Thursday, 19 July 2012

Reading for Pleasure Conference - first impressions

The Reading for Pleasure Conference took place today under the auspices of Booktrust, The Reading Agency and the National Literacy Trust, hosted by Pearsons at their building in the Strand.

What follows are not minutes. Just some impressionistic thoughts.

1. The conference was chaired by the Independent's political correspondent and TV presenter, Steve Richards. He was able to put his finger on the salient political point with ease, speed and accuracy. That is: both New Labour and the Tories veer between two simultaneous policies: diktat from the centre and voluntarism. So, in education this pans out that the DfE lays down highly specific instructions in certain areas of education policy and then simultaneously puts up its hands and says, 'We don't want to lay down the law', in other areas.

In the area of literacy, this is glaringly apparent, in that there are government policies on specific methods and content of initial reading (government approved Systematic Synthetic Phonics schemes (SSP), enforced through a test (the Phonics Screening Check), specific content and implied method on spelling, punctuation and grammar, enforced through a test (SPAG, so-called, at the end of Year 6).

This is in stark contrast to the matter of implementing Ofsted's highly specific recommendation in 'Moving English Forward' that schools should develop policies on reading for enjoyment throughout the school. This is voluntary.

If you then compare the difference in money between the two aspects of government policy, then it's clear that something is being said about priorities, a point well made by Steve Richards. So, SSP is backed by government subsidy amounting to many millions and still rising while the whole reading for enjoyment movement is fobbed off with no new funding at all.

But something else needs to be said. Every teacher, no matter how keen to introduce policies on reading for enjoyment runs up against the realities of the test and exam regime. For a variety of reasons, most schools in most places interpret this as a requirement or demand to train children and school students in how to pass those tests and exams. The main method for this, since tests and exams were invented is to rehearse over and over again various aspects of those tests, typified by the slogan 'skill, drill and kill.'

This method - and almost anyone reading this will have experienced it as a school student, witnessed it as a parent, or taught it as a teacher - runs in direct opposition to the methods of 'reading for enjoyment'.

What this government has done is make this opposition even greater, as a consequence of the Phonics Screening Check and the SPAG test. There is no question whatsoever that the knock-on effect of these is that they will drive 'reading for enjoyment' to one side.

And, to remind ourselves, there is no evidence that intensive systematic synthetic phonics teaching will do better at delivering children who can read for meaning than children using 'mixed methods' which include basic phonics. There is no evidence that teaching spelling with word lists improves spelling. There is no evidence that teaching grammar improves writing.

However, there is evidence that children reading for enjoyment, practising self-selecting across a wide range of books and texts  (eg from a library or home provision)does indeed improve reading for meaning, does indeed improve children's chances of benefiting from more years schooling.

In summary: the evidence-based programme of reading for enjoyment is voluntary. The non-evidence-based programme of phonics, spelling, grammar and punctuation is compulsory and backed with serious money.

2. There were some very interesting presentations on eg attitudes to reading, Bali Rai's panel of secondary school readers, a headteacher of school in Brighton who has implemented 'reading for pleasure' policies and so on.

a) the school students were extremely interesting about their reading habits but it slowly emerged that the library in the school was not really a sufficiently attractive or responsive place for them. This concerned me. It seemed to have the reputation of being 'nerdy', a place where you wouldn't really want to be seen, and the 'suggestions book' seemed to be not apparent to all of them.

b) the headteacher who presented on how he had turned his school into a reading for enjoyment school conceded that this hadn't improved writing. As he put it, he had assumed that creating this major change in the school would improve writing by 'osmosis'. He now thought that was not the case.

What follows, is not meant in any way to claim that I know why a jump in writing scores has not happened. It is just a hunch. I'm quite happy to be shot down on this.

So here's my hunch. The school placed a huge emphasis on making the reading for enjoyment linked to awards, prizes, naming of 'champions' and the like, and most of these seemed to be connected to the quantity of reading and, very little, as far as I could make out on the quality of reading.

My feeling was therefore that if you connect a reading for enjoyment programme across a whole school, connecting it to sheer volume of reading AND to rewards and awards decided by the authority of the school - no matter how kind or well-meaning - then the emphasis in the children's minds will not be on the two key aspects of reading that, I would say, would impact on writing: a) personal unravelling of meaning through silent reading b) open-ended, unrewarded, ungraded talk.

Far from being sloppy or un-rigorous, these two processes are key motors for children to absorb how continuous prose works, how most texts move between concrete and abstract, how texts next to each other invite children and all readers to make comparisons and contrasts.

Just as important is to build into reading for enjoyment are the key processes of open-ended browsing, categorising and self-selecting. To do this in school, you have to involve children very closely and systematically in choosing what books, how they should be distributed in school, borrowed.

Pretty nearly all of this should be de-coupled from reward systems which, as everyone knows work as negative reinforcement on the children who don't win them.

The reason why I've mentioned this is because the whole matter of 'reading for enjoyment' will need to be refined. That is precisely why the Ofsted recommendation could have such a profound impact, if it were implemented. That's to say, it would raise the level of debate and criticism about the different policies that people were thinking of implementing. If, on our side, we are saying that reading for enjoyment has an impact on reading for meaning AND writing, but this impact doesn't appear in some schools, then we have to be tough on ourselves and ask, why not? What aspects of the policy might not be giving the children and school students the very skills and capabilities that seem to be being achieved elsewhere?

In other words 'reading for enjoyment' is not just one method - as indeed the headteacher was excellent at pointing out - but many methods, many approaches. However, it may well be that though a method works well in getting children to read  a lot, it may be subtly blocking off the key processes that will release meaning and textual methods to the readers.