attention it deserved. But what if we hadn’t developed the skills to read that phone contract? The rental agreement? The new job specification?

Close reading is important, even when teaching lower levels of functional skills qualifications. Because one day these students will need to access things, and my worst fear is them being exploited because they can’t read what they’re signing up to.

Good questions to encourage close reading can be:

• That’s a great point, can you tell me where it says it in the text?

• Why do you think the writer has phrased it like that?

• What do you think this really means?

• How would you interpret it?

The last first time.

I recently started a doctoral degree in Education. I’ve wanted to do a PhD for a long time, and work and other commitments have always got in the way. So I think it’s important for the context of this post that I say I’m thrilled to be starting this new opportunity. I’m excited about the topic I want to research. I’m excited about the challenge.In my first real post for this blog I spoke about reading being like swimming, how in the beginning it looks easy and fun but, after an initial drop in confidence, fear can take over. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how, as teachers, we often forget what it was like to stand on the shore and desperately want to dive in.

The thought came to me because I’m feeling a similar sensation now. I’m so excited to begin my research. I can see myself in 4 years negotiating the surf and gliding through the water. But now, standing at the edge of a pile of reading, my toes are cold. The water splashes my face accidentally when I step in.

I’m a little bit scared.

Which makes me think of my students, and the first time I give them a piece of work at the top band of their level or at a level above that challenges them and scares them. I see myself standing by them and encouraging them to just jump in – that it will be alright and, that if it isn’t, I’ll see them to safety.

But I wonder if I’ve stopped remembering just how scared they are. Which makes me thankful for suddenly feeling a little out of my own depth. It reminds me that writing scaffolds, starting sentences, mind maps, seem like such small devices – so small that it’s hard to remember that a student might be clinging to them.

For some students, these things are life lines. Let’s keep making sure we throw them.

Digital literacy and fake news.

Fake news is a new phrase. Especially since the American Presidential election last year, the idea of news made entirely to suit a political agenda has appeared more and more often on social media and in traditional news outlets. This article by the Independent suggests that children are finding it difficult to discern which stories are fake, and so the number of calls to NSPCC about concerns over world events have risen. But there is a bigger issue than children – young people who we perhaps would not expect to be at an age where they can detect bias – not knowing if a story is “real”. Many older teens and young adults struggling with literacy issues lack this skill too.

News articles – even those that based in real news – always have a slight bias. And while it may be common knowledge which side of the political spectrum well known journals swing to, the huge number of growing online journalism forums is not so easy to define.

Which leaves people with lower levels of literacy vulnerable to groups trying to publish messages that would be frowned upon by mainstream media. Without the ability to detect bias, if everything is taken at face value, some of our young people and low literacy adults are open to exploitation.

So what’s the practical way to address this? How can we do this in lessons and functional skills courses? Bias is a key part of the syllabus at GCSE and at functional skills level 2, but what about learners working at a lower level than that?

I think for me the key is questioning. What is the article saying? Where did it come from? Who wrote it and can you google that person to get a better idea of their intentions in writing the text? What other sorts of articles appear on the same site?

Questioning what we read, even if we don’t automatically recognise the bias, makes us much less likely to get sept up in fake – and sometimes dangerous – news.

Is pop culture too big a part of literacy?

In looking at some of the texts for English Literature with my students (you know, the ones from over a hundred years ago that they struggle to relate to) I’ve noticed that pop culture references play a huge part in the understanding of the text. 

This is difficult enough when a text is modern, when the references to pop culture are cemented in T.V programmes made famous throughout the 80s and 90s. Pre-twentieth century cultural references – the traditions of Christmas or the understanding of workhouses and debtor prison essential to understanding A Christmas Carol, for example – are almost inaccessible for some students.

Which isn’t to say that learning about these things isn’t a valuable and educational experience in and of itself. Learning the history of our culture can bring sense to many things students have seen and heard for years without understanding. But does it need to be an essential part of reading, something so intrinsic to a text that not knowing it hinders reading comprehension?

