Research School Network: The long and winding road: taking our pupils on a reading journey One school’s story of developing a culture of reading, one step at a time.

The long and winding road: taking our pupils on a reading journey

One school’s story of developing a culture of reading, one step at a time.

The old adage tells us that a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step’. Developing this idea, the first step to a lifetime of reading for purpose and for pleasure starts during our time at school.

Our school sits in an area of high disadvantage, with eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in England right on our doorstep. Through conversations with pupils, parents, and between staff, we recognised that our pupils simply didn’t read enough, and needed support in taking steps along their reading journey. For a variety of reasons, many pupils had limited engagement with reading outside of school, but it alarmed us to realise that – outside of English lessons – their in-school experience wasn’t much better. While changing reading habits at home is challenging, we decided to focus on what was within our gift – to change the reading experience pupils had while in the school building.

We decided to focus on two key areas:

  • developing a culture of reading through the introduction of a literary canon’
  • developing disciplinary reading across the school

Developing our literary canon’

Our first step to walking our pupils’ on their literacy journey was our literary canon’.

Implemented over two years, the canon consists of six books per year group which pupils read with their form tutor. These books were chosen carefully to expose pupils to texts they might not otherwise read – including 19th Century fiction, works from other cultures, and non-fiction texts.

The introduction of the canon was accompanied by a professional development programme for the form tutors involved in reading the texts. During this, we modelled and rehearsed our approaches and introduced reading strategies which would ensure engagement with the texts – these include teachers reading out loud and modelling what great reading sounds like, peer reading, and pupils reading out loud to the rest of their class. Crucially, the books were accompanied by extensive teacher resources, including key talking point and historical themes which would assist them in exploring the text.

Screenshot 2024 01 18 at 13 50 33
Teacher resources accompanying the Year 10 text: 'Letters of Note'

Developing disciplinary reading

Evidence suggests that all teachers in a secondary school should be supported to understand how to teach students to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects. So rather than implement generic, school-wide approaches to reading in the classroom, we took a longer-term and more bespoke approach – recognising that literacy in one subject area is not necessarily the same as literacy in another.

For example:

  • English requires students to read and write full sentences, whereas in Science these might not be as useful
  • in Art, students need to be taught how to annotate their drawings using detailed, specialised vocabulary in note form
  • in Maths, the unique language of algebra needs explicit instruction and how to read aloud mathematical symbols and expressions needs careful development

Implementation was deliberately slow, with time provided to subject leads to work alongside their teams in carefully identifying the literacy challenges faced by pupils in their subjects and collaboratively developing approaches to tackle these. For example, we considered the types of text encountered in different subjects (including text books, journals, sources, worksheets, slideshows), subject-specific vocabulary, grammar and sentence structures, and syntactic conventions (how words and phrases are organised into sentences).

This led to clearly-defined reading priorities across subject areas and – crucially – everyone could see the benefit of the work in their classrooms, avoiding some of the shoehorning of irrelevant literacy activities that were the unintended consequence of some previous attemps at whole-school literacy development.

The long and winding road

It is now a number of years since we took our first tentative steps on our reading journey, and I’m pleased to say that pupils are walking alongside us. Externslly validated standardised assessments show our pupils reading has improved from below national average to above national average across all year groups. The work is never done, but we are delighted with the progress made and are excited to see where our journey takes us next…

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