Reading together; Better lives through books; a commentary on Jon Biddle’s NRSN twilight

This week I had the good fortune of attending Jon Biddle’s session Reading for Pleasure, yet another gem brought to us by the Norwich Research Leads Network. (See articles on previous #NorRel presentations by Roger Higgins and Stuart Kime).

The organisers had given Andrew Howard and I the opportunity to precede Jon’s session with an ultra-compressed 20-minute presentation on Stalham Academy’s success with Cooperative Learning, so, after that effort, I was quite unprepared for being swept off my feet; yet here I find myself promoting reading for pleasure rather than Cooperative Learning (But then, as the astute reader will have guessed, there is no objective Cooperative Learning does not facilitate, so…).

Poor? Try reading.

The most stunning single piece of information presented by Jon was the research evidence suggesting that reading enjoyment is more important to educational success then social strata. And knowing the importance of social strata, this is very difficult to get one’s head around: Essentially, a white boy growing up in a derelict council estate on the fringe of Norfolk may achieve the same success in the academic system as the son of a pair of doctors from Notting Hill – if he loves reading.

 

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As it is frightfully troublesome to transport all children from derelict Norfolk council estates to Notting Hill and giving them doctors for parents, then – following this line of reasoning – the next best thing would be to teach them how to love to read and then they can move to Notting Hill when they’ve grown up to become doctors themselves.

Forgive this extreme example, but if we take these finding to their logical conclusion, that is potentially what we’re talking about. An incredible improvement of life chances at virtually no cost. (Except of course, that loving to read is not a measurable size – so the cost might be ironically be English SAT results, a point which was not lost on the primary teachers present).

“On World Book Day, be sure to direct the emphasis on the costumes the children wear rather than books…”

Number 9 on Jon’s list of 25 ways to create a non-reading school

 

Reading for pleasure is hard work

Jon’s school, Moorlands Church of England Primary Academy, has been spending the last couple of years taking this evidence seriously and have succeeded in building up an all-inclusive reading environment where the gaps between children, parents, the surrounding community and teaching staff have been bridged by … books.

 

Reading buddies.PNG

What’s not to like?!

 

There is simply no way to give justice to Jon’s presentation, so this should be seen only as the most superficial outline of the points I was most inspired by. I take full responsibility for any errors or shortcomings in this rendering.

Crucially, reading for pleasure does not involve continuous interruptions to answer clever comprehension questions or having every paragraph re-capped in the teacher’s own words. Allotting time for such things as daily independent reading, adult-child reading buddies for the most challenged pupils, class book-talks and reading aloud involving both children and staff, and unrestricted access to relevant books (which do not include “The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl”, “Will We Ever Land on the Moon” or books with half of the pages missing).

Just what you’d want your 10-year-old daughter to be reading for pleasure… 

Beyond school

As regular followers of this blog will know, one of my keen interests is community building which has led me to work with West Midlands Police and to create the Healing Fractures workshops. But here are a couple of workshops I had never dreamt of: reading-history family tree involving parents and grandparents, class reading-history involving pupils and their teachers, reading aloud and discussing books in care homes, pouncing upon hapless shoppers with public poetry readings, working with Amnesty International and refugee charities while reading books about the plight of displaced children and then writing letters to actual Syrian children in refugee camps to tell them that they are not forgotten. (Jon noted this was among the best pieces of writing his pupils had ever produced).

 

“If, by some bizarre twist of fate, an author, poet or storyteller ever visits the school, at least half of the pupils need to be attending a phonics catch-up group.”

Number 6 on Jon’s list of 25 ways to create a non-reading school

 

Reading together & Cooperative Learning

As you can probably gather, a substantial part of building strong reading communities is about communicating and sharing; recommending books; discussing books; summarising stories; explaining one’s preferences; comparing favourite authors, et cetera et cetera. While I do wish that the presentation I did with Andrew had been planned around Jon’s session and come after rather than before, I was pleased that all delegates could clearly see the connection between the two activities we demonstrated, even though the objective was writing rather than reading. Catch1Partner, for example, is brilliant for sharing presentations of books across class or prompting discussions using the “question lolly sticks” about books (for example, “which book are you reading at the moment?”).

 

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From Jon’s blog childrenreadingforpleasure.blogspot.com

 

In our session, I used Meet-in-the-Middle to uncover “possible reasons not to adopt Cooperative Learning,” with the intention of writing a persuasive article for TES, but the question might as well have been, “what makes a really good book?” And here, the objective is obviously not to find a definitive answer, but the process of investigation and negotiation to move one’s experiences and reflections beyond oneself to inspire and enlighten one’s life as a reader – and everyone’s life in general.

“There are significant benefits of reading for pleasure: the will to read influences the skill, increasing attainment in literacy, general knowledge, and younger readers self-confidence. It also fosters imagination and empathy.” *

Note That Moorland is running a number of courses from September onward, including presentations by Dr Wayne Tennant on Developing reading comprehension, Jon Biddle and Prof. Teresa Cremin Building communities of readers and creating a Reading for Pleasure culture, and Embedding poetry in the classroom…

Read more on Jon’s blog childrenreadingforpleasure.blogspot.com and follow him on twitter @jonnybid.

I will be picking up on what Andrew and I were doing next week. Follow on Twitter or join the mailing list for updates.

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*) See researchrichpedagogies.org

 

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