a blog for the ambition literacy campaign in Nottingham

This was written for the Nottingham City Council campaign and is on the NCC intranet but it might get more publicity for reading out in the open

 

We are encouraging more children to read as part of the council’s new literacy campaign ‘Ambitious for every child’. We know that an early love of books and reading can help children to be more successful in the future. In this blog, our Education Director John Dexter reflects on his early experience of books and the impact it had on his life and teaching career…

The great children’s writer Roald Dahl said of reading: “I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.”

When I was a child, we had very few books at home, only one or two suitable for children, so I read those several times, but my Dad took me to the library every few weeks. I loved those trips, partly being with him, which was rare, and partly as I entered a new world every week:

  • Outer space, imaginary planets, inconceivable journeys, hideouts, far off islands, distant countries, danger…
  • The world of pirates, ancient peoples, Victorians, Romans, firefighters, commanders, heroes, ghosts…
  • Safely in a war zone, a baking hot African country, the freezing ice sheets of Antarctica, the beauty of mountain landscape, the enchanting Far East, the hill stations of India, an adventure with superheroes…

Sometimes escaping, often fantastic, occasionally scary, always learning. But so grateful for the world I entered. It’s not just about learning the basics of reading to access the modern world, it is about being literate, about learning and sharing, enjoying and getting ideas, or having ideas challenged.

As a teacher, you might expect me to say all this but I was never very comfortable with English, let alone English Literature (a subject I failed aged 16). Not until I met with Mr Scholar (great name for a teacher). As I chose to study science, my school insisted we had “extra” English lessons – I almost despaired but probably not as much as Mr Scholar. So we came to an agreement, there was no syllabus, no exam so why didn’t he tell us what he loved to read: fiction, non-fiction, plays poetry… that set me on the road to enjoying reading and that helped me become literate.

When I worked in secondary schools, I am proud of the literacy challenges we put in place: every Wednesday, 25 minutes of silent reading, save those who struggled to read helped by trained sixth form literacy coaches. This routine said:

  1. reading is important enough to have on the secondary curriculum
  2. there is a need for time set aside to read seriously and
  3. promoting discussion between pupils and between staff and pupils about reading, about books, about fiction or non-fiction is healthy
  4. ambitions can be fuelled by literacy

For me that was great, I honestly believed reading was just so undervalued. I once made my Year 11 Science class read aloud for a whole hour lesson. At the end, one student said: “I can’t believe how much I have learnt Sir, it helped me make sense of many of our lessons.” This said something about me, probably, but I just hoped he would read the rest of the book.0_Hoodwinked-book-bench3

I was sooooo enthusiastic to get my own children to read. But here sits a secondary teacher with no idea how to teach reading, so it was the obvious: read to them, read with them, listen to them, tell them stories, find stories, get them to find stories… and I remembered that’s what my Dad did too; he took me to the library and he took books out as well. Adults can model the importance of reading by reading themselves, set aside time, and help choose books or give them as gifts.

I am envious of the wonderful array of books available today, and at reasonable costs, but the Dolly Parton Imagination Library sending 60 books over five years to small children offers a great opportunity to start reading, start imagining, to relax reading and even to find a better balance in life. But most of all to learn and enter the funny, exciting and wonderful world Dahl describes.

Go on, be ambitious and give it a go.

If you wish to support Councillor Mellen’s big read, please do so here.

OR BETTER Still tell us all about a book you loved as a child, or loved reading to your children or grandchildren or would give as a gift?

