Reluctant Teenage Readers

I tweeted a while back how frustrating it was many of a class of fourteen year olds seemed incapable of reading for fifteen minutes without distraction. I could understand it if I had handed out copies of The Origin of Species, but they choose the reading material. They can bring in their own books or borrow them from the school library (or my own selection), or they can bring magazines.

Admittedly, I am probably also a long way from ‘normal’ when it comes to reading. It’s an unusually busy week when I don’t read four or five books, usually a mixture of fiction and fact. I have an upstairs book, a downstairs book, one in the car and several on my Android. (Currently You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen, The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson by David Didau aka @LearningSpy, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey and Where The Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre, if you’re interested.) I would rather read than sleep and, in fact, often do. So it was always going to be hard to understand their extreme reluctance.

So I did some research.

An old item in the Telegraph discussed a link between kids reading at 16 and a higher chance of having a professional-grade job in later life. Sadly this probably says more about the kids who voluntarily read a lot as teenagers, than ways to encourage readers at this age. The comments below this article in the Guardian are quite depressing, and there’s really not much in the way of solutions. A more recent article on their professional network is more constructive, but still focuses on the books that could be offered.

LoveReading4kids is an online bookstore with a section for reluctant readers, but it’s more about books than strategies. Their downloadable leaflet is more aimed at parents than teachers. I had a look at BookTrust, but their research page has more about evaluation of their programmes than anything else.

The research page at the Literacy Trust was much more useful, although most of the ideas they have for engaging with reluctant readers need a whole-school approach. Not much I can do alone for Year 9 students in one form time a week! The most recent survey results, however, were interesting. I’d recommend having a look yourself if you’re interested, but I was shocked by how little the young people surveyed read for pleasure.

55% of KS4 students (58% of boys) read once a week or less. A third of KS4 students (40% of boys) agreed with the statement “I only read when I have to.” This covered all aspects of reading, including magazines and online, not just books. And it’s despite around three quarters agreeing that “the more I read, the better I get,” with roughly the same response across all ages.

Of course, difficulty in reading is identified as a major factor putting young people off reading. There are many approaches to this, none really applicable in form time. In my situation, I don’t think it’s a significant factor as they have a free choice of material and our library is well-stocked with a range of options. Another problem is that even those who do happily read seem content to stick with familiar and non-challenging books, long after their skill level increases, perhaps increasing boredom.

I suspect part of the issue is that they are using this area to assert their independence and provoke confrontation. The social cachet from defying the teacher – even passively, by repeatedly reading the blurb on the back instead of the book itself – is worth the few minutes of boredom.

So what can I do? It does feel like a broader approach is called for than the options available to me in form time. The research has certainly highlighted the problem, and in some ways reassured me that it’s not a ‘local’ issue. But it doesn’t solve it. Tried so far:

  • Rewards/sanctions for those who repeatedly remember/forget.
  • Suggesting 200word mini-essays “Why I would rather be bored than read.”
  • Keeping a selection of my books to hand.
  • Sending students to the library, where we have a range of choices including graphic novels.
  • Reminding them of magazines that they could use.
  • Passing on recommendations from other students of good books.

I’ll pass on my comments to the Head of Year – it’s a mandated form activity – but suspect I will be told to persevere for at least the remainder of the year. Any other suggestions?

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Ofqual’s Absolute Error

In science lessons we teach students about the two main categories of error when taking readings. (And yes, I know that it’s a little more complicated than that.) We teach about random and systematic error.

Random errors are the ones due to inherently changing and unpredictable variables. They give readings which may be above or below the so-called ‘true value’. We can make allowances for them by repeating the reading, keeping all control variables the same, then finding a mean value. The larger the range, the bigger the potential random error – this is now described as the precision of the reading. I sometimes have my students plot this range as an error bar.

A systematic error is an artifact of the measuring system. It will be consistent, in direction and size (perhaps in proportion to the reading, rather than absolute). A common type is a ‘zero error’, where the measuring device does not start at zero so all readings are offset from the true value. We sometimes calibrate our readings to account for this.

You can consider spelling errors due to sloppy typing as being random, while persistently misspelling a particular word is systematic.

