With the current focus on ensuring that pupils make gains in their learning, it’s helpful to remember the power and impact of high-quality texts for pupils of all ages.
First, let’s consider reading fast. In a small-scale trial conducted by Sussex University, twenty English departments selected two complete, challenging novels to be read at speed with Year 8 classes. For twelve weeks, the English lessons consisted of reading these novels aloud and at a fast pace. When the pupils’ reading scores were assessed at the end of the programme, the whole cohort had increased by 8.5 months, while the weaker readers had increased by 16 months. The study found that: ‘’Simply reading challenging, complex novels aloud and at a fast pace in each lesson repositioned ‘poorer readers’ as ’good’ readers, giving them a more engaged uninterrupted reading experience over a sustained period.’’
One of the reasons for the improvement for all pupils in the trial and weaker readers in particular, is that all pupils, regardless of their starting points were motivated to read more. This means that over time weaker readers will encounter a much wider vocabulary than if they were given ‘simpler’ texts, and this in turn makes them more skilled readers. It creates a virtuous circle: when we feel successful, we are motivated to keep going. Weaker readers can miss out on this loop. This is because they are more likely to be taught through short texts and extracts or simplified versions. They are given these materials because it is often believed that they cannot cope with more demanding texts. The trial showed that many of the teachers participating, did not believe that poorer readers would be able to access the more demanding texts.
But, as the Sussex study shows (http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/70702/) they could. This is due to the fact that when weaker readers listen and follow a text read aloud by a more capable reader, who provides scaffolding, ‘’a less fluent reader can experience autonomy and fluency and bypass frustrating ‘sticking points’ at phonemic, semantic or word level to focus on comprehension.’’ (Kuhn, M. R. et al. in a 2010 article in Reading Research Quarterly.) What happens is that pupils increase their vocabulary by virtue of the fact that unfamiliar words are encountered within a text where they are getting the overall meaning.
To consider reading slow next. The purpose of this is to savour the text and to delve deeply into meaning. Why is this important? Well, it’s like taking the time to smell a flower – to drink in its sensuous beauty. It’s about taking the micro and contemplating its layers of meaning and significance before panning out to the bigger picture.
We take the time to read slowly when we want to do one of the following: consider how a writer is setting the scene; examining the choice of language for effect; creating suspense and so on. At another time, we might want to read slowly – or an English teacher might ask us to – in order to pick out the grammatical and stylistic details in the text: What effect does this fronted adverbial have? Why has the writer chosen to punctuate the prose in this way? What would be the impact if there were fewer adjectives? What is the meaning of this word? What are similar words? Why do we think this one was selected by the author? When we are reading slowly, it is important that we still keep a momentum. Reading slowly should not devolve into a dreary, monotonous, monotone. Instead, it should be done in the spirt of care and curiosity.
In order to maintain the overall sense of the text we are reading slowly (i.e., more carefully), it is important that it is actually read aloud first of all without such in-depth commentary. Just letting the words wash over us. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, slow reading should be undertaken in a spirit of uncovering insights without losing the thread of the larger narrative. And the second is that the passage acts as setting background. One way of thinking about this is Walt Disney’s storyboarding. Disney invented the storyboard to give an overview of a film, with individual scenes laid out for discussion and refining. In our reading example, the reading of the passage once through at least is the equivalent of the view of the overall storyboard. It acts as a scoping, contextualising anchor. And once we have a sense of that we can go into the detail. This means that the reading aloud first of all cannot be skipped. And it might be necessary to read it more than once if that is what pupils need.
We want our pupils to be exposed to lots of ideas and when we show them how to do this, we can support them to make greater connections, and this in turn helps them to know more. One of the underlining principles is that we are wired for curiosity, we are wired to finding things out. When we are shown how to do this, there is a great sense of achievement. And as the faster reader trial shows, experiencing success early on is a powerful motivator.