Friday, 6 June 2014

Reading as a Factor, or Reading as a Product?

We have been told for a few years now that "teaching" is a bit of an old-fashioned idea. It was a kind of custom prevalent in less civilised times, but will soon be relegated to its rightful place. It won't be eradicated but will exist beside the much more important "learning". Like many teachers, I've had the pleasure of a Whole-School Inspection. Ours, which took place last year, was of the MLL variety. That is it looked at the quality of management and teaching in the school, and also at the quality of "learning" that was going on. I have sat at a conference where a school principal asked everyone in the room to consider, then pair n' share, what we felt good learning looked like. I've attended a Learning Schools Project event where the chairman of The Teaching Council admitted that he doesn't like talking about "teachers" and how in the future, we will distance ourselves even further from this arcane idea. "Teaching" to "teaching and learning" was only the first step and in future we will refer to "learning and teaching". I think there will be a fourth step and can guess what it is.
Talking about learning is important, and the more we know about the subjective experience of learners, the more it appears we are mistaken in our belief that they hear what we think we're saying. Recategorising pupils and students as "learners" is welcome if it in recognition that their own efforts are as crucial to their achievement as the is the quality of teaching they receive. But sometimes I feel this focus on "learning" is less about student behaviour and more about a profession that is gradually assimilating public opinion that sees teachers as irrelevant and possibily obsolete.
I bring this up because I've been reminded lately of a thought I had following an inschool talk ( you know the ones) that informed us that we needed to stop thinking we knew more than the learners did, and that we had to move towards being "guides on the side", that everything now was on google anyway and that we would need to be developing twenty-first century skills. Imagine if a UFO landed outside a bingo hall and that was the aliens' first experience of human society. Well this was our first experience of EduSpeak Bingo and we didn't even recognise it, let alone have our cards and markers ready.
 "Wow" I said after the speaker had departed, "Now I know where I'm going wrong with my Ordinary Level fifth years."  I didn't really think I was going wrong at all. My OL fifth years were a lovely group of co-operative individuals whom I taught in the library for want of a free classroom. While good-natured and diligent, self-starters they weren't and motivating and inspiring them could be a challenge. "Wow," I went on " I know now that I should just stay in the staff room. In no time at all they'd be tearing the books off the library shelves, eager to teach themselves all about poetry, and then they'd be so excited they'd start writing essays comparing the books they'd read".
Now we did use the library, and I'm a huge believer in school libraries. They are a fantastic resource and should be funded, supported and used. Every few weeks the students would take out books. We used to spend time in class reading silently, me along with them and I'd try to get a discussion going about which books they liked and which they'd recommend to the others. It was a struggle but a worthwhile struggle and I wasn't overly bothered that the first chapters of all the books were much more dog-eared than the final chapters. The library was for pleasure, and I wasn't going to dilute that pleasure with admonitions about finishing what you'd started or seeing things through to the end.
Now I learn that my school is to introduce "library classes" across the school from next September (as we teachers are fond of calling the third week of August).  We are not alone in this: I know of at least two other schools in the area that are introducing, or have introduced, such classes. Students will be obliged to keep a log of their reading and it is yet to be decided if further proof of finishing the books will be required. The students will be supervised during this time in the library by a teacher. The rationalisation is that by being invited to read for pleasure during the school-day, students will become hooked on reading and will read for pleasure at home as well. The motivation for the initiative is to promote reading, to raise standards of literacy and by doing so raise academic standards because we all know the French got it right when they said "Un enfant qui lit, est un enfant qui réussit" (a child who reads is a child who succeeds).
I'm delighted with this, as it means I will no longer have to give up precious English class time down in the library. But I wonder if we might have  a bigger impact on the literacy of our students by adding not a library class to the timetable slot - that has become available due to the withdrawal of a one-class-a-week subject from the curriculum - but a regular class. A class where they would learn about a subject, under the expert guidance of a specialist teacher in that subject. It could have meant an extra Maths class, or an extra Modern Foreign Languages class or a History or Geography class. I would love an extra English class of course, but the school is thankfully already generous in our allocation.  There was a time when schools could include study classes on the timetable; a time for students to get ahead on their homework and benefit from an extra  forty minutes of evening freedom in which to watch television, walk the dog, chat to their siblings or even read.
Study classes are now verboten, as all students must be gainfully engaged in active learning for the entire school day. So why is it okay for students to go the library and read books? It is because of the belief that reading books is an important factor in academic achievement.
Last year a colleague and I attended the first round of in-service training linked to Junior Cycle English. The facilitator was adamant that silent reading, and the promotion of "reading for pleasure", was worthwhile and should be a priority for schools.  Her rationale was that studies had shown that children who read a lot of books for pleasure are likely to achieve more academically than children who don't do much reading. She didn't have any of these studies to hand. (I have noticed that, as humanities graduates, English teachers are expected to believe anything if it's prefaced by an authoritative "research shows....".) A few present tried to argue that there all sorts of reasons that  reading and academic achievement go hand-in-hand. Their reasoning was that correlation is not causation and having lots of books at home, fewer televisions and more interested parents was likely to lead to both more reading and more learning. They got nowhere as promotion of reading as a strategy to raise literacy and facilitate achievement is now Policy. The Specification for Junior Cycle English has a specific Learning Outcome that students will "engage in sustained private reading as a pleasurable and purposeful activity".
I remained silent because I couldn't formulate my own objection. On the one hand, I believe part of the appeal of reading promotion stems from the covert realisation that the Specification for Junior Cycle English does not cater for the able student. I don't mean students on the G&T spectrum, I mean any student of even slightly above-average ability. An emphasis on private reading allows these students to make progress at their own rate as they can read books more suited to their reading age and interests in addition to the material covered in class. They can read whole books rather than excerpts, and can read long novels. (I'm not suggesting that long novels are better or harder than short ones, just that texts read in class will now be short novels only as the stipulation is to read so many).  By making the teacher responsible for the private reading for pleasure that students do at home, it appears that these students are being challenged and developed.
However, my greater objection is that my friends may have been mistaken in their insistence that "correlation is not causation". What if there actually was a causative link between reading and academic achievement? But what if that link were in the opposite direction than that supposed by the SLSS and the NCCA? What if those children were good readers because they had learnt lots of stuff, including the meaning of lots of words and how words work? How then does private reading for pleasure foster academic achievement? Might it be the other way around? As I listened to the facilitator enthuse how private reading would expand the horizons and aspirations of unmotivated students and how reading would lift children who had more electronic devices than books in their bedrooms into the realms of the "word-rich", I got a funny feeling in my stomach. Somewhere, something was missing. I had been an avid reader as a child. and as a young adult and I was able to read hard books because I knew enough words and I'd learnt enough about history and other subjects to make sense of what I was reading.
I knew from reading Doug Lemov's "Teach Like a Champion" that enthusiasm for reading as a panacea for low achievement was not universal. It was this blog-post by David Didau however, that articulated and shed light on my misgivings.
On the blog, and again in his practical book, "The Secret of Literacy",  Didau writes the following about silent reading as a school practice:
...Pupils who are good readers experience more success, which makes them want to read more. As they read more, they become even more successful at reading. their vocabulary and comprehensions grows. Hey presto! a virtuous circle. Readers who struggle with decoding or who have poor vocabularies are unlikely to want to expose these weaknesses by picking up a book. they get much less practice and the gap opens and widens. Silent reading is a lovely experience for the word-rich...For the word-poor it becomes an exercise in trying to disguise the fact that they're holding the book upside down....Silent reading looks like a good idea because it gives pupils the space and time needed to read. What it doesn't do is help poor readers become more fluent, and is therefore doomed to failure."