So what does this have to do with Ofqual?

The recent issues with the scoring of GCSE English coursework – discussed on twitter with the hashtag #gcsefiasco – are a good example of errors causing problems. But if we use the scientific approach to errors, it is much harder to blame teachers as Stacey has done.

Coursework is marked by teachers according to a markscheme, provided by the exam board. (It’s worth remembering that apart from multiple choice papers all external exams are marked in this way too.) An issue with controlled assessments is that teachers are unavoidably familiar with the marking guidelines, so can ensure students gain skills that should help them demonstrate their knowledge. This is after all the point of the classroom, to learn how it’s done. To complain that we ‘teach to the test’ is like criticising driving instructors for teaching teenagers how to drive on British roads.

Once the work of all students in a  cohort has been marked, the department will spend some time on ‘internal moderation’. This means checking a random sample, making sure everyone has marked in the same way, and to the standard specified by the markscheme. Once the school has committed to the accuracy of the marks, they are sent to the exam board who will specify a new random sample to be remarked externally. If the new scores match those awarded by the school, within a narrow tolerance, then all the scores are accepted. If not, then all will be adjusted, up or down, to correct for a systematic error by the department. There will still be a few random errors – deviations from the ‘correct’ score on specific essays – but these will be fairly rare.

The exam board then converts the coursework score, using a top secret table, into a percentage of the available marks. You may not need to get everything perfect to get an ‘effective’ 100% on the coursework element of the course. And dropping 2 of 50 on the raw score, as marked by the teachers, may mean more than a 4% decrease after conversion. This table will be different for different papers because some exams are harder than others, but changes should be minimal if we want to able to compare successive years.

So what happened last summer?

Students who had gained the same raw score on the same coursework task, which had been marked to the same standard as confirmed by the exam boards during external moderation, were awarded different percentages by the exam boards depending on when the work was sent in. This was after sustained pressure from Ofqual, possibly because using the same boundaries in June as they had in January would have resulted in ‘too many’ higher grades. This was not about a small number of random errors in marking. This was not about a systematic error by some or all schools, because the boards had procedures to identify that. This was about a failure by the exam boards and Ofqual to discreetly fix the results the way they intended to.

It is a basic principle in science that you cannot adjust your results based on what you want or expect them to be. You might be surprised, you might recheck your working, but you can’t change the numbers because of wishful thinking. If there was an error, it was by the exam boards and Ofqual, who showed that they could not specify what work was equivalent to a C grade.

The procedures were followed in schools. The exam boards agreed that the controlled assessments were marked to their own standards. And yet Ofqual still claim that it is the fault of us teachers, who prepared our students so well for the controlled assessment that we are being called cheats.

I’ve blogged before about the weaknesses built in to the science ISAs. The exam board and Ofqual are either too busy to read what one teacher has to say – perfectly reasonable – or don’t have an answer. I don’t understand how it is our fault when their system approved what teachers did and how they marked.

So maybe we shouldn’t be marking controlled assessments at all.

PS (This is the cue for the unions to step in. And they won’t. This is why we need one national professional body representing teachers, using evidence rather than political rhetoric.)

P2 Summary Activity

A very short post this one, as it’s time to get the kids in bed and make sure I’ve an ironed shirt for tomorrow. But as I’ve done this for my students, it seems only fair to make it available to you guys* too…

This booklet/activity is the same idea as the one I posted a little while back for B1. I dislike giving revision notes; that’s why they have a revision guide. Equally, if you don’t give them some kind of structure they’ll surely make a mess of it. As before, page references are to the excellent CGP guides, although others are available. I teach the AQA Additional Science spec, although this will also fit in to triple/Physics teaching.

Download P2 summary activity as a .pdf (Add a comment below if you want the .docx version)

Please let me know if it’s useful, or if you spot any problems with it. I’d particularly appreciate comments below (not just on twitter!) if you use it in your own settings, as sharing this kind of thing is one of the ways I’m building up evidence for my CSciTeach accreditation.

 

*’guys’ used in the same way as I do in my classroom, as a non-gender-specific yet informal address