Sunday, 2 April 2017

Teaching English is not teaching Reading

First, an anecdote. There was once a rich and highly successful man, who enjoyed a fabulous lifestyle afforded him by his well paid and very glamorous job. He was, however, troubled and unhappy because he knew that, behind all the glitz, his life was a shallow and unfulfilling one. The reason: he was a poor reader. He never really understood what was going on around him. Determined to help children avoid finding themselves in a similar position, this man decided to use some of his money and fame to set up a school. 

It's a charming and heart-warming story, made only slightly less charming and heart-warming by the fact that it's made up; it's a story about a character called Derek Zoolander, and his school was the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can't Read Good. Now, the reason for telling you that, or reminding you about it, is because I thought about Derek Zoolander today. I was thinking about teaching reading after spending a brilliant day at the ResearchEd English and MFL conference on Saturday. It occurred to me that a lot of the answers my pupils give to reading questions are a bit like Derek: they look great superficially, but the Blue Steel exterior masks insubstantial and feeble foundations. And it's because many of those pupils can't read good. I scaffold and I model and I give them sentence stems and quote banks and, eventually, with practice, they can produce answers which are decent. But, when that is all taken away, and it's just them and a piece of text, they can't do it. They can't understand what they are reading, so they can't make sensible inferences. They can't analyse the language. They can't tell me what the effect on the reader is (or, they could, but they don't want to hurt my feelings by writing: "nothing").

As a secondary school English teacher, I can honestly say that I have little or no idea how to teach basic reading skills. I'm skeptical, and a bit baffled by, phonics (despite volunteering for some basic training on it earlier this year); I'm very old, and I don't remember how I learnt to read, but I know it wasn't like that. Nevertheless, I am staying open-minded and am happy to believe those more qualified and experienced than me who say that it does work. However, that doesn't mean that I'm currently in a position to teach someone who is struggling to read how to do it. Most teachers I know across different subjects will happily acknowledge that "literacy" is a whole school responsibility, and will commit to including reading in their lessons. Nevertheless, I suspect that they believe, really, that the English department are, or should be, teaching the pupils to read. But we're not. We are teaching them English, not Reading. We have specific subject knowledge and content to teach them, the same as every other subject. We have exam practice to do, the same as every other subject. We have exactly as much time as every other subject to teach children to read: none. And I think it is time that we recognised that no amount of literacy across the school initiatives, expectations that pupils read at home and repeatedly telling them to read for pleasure ("just keep trying different books - you'll find one you love!") is going to teach pupils who can't read how to do it.

Talking about this dispassionately is hard because it often seems to degenerate into a blame game between primary and secondary teachers, ending up with an exchange you might hear in a nursery school: secondary teachers whining that "it was broken when I got it" and primary teachers responding, "it was fine when I left it. And anyway, you touched it last". But these children aren't damaged toys to be thrown away. This is too important for us to not work together to try and help them to read better. Because, and I don't claim any evidence of causation here, people who are poor readers die younger. They have diminished life chances. And that isn't fair. 

So, although I can't speak for anyone else, here is a promise: primary school teachers, I don't think it is your fault if a child comes to my Year 7 class and can't read. There could be multiple reasons why that has happened. But, the fact remains that they can't. So, I need some help to teach them. If phonics is the best way to teach children to read, there should be phonics specialists in every secondary school. Children in Year 7 (and beyond, if necessary) need to have timetabled Literacy lessons, which are separate and distinct from their English lessons. If children come to secondary school as good readers, does anyone seriously believe it will harm them to also have a dedicated Literacy lesson? There was apparently a wonderful session at ResearchEd, which I didn't manage to see, on teaching Latin to improve literacy, so perhaps they could learn that?

There is a bit in Zoolander when Derek, looking at an architect's model of his proposed school, flies into an apoplectic rage because it is too small: "It needs to be at least three times this big!". When I first watched that film, before I was a teacher, I thought it was funny. Thinking about it now, it really isn't. It's really sad. But it is a decent metaphor for many attempts to improve literacy in secondary schools: they need to be bigger! At least three times as big! Making sure that everyone who passes through our schools can read confidently and accurately should be a fundamental obligation on all teachers, school leaders and government ministers. We should stop pointing fingers at each other and start trying to get this right. It is too important for us to keep getting it wrong.