Square Pegs and Round Holes 1/2

My son is a keen and able reader. Not quite ten, he read and enjoyed The Hobbit earlier this year. He likes both Harry Potter and Alex Rider. David Walliams‘ books are now ‘too young for him’ and he’s a big fan of variations on classic myths and fairy tales – The Sisters Grimm and Percy Jackson, for example. He was a ‘free reader’ most of last year and continues to make progress when tested in school, in both reading and writing.

He’s now back on the reading scheme – level 17 Oxford. According to the official website of the series, these books are at a lower level than the reading age as assessed by the school last year of 11 years, 9 months. They’re short, mainly dull, and despite the claim of his teacher that he needs to be reading a wider variety the school stock are almost all adapted classics. Jane Eyre and Silas Mariner for a ten year old boy? Really?

We’ve got a good range at home, and he’s reading these in between finishing off the official school books (which he manages in less than an hour, but can’t change more than a couple of times a week). It’s not stopping him from reading. But I hate that for the first time in ages, my son sees reading as a chore.

You can probably tell I’m a little annoyed about all this.

Reasons and Excuses

I’m pretty sure that there are two reasons his school are being so inflexible. Firstly it’s a new scheme, a new teacher and they’ve got a lot on at this time of year. Only two kids – the other a year older – are on this level in the school. The scheme and approach probably work fine with everyone else, and adapting it to one student is a big time commitment. I understand that. I really do.

The other is about assessment. We’d assumed that the only way he can be assessed (via the Suffolk reading scale, apparently) is by reading the books that match it. We’re now not sure that’s right. The school have chosen an assessment strategy which doesn’t cater for the highest ability. It will be interesting to see how they try to show progress, seeing as these are too easy for him.

I think they didn’t believe at first how quickly he was reading them. When he demonstrated that he had understood, retained and could explain the books verbally, they tried to slow him down. “Write a review.” “Discuss it with your parents so they can write in your record.” And, I kid you not – “Write a list of all the unstressed vowels.”

Maybe this week he’ll be told them while standing on his head. But that won’t address the problem – in fact, two problems – with this specific range.

Boredom and Spoilers

I should probably read a wider range of books myself. I’ll hold my hand up to sometimes limiting myself to SF and fantasy too much. But he does read a range, given the choice – and this selection doesn’t give him an option. Adapted classics, followed by… well, more adapted classics. He liked Frankenstein. Jekyll and Hyde scared him. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights bored him. Silas Mariner was an ordeal. This is not varied. If the school can’t afford to buy more (which, for such a small number of kids, I can understand) then why can’t he read his own as well? We’d happily accept a list of recommendations from the teacher. What about Harry Potter, Malorie Blackman, Young James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Pullman, Michelle Paver (he liked this, thanks to @alomshaha for the suggestion)? If they have to be classics: Narnia, John Masefield, E. Nesbitt…

The other issue is that if he’s read – or been made to read – versions of great books like Frankenstein or the Three Musketeers now, what are the chances he’ll enjoy the full editions in a couple of years? Why spoil his future enjoyment this way? I doubt his GCSE English teacher will let him read Percy Jackson when the rest of the class are reading Jekyll and Hyde for the first time, just because he knows the ending. A crap film can spoil a good book (Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, step forward) and I can’t see why this would be different. I’m sure the publishers have lots of reasons for getting ‘classics’ on to the list, but haven’t teachers pointed out that kids will grow up to have a lifetime of enjoying good books?

Ranting and Reflection

Having to assess all kids against one set of standards inevitably means that some find it too hard, some too easy. When I stopped thinking like a parent, and started thinking like a teacher, this made a lot more sense. I’m sure I’ve done this at some point and my reflections will be in a separate post, hopefully in a few days. For now I needed to rant, and hopefully you’re still reading to see I acknowledge that!

I’d really welcome any responses on this one – especially from any primary colleagues!

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?