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Spotlight on….. REALLY reluctant readers

10 Oct

The Year 1o class that I currently teach consists primarily of boys with weak literacy skills, and a couple of girls, who equally struggle. The boys are for the most part nice lads – but they are lads. Lads who come in asleep for periods 1 and 2 (and sometimes 3), who are passionate about football, farting, gaming, texting, sticking each other with compasses, slapping each other with plastic document wallets, and brooding darkly about something that happened to them on the way to school. And they really REALLY hate reading.

Even with every reluctant reader reading scheme known to man at my disposition, I know that I won’t get these lads to read a book. Not by themselves anyway. I have high hopes for next term, when I teach them Of Mice and Men. In twelve years I’ve never known the story to fall flat – not once. Maybe it’s my terrible American accent or the way I say ‘ketchup’ that keeps them entertained, but whatever the reason, the story resonates with every adolescent I’ve taught. The themes? Persecution of the underdog, bullying, prejudice, the power of friendship, loneliness and the misuse of power. What adolescent – especially one who doesn’t achieve as highly as his or her ‘average’ or ‘above average’ peers – has never at some point felt confused, alienated, that they don’t belong, that people might be talking about them, or simply unsure of the way forward in the adult world?

We can’t always find the right book for the right (non)reader,  but sometimes it’s more a question of getting our boys (and girls) to simply get used to reading something by themselves. Often it’ll be non-fiction – the fiction nut is a tough one to crack. But try these in your tutor groups for starters, Year 9 through to Year 11. 

  • A Tesco/Argos/Index catalogue. Good for teaching/alerting them to the features of non-fiction texts. They have to read the descriptions of the latest mobile phone or electronic drum kit.
  • The local paper. Bear in mind that some very reluctant teen readers have reading ages of below 8. Pictures, huge headlines, easy-to-follow bold paragraphs on the latest misdemeanor, car adverts, job advertisements, lonely hearts. You can also try sharing This is Bristol on your IWB.
  • The Guinness Book of Records. Not a real book, and never intended as one. But you can have real success developing skimming and scanning skills with the simple directive ‘find the man with the most piercings and tell me three things about him’. You might need a few copies – but how about asking your group whether they could bring in their own copies (of GBR or Ripley’s Believe it or Not).
  •   Cookery books. My favourite! A way to get kids to read is to appeal to their stomachs! There are some great kids’ cook books which combine simple instructions with mouth-watering descriptions. Sam Stern is a teen who put his money where his mouth was. Steer clear of Nigella though unless you want 15 year old boys sniggering at the mere thought of ‘plumptious beauties’, aka cherries. Apparently.
  • Where’s Wally. Well, if you’re desperate. But, it does teach kids to patiently seek out the geek in the bonnet. Why not try a word version? Where’s Verby? Or Where’s Nouny? (I actually think I might try this.)

One of the most important things to bear in mind with our under-confident readers is that they are always, without a doubt, acutely aware that they are not very good at something that everyone keeps telling them they should  be better at, or should enjoy, or that will improve their grades/lives. It’s simply not like that with some kids. So, if your Yr 10 has finally found his soul-mate in Mr Gum, or Matilda, or the Famous Five – never be anything but encouraging. It’s a small victory that they are enjoying something by themselves, perhaps for the first time in ages.

I’m off to read the Ikea catalogue again. Half-term = Billy Bookcase and a couple of Smorbjas.


Time for a positive change?

24 Sep

Now in its third year, the National Literacy Trust’s annual national survey explores young people’s attitudes towards all aspects of literacy. This year we are taking part in the survey which looks at attitudes towards reading and writing, and the extent to which children and young people engage in literacy activities at home with their family. It will also explore young people’s views about speaking and listening; how important they think it is and why they should bother with it. Given the emphasis on literacy and reading in the last two years, this could provide more positive feedback and help us to continue to foster more positive attitudes. The survey will be online, and will take about 30 minutes to complete, between 12 November and 7 December 2012. It can be set as homework for some of our more independent students.

It would be galling to discover that few of our efforts are making any difference to our students’ attitudes towards reading, writing and speaking. To a large extent, the rationale behind Magazine! addresses the gap between functionality, necessity, and fun. Our enthusiasm and our reminders that communication is the key to success (however modest) in the future,  are what could help to bring about positive change in the way that our students view books, authors, reading, writing, blogging and… well, communicating.

Spread the love. 

Teaching reading IS rocket science

11 Sep

A report published yesterday by the National Literacy Trust makes rather depressing reading. The research was carried out with 21,000 children  and young people across the UK. One of its key findings is that children and young people are reading less as their lives get more crowded – which, when you think of the simplicity of life with a telly, an Atari, a stack of Whizzer and Chips, Enid Blyton’s life works and a knackered old bike, might lead us to believe that life in the 70s really were ‘good times’ (ok I know I’ve lost anyone under 30). The research found that:

• More than a fifth of children and young people (22%) rarely or never read in their own time
• More than half (54%) prefer watching TV to reading
• Nearly a fifth (17%) would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading
• 77% of children and young people read magazines in 2005 now just 57% do, comic reading has dropped from 64% to 50%, reading on websites from 64% to 50%

The whole survey is available here:  Childrens’ and Young People’s Reading Today.

Based on this research, I think it would be interesting to conduct an informal attitudinal survey to reading with our classes and tutor groups. Even sharing this information with our students might open up discussions about reading issues that they might not have articulated, or even had discussed with them. Even better if we could find out from them what might make reading one of their leisure choices alongside COD (seriously, I had no idea what ‘playing COD all day’ meant and was quite frankly rather worried about what it might mean) or X-Factor/Bake-Off/Panorama. For Key Stage 4 tutors in particular, the findings of the research on the reading habits of teenage boys are probably all too recognisable, for example: ‘Only 26.2% of boys in KS4 say that they enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot. This is nearly half of the number of KS3 boys who say that they enjoy reading (41.6%) and nearly a third of the number of KS2 boys who say that they enjoy reading (65.5%). This is also nearly half the number of girls in KS4 (42.5%) who enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot. Teenage boys also think less positively about reading compared with younger boys. Only 14.2% of boys in KS4 agree with the statement that “reading is cool” compared with 58.1% of boys in KS2. At the same time, however, KS4 boys are more likely to agree with the statement that “I cannot find anything to read that interests me” compared with KS2 boys (35% vs. 26%).

What I have tried to do with the Fiction Reading Day at KS4 is introduce 14-16 year olds to books that they may simply not know are out there, and build on the Reading Challenge Day at KS3. Many boys in the Lit group that I share with CSl have said that their favourite book ever was Of Mice and Men’ – the set text for GCSE. For some this has been the only book they have read in the last four years. Perhaps it is simply a question of knowing what is out there that might interest them.

I’ll be posting book reviews, book trailers and recommendations regularly – if you can find time to share these with your tutor groups, I think that we could really start to enrich – or at least offer the possibility of an additional pastime – to many of our 14-16s. And thanks to one of my Year 11s for this gem:

Q: What’s the difference between a boring teacher and a boring book?
A: You can shut the book up.

(he’s got a detention)