"Doomed to failure" seems a bit strong but is justified if the promotion of private reading is considered a device to lift literacy across the board. I have heard reading classes credited with increasing vocabulary but Didau claims elsewhere that a reader must understand at least 95% of the surrounding content to be able to infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Thus reading becomes a vehicle for the Matthew effect, whereby the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
So how far do the library classes, wherein students choose their own books and read them under the supervision of a teacher who may or not be a teacher of English enforce the Matthew effect? Let me say first of all that the wealth and poverty alluded to in the Matthew effect are not quite analogous to economic wealth and poverty. Vocabulary is not a commodity. If  a class encounter a new word and only three students learn its meaning, their learning is not tenfold what it would be were the whole class of thirty to learn it.
However, if we say that the most capable students learn the most in library class, is this at the expense of their classmates? It is at the expense of some, who would be better served having a normal class. And the learning in library class is at the expense of students who are find reading exceedingly difficult. Being given free rein in the library is an experience of confirmation that reading's too hard and not for them. It comes down to proportions and how confident we can be that a significant number of students has reached a reading level where they can benefit.
I am not against library classes, along as certain caveats be observed. One is that the teacher in charge of the class is there not just in a supervisory capacity but encourages the readers and when necessary, nudges students towards books that are hard enough to challenge or easy enough not intimidate. The other is that these classes be targeted as opportunities for Resource or Learning Support provision where appropriate. And lastly, library classes should not be a given on the timetable but should be reviewed annually and revert to normal classes if appropriate.
School management everywhere are under pressure to max out teachers' timetables before another teacher can receive as much as a minute's employment. Cuts to the pupil-teacher ratio and the abolition of allocations for most special programmes mean that principals and deputies have less and less wriggle-room. Library classes, or any class where a teacher can be deployed regardless of subject speciality, can make things slightly easier.
Do we view reading  as a factor of achievement, rather an achievement in itself? A factor that has been weighed and valued, along with background and motivation, and now it seems to be ranked above teacher instruction. I prefer to think of reading as a product. I don't mean "product" in its industrial sense, but in the sense of the eventual outcome of our endeavours. I want my students to achieve academically, I'm in favour of the retention of an exam system and I want my students to do well in their exams. I do not, however, see encouraging reading as a factor in their success. I see what they've learned in the process of studying for exams as a factor in their reading development, a development that can continue long after they have left school.
So when students go the library, as they will be doing for forty minutes every week, I don't want them to see what they're doing as an academic supplement. I'd rather they see it as a taster for the freedom they will have, after school, from the constraints of  lists of prescribed texts and enslavement to the teacher's preferences.  And I wish we'd stop telling children, and their parents, how important reading is. "Important" is taken to mean "important to learning" when really it is learning that is important to reading.
Reading, at least to my biased English teacher's mind, is important to life. And life is much, much more important than exams.