Saturday, 20 August 2016

Being A Reading Teacher

At the beginning of this year I decided to shake myself out of a long slumber, to blow the dust off my 'library' and to become a reader again. I joined the 'fifty book challenge' and promptly got my wife on the case too; fifty books in a year (we are both currently on track).

I cannot remember learning to read (other than the flash cards my mum did with me pre-school) - I imagine I've always been able to read! As a child, thanks largely to Roald Dahl and later The Hardy Boys series, I was a fairly avid reader - the torch-under-the-covers type. Later in my teens, aside from 'Moonfleet' (still one of my favourite books) I read very little. Studying English at GCSE didn't do much to encourage me to read increasingly complex or canonical texts - we covered Jane Eyre but cannot recall actually having to read the whole book. By the time I was at uni I scraped my 2:1 by skimming through library books for the underlinings and highlightings of more diligent students who preceded me, without ever having to read a book in its entirety. And by that age I certainly wasn't reading fiction. After uni, Ian Rankin rescued me when I picked up a copy of 'The Falls' in a holiday cottage - I spent the next couple of years scouring charity shops and buying new releases; I'm now well versed in Rebus' career.

On one hand I regret that I fell out of love with reading - think of all the books I could have read during my 'dark ages'. But, on the other hand, I get to read them all now of my own volition, now that I'm a (mostly) sensible adult. I'm not one for those '100 books to read before you die' lists but I have begun to try out some of the books that feature on those lists: To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, Candide, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, The Old Man and the Sea. I can honestly say I've enjoyed each one - probably wouldn't have if I'd have been made to read them as a teen.

The benefits of me, as a teacher, reigniting my own passion for reading have been many fold. And consequently, I have come to be of the opinion that every teacher should be a reader - and more than someone who just reads the odd bestseller. In my blog post 'Reading for Pleasure' I outlined some of how my passion has been transferred to the children in my class but here I'd like to discuss further ways in which teachers who are readers (i.e. those who make a habit of reading) will see benefits in the classroom:

I am currently reading 'Reading Reconsidered' by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. It's full of highly detailed practical advice on how to teach reading skills. As I read, it dawned on me just how complex the reading comprehension process is. The authors of the book insightfully break down how to go about establishing and analysing meaning as well as outlining where difficulties lie. They reference many novels by way of giving supporting examples - because I had recently read some of the books mentioned I was able to understand the concepts put forward in the book much more comprehensively than I would if I'd have read it, say, in December. But greater than that, as the book discussed plot type and narrator techniques I was able to recall examples from my own reading: 'Oh! Slaughterhouse Five has a non-linear time sequence!' and lo and behold, a page later it's mentioned as an example.

It was following several similar moments as I read that I realised teachers must read for themselves. Yes, we should pre-read the texts we read and teach to our class, and we should read to help us make decisions on book selection but we should also read for our own enjoyment, at our own level. Why? Because it makes us into readers and it is the only thing that will give us deep insight into what books are like - the varying ways they are narrated, the different plot types, the similarities between two texts, the complexities of older texts, the devices used by authors. Having a continually growing understanding of what books are like is essential if we want to help children to learn how to gain meaningful understanding of a variety of texts. If we aren't readers then we will struggle to model what it is like to be a reader. We will find it difficult to identify why an author has chosen a particular word or why the narrator has left certain pieces of key information out. And if we can't model reading in this way due to a lack of our own experience, are we really teaching reading?

Being able to read does not make one a reader. Reading one age-appropriate class novel each half term hardly makes one a reader either. By skimping on one's literary intake (and I have learned this from experience) no matter how you 'push' for the children to enjoy reading, no matter how well you 'do the voices', no matter how Pinterest-worthy your beautiful book corner is, you will probably struggle to effectively teach reading. To reiterate: it comes down to knowing what books (in general, not individual books) are like.

And the encouragement comes in this form: it is an easy change to make. All you do is pick up a book and read it. And repeat. You won't need to go into too much deep analysis of your own reading - with half a mind on teaching reading you will start to naturally identify text features and literary devices and similarities between books. The very (continuous) act of being a reader will prepare you far better for being a teacher of reading than if you are not a reader. 

Of course, I would also recommend that you begin to read about the teaching of reading too - helpful books like Reading Reconsidered will open your eyes further to what you are reading in your own novels, as well as what is present in the books you read at school with the children. But get into reading novels for pleasure first - get a few of those under your belt as for most folk reading novels for fun is easier than reading non-fiction for learning purposes it it hones those reading comprehension skills all the same.

So, if you wouldn't consider yourself a reader, why not set yourself a challenge? Be realistic perhaps - don't aim to read too many too soon, or don't aim to read the heavier, more archaic classics just yet. I'd recommend using Good Reads (app or website or both) to track your achievements and I'd recommend first and foremost that you read for YOU - not even so you'll become a better teacher of reading, and definitely not so you can feel good about having ploughed your way through the James Joyce that everyone says is 'an absolute must read'.

To be a teacher of reading, you should be a reading teacher.

A version of this article was published in the TES magazine on 2nd December 2016 entitled 'Throw The Book At Yourself'. It can be read online, with a subscription, here: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/throw-book-yourself

8 comments:

  1. As a reading specialist, I agree! Being an avid reader, I have 1st hand knowledge of that "just right" book for that child sitting in front of me because I've read so many of them. This has the potential to turn a child into a lifetime reader instead of a schooltime reader. If I'm enthusiast about books, I might make my kids enthusiast about them.

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    1. Thanks - it's nice to have the support of someone who is a reading specialist!

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  2. Well written as always. This really needs to be said to all teachers. What a great message for you to come and share with my students too especially since you're out there doing this!

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    1. Thanks Mat! Would really love to come and share this message!

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  3. Great article and thanks for the shoutout on twitter :)

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  4. Solid stuff - I heartily agree. To get kids reading, books need advocates and how can a teacher act as advocate (and enthusiast) without knowledge, insight, familiarity and that grasp of the range of the language and its custodians (writers) that comes from being a reader?

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    1. Thanks for the comment Andy! Happily, I think the reading bug is really catching on with teachers, especially the ones I connect with on Twitter. Will definitely be encouraging my new team of teachers next year to be readers themselves - I did catch two of them raiding the bookshelves on the last day of term so that's a very positive sign!

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