I love this dreamy painting by Perugini (although I’m yet to master reading a book where it remains open on the bit I actually want to read without holding it…). Perugini captures in oil that delicious feeling of being lost in a book. This girl is lost and she may or may not come back to herself soon to eat the fruit that sits, untouched, beside her. Who knows what’s going on around her: she doesn’t care.
I want the girls I teach to experience being truly, hopelessly, enviably lost in a book. That feeling when we just can’t put a book down and end up snatching time from elsewhere in our day to squeeze in a few more pages. That feeling when, as our eyes are glued to the page, the world around us and time slips by unnoticed. That feeling when you become so involved in a fictional world that when you finally do emerge you have a bit of a book hangover. That.
I am, however, a realist. I know that my world as a reader may seem alien to somebody not in the reading for pleasure club. This is especially true for students who can’t remember the last time they read a book let alone enjoyed it. If we want students to read for pleasure we must first make reading a habit and to do that we need to make reading regularly an expectation and a habit. Like most good habits, we need to be clear about the benefits of reading regularly (like brushing our teeth or exercising, reading IS good for us). If students build from reading as a habit to reading because they enjoy it then we have succeeded in signing up new members to the reading for pleasure club; I don’t think we’ll convince them of membership if we keep telling them how enjoyable reading is when that is likely not their experience of it.
That’s one of the reasons why we’ve set reading as homework for all of our KS3 students with the expectation that they read for 20 minutes every day. Another reason is that it requires absolutely no marking. I think we English teachers have quite enough to do without setting and marking homework (I also question the utility of lots of homework that is set and can’t abide teachers’ valuable time being spent chasing up homework and setting detentions). We’ve done away with traditional reading logs and now ask students to complete a Google Docs form (you can read more about this on my colleague Linda Evans’ guest blog here). Instead of marking, I ask teachers to track what their students are reading and have conversations with them about reading. I think it’s far more valuable for us to be having these conversations than marking traditional English homework.
The 20 minutes a day may seem arbitrary; it is based on research (Nagy & Herman, 1987):
Student A: Reads 20 minutes a day (3600 minutes in a school year and 1,800,000 words) and scores in the 90th percentile in standardised tests
Student B: Reads 5 minutes a day (900 minutes in a school year and 282,000 words) and scores in the 50th percentile in standardised tests
Student C: Reads 1 minute a day (180 minutes in a school year and 8,000 words) and scores in the 10th percentile in standardised tests
By the end of 6th grade, Student “A” will have read the equivalent of 60 whole school days. Student “B” will have read only 12 school days. Which student would you expect to have a better vocabulary? Which student would you expect to be more successful in school…and in life?
There’s something else I want for our girls too. I want them to have a rich vocabulary that will help them to understand and express sophisticated and nuanced ideas. We may hope that, through their reading, they’ll pick up great vocabulary but whilst that may be true for some students it won’t be true for all: the word rich get richer and the word poor get poorer (the Matthew effect). I want to go beyond hoping that students will pick up new vocabulary on their own to ensuring that they do. That’s why, inspired what they do at the Micahaela School and by this post by Jo Facer, we now have regular vocabulary tests.
At first, students and parents were a bit taken aback by the vocabulary lists which are unashamedly ambitious and academic. I had comments from parents that even they didn’t know all of the words that their 11 year old was being asked to learn. I had one or two complaints from parents of girls who were struggling with learning the vocabulary but we seem to have weathered the storm. My stance has always been that vocabulary empowers. The words we’re expecting students to learn will empower them to express ideas that they might otherwise be unable to do. We’ve also had a lot of positive feedback from parents who are impressed with the vocabulary their daughters are using in their work and in conversations around the dinner table (one year 7 student told her mum to stop being so belligerent…) and it has been lovely to see the vocabulary popping up in students’ writing and their analytical essays.
Following the example shared by Jo Facer, our vocabulary lists are made up of 45 words (15 adjectives, 15 verbs and 15 nouns) that we want them to master over the year. We have been testing students weekly building up from 5 specific words a week to 10 from anywhere on the list.
We test students’ understanding of the vocabulary and their spelling of it simultaneously by giving the synonym (on their lists) and, if they know the word, they have to spell it accurately e.g. What’s another word for aggressive beginning with b? To begin with it was rare for my students to get 5/5 but soon several in any given class would and we’d share effective strategies for learning vocabulary/spellings.
I share our vocabulary lists below which I put together with our set texts in mind e.g. our year 7 students might talk about the liminal existence of an itinerant worker (Of Mice and Men), our year 8s the loquacious Benedick (Much Ado) and our year 9s the candor of Carol Ann Duffy’s dramatic monolgues.
Year 7 list here.
Year 8 list here.
Year 9 list here.
KS4 list here.