I think particularly of some of my students when I say this. Students whose parents emigrated to the UK in the sixties and later who, whilst classing English as their first language, sometimes lack the breadth of pop culture that might be shared by someone who has parents and grandparents who threw out and then explained vague pop culture references throughout their childhood.

Pop culture is meant to be something that unites us, but in the context many young people experience it, it is something that further isolates them from the text. After all, each generation has its own pop culture references, its own set of essential experiences that bind it. But these often fail to make it to set texts in English until many years later, meaning that young people have to interact with and try to understand a culture that does not include them. For example, Monty Python references probably do not hold much humour for someone who has never seen or appreciated them for the contribution they made within the pop culture of the time.

Pop culture and literacy are both important facets of education, but I will always argue that literacy is the most essential for success in general. So maybe it’s time that essential texts didn’t focus quite so heavily on a culture that is, in a lot of cases, no longer relevant.

Do you need to read the whole book?

In a recent Guardian Secret Teacher, a teacher commented on the fact that teachers aren’t reading, so we can not therefore assume students will. 

In this article, the teacher raised the fact that, when teaching a book for English Literature, most teachers give students extracts, and, even, that most teachers also only read the extracts. These are the extracts that are deemed most important parts for exam analysis. 

But is that teaching the book? I agree with the time limits – they’re tight. I also believe that, without the whole book, students don’t have the whole picture. A novel is a complete piece of work, and asking a student to comment on a character’s journey throughout a whole book by giving them ten extracts is akin to asking someone to comment on an artist’s use of colour by giving them the bottom corner of a painting.

What I also find problematic is that this article suggests that there is a common belief that reading the whole book as a class would only be useful for one thing – for the study of that work of literature. I wonder, then, why the benefits of group reading, of vocabulary building, of comprehension and inference learning opportunities are dismissed so easily. 

I’ve said before that you can have literacy without literature, and I still believe this.

But can you have literature without literacy?

Read the whole book. It will be worth the time.

Seeing yourself on the page.

In this recent post for TES, Cynthia Murphy reminded teachers (as if we needed reminding), that modern children’s literature is excellent. Children’s authors manage to intertwine a challenging level of language with a gripping story and a dose of social issues that mean most children can see themselves represented in a main character.And this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. In order to really engage with literature, children – and young adults – need to feel like it means something. Like most of us, if it has some connection to them, children feel like it means something.

Which makes me wonder why GCSE syllabuses now only focus on pre-twentieth century literature, and what we can do to make these stories as relevant as possible to the children we teach.

First of all, retellings will be your friend if you’re trying to bring Shakespeare or Dickens to life. But there is only so much you can offer with an alternative version of the text. Sooner or later, students have to engage with the original, verbose, unwieldy – and, to some, incomprehensible – text.

But many of the issues addressed in these texts are universal. Once you have read through the text with students – and I would advise fully reading it through, no matter how long it takes – you can use many exercises to bring the text back to the twenty-first century.

Students can write agony aunt letters as the abandoned Miss Havisham, tweet about their exploits as one of Fagan’s gang or move the workhouse to a modern day children’s home.

And once they understand what the characters are experiencing, they can empathise. Not the same as seeing yourself on the page, not at all as valuable, but a good place to start.  

3 apps that help reluctant readers.

Reading can be a daunting task for a lot of people. Even finding time can be difficult in our daily lives of work, school, family. But starting with something that is fun and accessible is the key to helping students embed reading in to their lives. A lot of students have a degree of fear when they look at a book or a piece of print (see my post on Reading vs Swimming for further details), so it’s important to meet readers where they are. 
Here are three great apps that can help struggling or reluctant readers make time to read – all available on itunes and google play at time of writing.

If you plan to use these with younger teen readers, I’d advise scoping out the stories first, as all of these are crowd sourced so some content may not be suitable for all ages.


Hooked is a great app which tells stories of all genres in the form of phone text messages. The first advantage is no one need know if they glance at your phone that you’re reading a story, which for some readers takes away the embarrassment of being seen to read. Another great feature of Hooked is that stories are offered in a wide range of genres and levels, so that everyone can find something that suits them.