Wednesday Period 0 – Literacy

I must confess I haven’t ever taught anyone to read, even my own children just (did) – thank a teacher there oh and Biff and Chipp. At times in my career I have wished I could really do that. It is so difficult for a poor reader in Y7 to access some parts of a curriculum and I’ve not got much idea how to help them improve reading. As a Y7 Science teacher I’ve got a load of things I want to do with them and for them and they are ssooooo keen, but I have spotted the odd struggler, especially when we read aloud. I do my bit for literacy but I sense I might be a bit late arriving at the party. I am pretty useless at teaching to read and must sound to them like my Dad did to me when he taught me to ride a bicycle “just balance it John, pedal and balance” – as I fell off for the nth time. Dad just could not explain the concept of balancing to a child. I too just seem to say to those Y7…..read, just read, and read more. I think this is also the nearest I got to teaching my own children to read. We read together and I echoed read read read. It can work though, one of my children did read, read, read to the extent I had to persuade her there was more to life than reading (sorry English colleagues) Whilst her SATs and GCSE and AS Levels showed the benefits, that was a mere flicker of what a true love of reading and literature brought to her and can bring whatever any of us “do” for a job.

Kansas State Library

Kansas State Library

I have therefore always sensed literacy skills and reading ability was much more than just accessing school, it’s about all the lovely, wonderful things literature can bring to us. As a child we had very few books at home, an old encyclopaedia (remember them?) and a few dusty ‘Jennings’ books, and the odd ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I have to say that I made up for that once I had some money. But don’t be misled I wasn’t deprived, my Dad took me every week to the local library ( not by bicycle), we took 3 books out for the week. Yes we did, he took three and I did too. I was never very good at English though, I never could see how my own teachers could draw such conclusions from a narrative, to me it was a story, to them there was allegory, moral, message – I was heading for Science. BUT a strange thing happened on the way. In the sixth form (Y12) I found my timetable said Maths, Physics, Chemistry and “English for Scientists“. The first lesson was a difficult one, as Mr Cecil Scholar arrived and asked us what we wanted to do; after all we all had Language and Lit O-Level. We didnt need a qualification, his duty was to help continue to improve our English. On balance I think he wanted to be in that room slightly less than us, he probably had a slightly light timetable and got pushed our way. His eyes did though light up when we made a suggestion. “Sir just come in and tell us about your favourite books, the poems that inspired you, tell us about the plays on at the Coventry Belgrade or the Hippodrome, or even at Stratford (though not the big serious stuff)”. He did, and for the first time in my life I really enjoyed reading; I knew where to start, I could see some sense, even some morals, some hidden meanings. I began the journey into a whole new world. I was destined for Chemistry but I was on track with what we tweeter people would describe as a geniune #lovereading.

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There was all the noise on twitter over the Gove decisions about ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird” and “Of mice and men”. Opinion may be split – ‘what is he doing?’ vs ‘It never did anything for me’. In the 70’s I had few distractions, little on TV and a life of sport and studlibrary on t beachy, today the activities are endless but we neglect giving children the love of reading at our peril. Long might our school keep it’s literacy sessions, stopping only occasionally for a tutor group or a year group (and a teacher) to share what they are reading and why, to encourage the window to be thrown open yet wider. We might need all the tools we can find, so I hope teachers will still use those books and plays and poems and tricks that they know work, and on occasions when they don’t work for a learner, they try something else from the canon. I hope the introduction to a library treasure trove continues. I liked that poster below from the Chicago library about the letters, there really can’t be anything more magical.

In the near future we might be trying to get ‘more Maths” for all those post 16 not doing Maths, I do hope we never neglect the mission to inspire the learner to read, read, read, and #lovereading. Oh and if you are still around Mr Scholar, thank you – the school got no points, no inspection comments but this little scientist was genuinely grateful. As they say if you can read this, thank a teacher.

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Some questions to consider:

Q1 Knowing how important reading is and our desire to foster a genuine love of reading, but do we have to do some forcing when pupils are younger, and older?

Q2 What ways have you found to encourage reading, what works , what doesn’t work for you; for your classes and for your school?

Q3 what got you into reading?

Q4 Should we discipline ourselves to reading an hour a day of fiction, or Educational research, or is a scan over the TES and a bag full of tweets enough?

For those in a Church school:

I’m not Bible scholar but I do note in the New testament Jesus says at least ten times…”haven’t you read?”
reading cartoon