Pass on the power of reading (Part Two)

This is an abridged version of a keynote speech Matt gave at the Closing the Literacy Gap Conference in June 2017. This is part two of two…read the first part here

I ended the first of this two-part blog with the question, ‘So what can we do to help the word poor become richer?’  In this blog I intend to answer that question…

One answer is to plan group work activities which provide an opportunity for the word poor to mingle with the word rich, to hear language being used by pupils of their own age and in ways that they might not otherwise encounter.

Another answer is to model higher-order reading skills because, as the literate adults in the room, we teachers use these skills unconsciously all the time so we need to make the implicit explicit. For example, we could model:

– Moving quickly through and across texts
– Locating key pieces of information.
– Following the gist of articles
– Questioning a writer’s facts or interpretation
– Linking one text with another
– Making judgments about whether one text is better than, more reliable than, or more interesting than another text

We can promote the love of reading for the sake of reading, too; encouraging our pupils to see reading as something other than a functional activity. It is the responsibility of every adult working in a school (not just teachers, and certainly not just English teachers) to show that reading because we like reading is one of the hallmarks of civilised adult life.

And another answer is to teach reading behaviours

Research tells us there are four behaviours associated with good reading comprehension:

Firstly, good readers understand the purpose of reading, and so are able to adjust their reading style accordingly. In other words, they know why they are reading and how they should read. They can skim the contents page, chapter headings, and paragraph openings to get the gist of a text and to extract key information which enables them to interpret what a text means on the basis of their prior knowledge.

Secondly, good readers understand the purpose of the text: Good readers are not only purposeful themselves, but they also understand that writers are purposeful. A writer may wish to provide very simple information (e.g. instructions for assembling a cabinet) or more complex information (e.g. a report on stem cell research). A writer may wish to persuade, inform or entertain the reader. A writer may wish to present opinions as indisputable fact. Understanding a writer’s purpose makes good readers aware of how particular literary devices are being used to influence their response.

Thirdly, good readers review their comprehension: Good readers constantly review, analyse and assess their comprehension in order to ensure there are no gaps in their understanding. They relate information in a text to their own experiences or prior knowledge, and evaluate information in order to determine whether it confirms or contradicts what they already know. This is known as schema theory. Good readers ask questions as they read and search for the answers in the text.

And finally, good readers adjust their reading strategies: Good readers are able to adjust their reading strategies, slowing their reading speed when sentences are long and complex, re-reading a section if they begin to lose meaning, and drawing inferences from surrounding text or using their letter-sound knowledge in order to help construct the meaning of unfamiliar words. Good readers can also pause to take notes which help them retain complex information.

In order to help the word poor develop these four behaviours, we can do the following…

Before reading, we can:

– Explore what pupils already know about the topic of the text.

– Relate pupils’ own experiences to the text.

– Ask pupils to make predictions about the text based on the title and any illustrations, this helps build background knowledge and increases their motivation for reading.

– Ask pupils to tell you about any other texts they’ve read on the same topic.

– Explicitly teach any new vocabulary pupils are likely to encounter, especially words which are crucial to understanding the text.

Whilst reading, we can:

– Read most of the text – particularly important parts of it – without lots of interruptions so that pupils can understand the plot and structure (following a sequence of events) and so that pupils can attune to the written style. Asking questions before and after reading the text are more effective and less intrusive than questions asked during reading.

– Signpost the new vocabulary you taught before reading.

– Pause occasionally – where appropriate – to gauge pupils’ reactions: ask for comments, questions and predictions.

– Teach pupils strategies for regaining the meaning of a text when they begin to struggle or lose interest: e.g. reread the sentence carefully, think about what might make sense; reread the sentence before and after the one you’re stuck on, look for familiar words inside or around an unfamiliar word.

– Teach pupils to monitor their understanding of the text by using post-it notes or page-markers. Post-it notes could be to used to: indicate a connection between the text and a prior experience or piece of knowledge, as well as between the text and another text; identify information which surprised them; and highlight something pupils want to ask later.

After reading, we can:

– Teach pupils how to identify the key words in a passage (the words that explain who, what, where, when, how or why).

– Teach pupils note-making – as opposed to note-taking – skills and other ways of summarising information such as graphic organisers (e.g. story maps, timelines, flow charts, plot profiles, etc.).

– Ask questions that help pupils to identify a sequence of events.

– Teach pupils to look out for cause and effect relationships.

– Ask pupils to rewrite the text in a different form: for example, from a diary to a time-line, from a set of instructions to a flow chart, from a piece of descriptive writing to a drawing.

– Teach pupils to use reference material such as a dictionary and thesaurus, a glossary and bibliography.

In 1993 Graham & Wong developed the 3H strategy for developing pupils’ comprehension. The 3 Hs in question are: Here, Hidden, and Head. Moving pupils through the three stages takes them from literal to deductive questions.

‘Here’ questions are literal questions, the answers to which are apparent in the text. For example, ‘What was the Stable Buck called in Of Mice and Men?

‘Hidden’ questions require pupils to synthesise information from different parts of a text. For example, ‘How did Curley’s Wife’s life change when she got married?’

‘Head’ questions require pupils to use their prior knowledge in order to predict or deduce. For example, ‘Do you think George ever really believed he’d own his own ranch? Why do you think that?’

So one way in which we can close the literacy gap between the rich and poor is by helping the word poor – those who don’t have bedtime stories told to them – to become richer by passing on our love of reading, and by making the implicit explicit, the invisible visible.

Here’s a short postscript…

I was invited over to Finland a couple of years ago to work with schools and colleges in their capital city, Helsinki. Six months earlier, I’d travelled to Estonia for similar reasons. Whilst I was in both countries, I was afforded the opportunity to analyse what they did in order to be ranked amongst the most literate nations on Earth…

After much analysis, I decided that there was really only one secret – and it was a secret hidden in plain sight: In Finland and indeed Estonia, children love books. And they reads lot of them. And they do so from an early age.

Indeed, the OECD survey that pitched Finland as the world’s most literate nation, did so based on what they called ‘literate behaviours’…

Responding to the survey, Diana Gerald of the BookTrust, said “the message to draw is that we have to get children reading more, and enjoying it more”.

I could have talked for many an hour at the conference about the teaching and learning strategies that help to close the literacy gap but I focused on the most important: reading books.

Reading books is a superpower.

And it’s our duty to pass it on.

I’ll give the last word to the report that accompanied that OECD survey I mention above. It said that “Societies that do not practice literate behaviour are often squalid, undernourished in mind and body, repressive of human rights and dignity, brutal and harsh”.

So – I implore you – take your superpower, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for today’s youth and tomorrow’s world.

Pass it on. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

Thank you for reading.

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