Two years ago for the 10th anniversary of Quick Reads, I wrote about the difference reading the type of texts Quick Reads publishes made to a group of boys I taught early in my career. I’m reposting it today in celebration of this year’s new Quick Reads title. I also have a copy of Tammy Cohen’s Quick Reads book Clean Break to give away. See below for details of how to win.
In 2004 I became Literacy Coordinator at a school in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Barnsley has consistently been one of the lowest ranked local authorities in the country for student progress. The town was decimated by the closure of the mines and has never really recovered.
The school I worked at was considered to be one of the ‘nice’ schools in the town for several reasons: results hovered around the national average; some of the pupils were lower middle class (it was near the M1 so some of those commuting to Leeds chose to live there), and the school was situated on the edge of the countryside (everyone seemed to forget that the view from the other side of the site was the M1). Despite this, we still had a significant number of students entering the school with a reading age lower than their chronological age.
Before I began the role of Literacy Coordinator, I went on a course run by the National Literacy Trust. On that course I learned about The Matthew Effect, named after the Bible verse: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29) In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer or in terms of literacy, those who enter school word rich become word richer and those who enter school word poor become word poorer. At age 7, children in the top quartile have approximately 7100 words in their vocabulary, while those in the lowest quartile have fewer than 3000. In other words, those children with fewer than 3000 words probably become one of the 1 in 6 adults who struggle with their reading.
One of the things the course advocated was establishing a ‘reading buddies’ programme. This had been successful in other schools where local volunteers had listened to pupils read. It was suggested you could use support staff or sixth formers, if your school had some.
I decided to do something different. My school had a particular issue with boys’ literacy and there was little hope, I felt, of persuading some of these Y7 (11/12-year-old) boys to come out of a lesson once a week to read with someone from the local community or any other adult. So I recruited a group of Y11 (15/16-year-old) boys for them to read with and bribed them with a day off-timetable for training and a certificate detailing the skills they’d used to put in their National Record of Achievement. Some of these boys were diligent pupils, some were ‘characters’, some were ‘trouble makers’. A significant number of them were on the borderline between achieving a D or the magical C grade in GCSE English.
On the training day, the first thing I asked them to do was to think about a time they’d struggled with learning something. I shared mine: maths. It still tortures me, repeatedly leaving me feeling stupid. The boys could share their responses if they wanted to. A few said learning to swim. Then one of the ‘trouble makers’, a broad built lad with very short hair and a stud in one ear, said ‘Learning to read. I still find it hard now.’
Some of the staff thought I was deluded: I was told that several of the Y11 boys wouldn’t turn up, they were unreliable; it was also suggested to me that the Y7 boys wouldn’t make any progress. I was young and exuberant; I ploughed on regardless.
The first week wasn’t perfect – pupils had to be collected from classrooms and it was a lively session – but the boys soon settled into a rhythm. The programme ran for twelve weeks. For the first half of the session students read a range of texts – fiction and non-fiction – that I’d selected because they were appropriate but offered enough challenge to stretch their vocabulary and understanding. In the second half, they read a book of their choice.
Several weeks in we began to notice ‘soft’ changes: the Y7 and the Y11 boys acknowledged each other around school; the Y7s I taught came to my lesson one day thrilled that their Y11 buddies had saved them places on the back of the bus; the boys were more confident in lessons; the Y11s I’d been told were unreliable turned up every week (one even arriving to work with his buddy and then skiving my lesson later in the day!), and in one memorable instance, one of the Y11 boys I taught ran from my classroom as we were discussing his coursework, returning five minutes later.
‘What was that about?’ I said.
‘They were getting at J [his Y7 buddy], I’m not having that!’
At the end of the twelve weeks, I retested the Y7 pupils. The minimum their reading age had increased by was 8 months, the maximum 3½ years. At the end of the academic year almost all of the Y11 boys who were on ‘the borderline’ achieved a C in GCSE English.
Hopefully it’s obvious I’ve told you all this to highlight the power of reading, but you already know that reading’s a great thing or you wouldn’t be here. For me, what’s really important about the anecdote is that the boys made progress because they were reading things that suited them. It’s often said that non-readers just need to find the right story, but what if the complexity of the story which might be ‘perfect’ for them makes it difficult to comprehend and ends in frustration?
This is where Quick Reads comes in: the books are short, the stories are linear, the vocabulary is straightforward, the plots are gripping and they’re written by big-name authors. Here’s this year’s titles:
The Reading Agency/Quick Reads have kindly given me a copy of Tammy Cohen’s Clean Break to give away. To be in with a chance comment below on what reading means to you. Entries are open until midnight (UK) Sunday 4th February. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.