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Time To Read

March 30, 2009

Why does everything we do have to have a purpose, and what message is this giving to our children? I ask this because I’ve realised that in recent weeks I’ve been so focussed on getting my pupils ready for their various folios and exams that I’ve forgotten why I was able to become a teacher in the first place. I love reading.

CC: bunchofpants: BY-NC-SA

CC: bunchofpants: BY-NC-SA

We’re striving to change the face of Scottish Education at the moment, and in this respect, we are the same as just about everyone else in the world. I read lots from bloggers around the world about the need for change and wondering what shape the change will take, but in all of this I am getting a sense that what we are really looking for is a new way of assessing our children. Don’t get me wrong, I know the need for some formal recognition of a pupil’s abilities as well as anyone, but I can’t help but think that we’re taking a lot of the fun out of our education systems in the process.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has identified four capacities and I think they are a worthwhile step in the right direction. Even better, there is a sense that the change should be lead by the teachers. For the first time that I have been aware, it is teachers who are being asked to come up with the new ideas… but I’m also finding that this is causing disquiet amongst teachers and managers alike. Actually, I’m not sure that it is disquiet so much as insecurity. Put simply, we’ve been given the chance to do something new and different and exciting, and we’re standing around like caged birds who’ve suddenly found that the doors of the cage have gone.

The reason for this is fairly easy to find. Teachers are waiting to find out how the new system will be assessed. In short, we are waiting for the destination so we can plan how to get there. To me, this suggests that we are doing no more than teaching to the test.

If I think about some of the things I teach in my classroom, it becomes even more self-evident that I always have one eye on the finishing line. If I give my class a poem to read, I’m thinking about the essay they’re going to write while they are trying to work out what a simile means. If I give them a play to read, I’m looking for a saved essay plan while they laugh at their attempts to speak with an American accent. If I give them a novel to read, I’m writing character notes while they’re writing on the books. This is not good enough.

biggles_pioneer_air_fighter_-_we_johns_-_c1971_book_dust_jacketI was lucky when growing up because my family has always read. I used to save my pocket money until I could afford to buy another Enid Blyton or W E Johns novel. Then I’d curl up and be unmovable until I’d finished it, more often than not in one sitting. I read because it was fun. I read because it was an escape. I read because it was something I was allowed to do. I’m only now appreciating how important that was to me, not least because I rarely get the chance to read for pleasure nowadays… and that’s wrong.

Of course, the problem of obsessing with grades and assignments and marks and comments and folios and tests is that one begins to associate reading with assessment, writing is done for grades, not fun, and talking becomes something to be hated because it gets a mark rather than a response. What makes it worse is that pupils have completely bought into this idea.

I’ve only once had a pupil come and ask me how to make her writing better, all the rest wanted to know how to make their grades better. And no wonder pupils today hate being given a novel… they know it means writing an essay. But maybe it’s time we changed that a little.

Maybe it’s time that we concentrated on reading rather than on writing about reading. I wonder what would happen if I were to read a novel with a class and then gather the books in and not set them an essay at the end of it. I wonder what would happen if we were to read through a handful of poems and then move on without killing them with ‘analysis’. I know one thing — we’d have time to read a lot more literature, and that’s got to be good.

Would Scottish Education crumble and fall if we didn’t have to force kids to write an essay after everything they read? I doubt it. Would I have some pupils who begin to learn how much fun reading can be when it’s not tied to the pain of writing an essay? Possibly. And do I have the courage to try it? Mmm….

So tell me what you think. Would you be upset if your kids came home after reading a novel and, instead of writing an essay on it, they were encouraged to start another for themselves? Would you be offended if they read a dozen Shakespeare sonnets but only wrote about one of them? Or would you like to go back to a time where you were encouraged to read because it was fun?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 8:04 am

    As someone who has Biggles, Arthur C Clarke and the Guiness Book of Records on the bookshelf in his classroom alongside Plato and Homer I agree. I have kids who love to read and others who say they don’t yet they still have to produce 600-800 word essays which they often struggle with as they try to write in “academese”. Some of my kids write 1000 words in bebo/facebook/text messages every day. Are they any less literate? Not really. The spelling might not be gr8 😎 but the message still gets through.

    I gave them the chance to do a mini PSL in S3 on a novel of their choice. Some did really well; others choose books that did not result in reflective writing or thinking. (Yes R*** I’m looking at YOU with your essay on ‘Captain Underpants!’). But unless they get the chance to read as much as possible and then think about the text or the message how can they understand what the author is trying to tell them? More reading but with harder final exams and no coursework perhaps?

    This is why Int 2 would be better for my S4 as they’d have to do a lot of the reading/writing themselves not sit there with open mouths and hands begging for handouts or essay frameworks. Get rid of the folio and ease the pressure on them and us.

    Meanwhile, CfE is only causing problems for those who have taught the same lesson for 30 years not those who are eager to use all and every opportunity as well as ICT/Web 2 etc to get their kids to write, read and talk (as well as listen).

  2. March 30, 2009 9:32 am

    When I returned to teaching (1982) after eight years at home with the kids, I was appalled at the amount of nitpicking assessment we were expected to do. These first-time-round Standard Grade units seemed to me destined to render any text at all completely tedious; spending week after week on one novel would drive anyone nuts.

    Go for it, my son: tell them to read half a dozen novels and give you something on one of them; let them make up their “question” as if they were doing Higher RPR-type stuff; do the same with a whole bunch of poems because you love them (the poems – tho’ loving the weans probably helps too); read a play and watch the film and then say “We’d maybe better write something on this – whaddya fancy?”