Because stories are written as messages, there are no chunks of descriptive writing to read. This can be seen as an advantage, however, as it allows readers to practice their inference and contextual comprehension skills.

Yarn Chat Stories.

Again, Yarn offers a wide range of stories in multiple genres and readers can work through at their own pace. Readers can also add stories, which is a great way to encourage involvement.

Tap (a Wattpad app).

Wattpad is a platform that allows writers to self-publish their stories, and tap is their on-the-go phone service. Again, readers are more likely to be able to find a story that appeals to them than they may be within a traditional reading scheme.

Literacy for real…

I spoke in my last post about how literature and literacy, although they should be two sides of the same coin, often do not work together in the ways we would like to help students become literate in the real world. As I mentioned in that post, functional skills offers a great opportunity to bridge that gap, but there are great ways to do it when teaching literature too. Here are a few I’ve tried and loved over the years.

1. Relating things to now.

This technique is one I find particularly useful when teaching literature at GCSE – especially Shakespeare and Victorian literature. Often students find the physical language used a barrier, which prevents them from interacting with the text efficiently. 

A good way to combat this is to ask students to write a diary entry as a character – but from a modern perspective. For example, how Hermia feels because she can not be with Lysander. There are two key concepts at play here. First, students have to understand the original text in order to complete the exercise. But they must also understand the world around them in order to translate it in to modern circumstances. This allows them to understand the text at a deeper level, but also to increase their social and emotional literacy.

2. Change the method of transmission.

An excellent way I’ve found to cement understanding is for students to rewrite scenes from the book or play in a different format – a blog post, tweet, radio speech or film trailer all allow students ways to condense and translate information they’ve learned, as well as increasing media literacy.

3. Teaching someone else.

Especially good for advanced students, having students prepare a lesson aimed at children younger than them to explain key concepts of a work – having them prepare games and worksheets – really allows students to consolidate their knowledge, as well as increasing their communication skills.
I hope these are helpful, and that they are strategies you can try in your own lessons.

Are literature and literacy the same thing?

Literacy education often has, as its end goal, the reading of books. It’s a logical beginning and end. After all, if a student struggles to read a book at the beginning of literacy instruction, and is able to at the end, isn’t that the very definition of progress?

But are we actually limiting students by taking “is able to read and analyse a book or article” as a working definition of success in literacy teaching? In the U.K., a student with a A* – C (4-9) grade at GCSE would probably he assumed to be literate. But this doesn’t account for the rehearsal, the practice, the going over and over of the analysis of one text in class. It doesn’t assume that the largest, most insightful pieces of analysis are probably planted and developed by the class teacher. The language paper includes unseen elements, but the passing of exams – exam technique – is a skill in and of itself. It’s a skill quite distinct from what I think literacy means in a daily context.

The functional skills qualifications in English offer an alternative to those who are struggling with GCSE, and they are not as favourably looked upon in terms of “success” at literacy. But the skills in these courses are much better suited to literacy in real situations. The writing elements of these courses focus on necessary professional documents – letters, emails, adverts or press releases. The reading takes the same sorts of texts as sources.

I love literature. I love picking apart a book for its themes and character development and subtexts. But I accept that, for the majority of jobs, these skills aren’t necessary. As educators, I think our focus always needs to be on preparing students for their next step. In my phase of education, that’s university or work. And if my students don’t want to go on to study English Literature, they don’t need to be able to analyse Hard Times. They need to be able to understand their timetable, their employment contract, their first tax form. They need to be able to read an article or a magazine and be able to identify its bias, to recognise if something they see online is fake news.

It would be a shame if we were able to teach a generation of students to understand the books on the syllabus, but not leave them prepared to take on basic life tasks. In the next blog post, I’ll focus on ways we can inject “life” skills in to English teaching.

In the meantime, what do you think? Does understanding literature automatically denote literature? I’d love to hear other people’s take on this.