    And now I really must stop this and get ready for School Assembly – my first in my latest role. (Don’t ask)

  3. March 30, 2009 11:05 am

    I’m on shaky ground here, Neil, now that I am no longer a teacher working in a school, but I believe that the joykillers (those who think that assessing every breath that kids take is necessary to ensure an effective education) have not taken the initiative from teachers: rather, teachers have ceded the initiative to them. It’s similar to questions of power – people do not ‘take’ power: it is given to them. I have argued before that we have disempowered teachers – the only people who can sort that out are the teachers themselves. The point has to come where teachers just start saying ‘no’ to the nonsense that is foisted on teachers, and ultimately on our kids, since their education has suffered as a result.

    So, when a teacher such as yourself, who appreciates the fundamental enjoyment to be gained from immersion in a text, decides that enough is enough, I say, like Chris, ‘go for it’.

    Maybe this could be the first green shoots of the revolution that returns teaching to our teachers. I hope so.

  4. March 30, 2009 5:40 pm

    Thanks very much for the comments. Lots to think about, and nice to know that I’m not alone in thinking that there is more to education than just assessment.

    @Dave T: Your comment about teachers who’ve done the same thing for ages certainly strikes a chord. I’ve spoken to too many teachers who are happy doing what they’ve been doing forever. They have ‘success’ as they see it in their terms, but I wonder how transferable the skills they are teaching are…

    @Chris: I’ve taken the first steps today. I get my S2 class to read some short stories and didn’t tell them they were ‘reading for fun’ at first. Within 2 pages of the first story, one of the least enthusiastic pupils asked the fatal question: “Are we writing an essay on this?” I tried to be enigmatic, but ended up just asking if he wanted to… I think the class couldn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t intending to get them to write on any of the stories, merely letting them enjoy them. (Incidentally, the first story I got them to read was Maurice Gletzman’s “More bits of an autobiography I may not write”. Very, very funny, as shown by the gigging and stifled laughs in the classroom).

    @John: Thanks for the nod! I have teachers in my own department who are too focussed on the assessment and who have lost site of the greater prize, namely encouraging and fostering a love for literature… I think I’m going to have to start doing something about this when I come to revise the department plan/handbook!

    Thanks folks! You’ve made my day.

  5. Gordon Brown permalink
    March 30, 2009 9:49 pm


    I think that what you’re talking about here is great – I also doubt very much that it will hamper exam preparation, and may well help (not that that is the point!)

    Don’t you think that sometimes (often?) teachers who say they ‘have to do’ or ‘can’t do’ something ‘because of the exams’, are using that as an excuse for a lack of imagination?


  6. March 31, 2009 10:55 am

    @Gordon: I know exactly what you mean. In a sense, it’s like the kill-joys who say you can’t do things because of ‘health and safety’. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) got so fed up of schools banning ‘conkers’ on H&S grounds, that they have been sponsoring the UK conkers championships to try and get the message across that they are not about banning things…

    Is there, perhaps, room for the SQA to run a competition of some sorts that would encourage or recognise ‘non-assessed’ efforts by pupils? Just a thought 😉

  7. Gordon Brown permalink
    April 1, 2009 6:03 pm


    Regarding your point about ‘non-assessed’ efforts, you’ll probably be aware that the SG/SQA/LTS are looking into how to ‘recognise wider achievement’. There are avenues to influence this debate; I’ll try to put up a link.

    Meanwhile this might be of interest

  8. Anne permalink
    April 5, 2009 3:33 am

    I am following your blog as part of a class to introduce me to the wonders of technology. I couldn’t help but connect with your thoughts about reading and school and how we seem to work so hard to take the joy and fun out of both. Though I live in the great state of Texas, in a country on a completely different continent than yourself, I’ve often found myself wondering the same things…why do we continue to mess school up so badly, and who can blame kids for getting fed up with the whole thing? After our last read-aloud novel was finished, I found myself chatting with my students about the characters and the way they’d changed throughout the story. They were so eager to talk about it…could have probably gone on forever…but if I’d asked them to do the same thing with paper and pencil, they’d have shut down pretty quickly and I would’ve gotten much less out of them. Not that I think we should just chit-chat about everything they should learn, but it was nice just to sit and discuss a book we’d all enjoyed together.

  9. April 13, 2009 7:34 pm

    Responding a bit late, but…

    I know exactly what you mean about taking the fun out of reading in school. I read about a Dickens enthusiast somewhere who was campaigning (tongue in cheek) to have Dickens taken off the school canon, so that adults could enjoy reading him for the first time. A lot of people apparently avoid him because of hating him at school.

    The thing that I find difficult in the US, is getting kids to read something in the first place if there are no specific grade points associated with it. I think we have taught that sort of ‘if it is not assessed it is not worth anything’ to the kids pretty effectively. If there is anything we need to re-introduce to education it is the idea that things are worth knowing for life, not just the exam or the gradebook.

  10. Hilery Williams permalink
    May 19, 2009 8:34 am

    I’m late to this debate I know, But here’s my tuppence worth anyway.
    I support learners in both primary and secondary schools and my main experience has been in the former.
    There was once a time when, in every primary class at the end of every day, teachers read stories. This time was sacrosanct and nothing, barring an act of god, distracted us from this. We recognised that without story children were denied access to the whole world; and that our job was to open the world to them.
    I am deeply saddened when I see that ‘getting through the curriculum’ means that this practice hardly goes on now – even in early years’ classrooms.
    Of course books are read aloud, but nearly always with a view to an ‘outcome’. And if this is true in the primary classroom where the avowed intent is to teach literacy and the same teacher has the children all day, how much harder it is for secondary teachers to stop the treadmill.
    “Stories are at the very heart of being human; they talk about where we’re from, where we are, and where we’re going. They’re like bread; you need to hear and tell them everyday.” Bill Harley

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