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Whole School Tutor 'Read Aloud' Programme – one of my proudest accomplishments.

Reading for benefit.                                                      

‘A word
after a word
after a word
is power.’         

(Margaret Atwood)

I have been meaning to write this blog for most of the summer but kept procrastinating – spending time with family, pottering, shopping, holidaying, chilling, cleaning and many other activities kept getting in the way (as they should in the holidays!)  However, as I make the transition from my school of the previous nine years to a new school and professional adventure I felt I wanted to get it down – call it a vanity project if you will!

One of my achievements at my last (amazing) school that I am most proud of is setting up and implementing a tutor ‘read aloud’ programme and this is the tale of why.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” (George. R. R. Martin)

A romanticised and somewhat clichéd soundbite perhaps but nonetheless true.

A few home truths to get out of the way:

1.        Reading is one of the strongest indicators of future earnings.  Reading enjoyment has been reported as more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status (OECD, 2002 - Research evidence on reading for pleasure - Education standards research team) Therefore, ‘if you don't have that word wealth then you never make it.  You never succeed in school and you don't have a voice beyond that.’  (Alex Quigley - Closing The Vocabulary Gap)
2.     Teenagers often don’t read.  Children and young people’s reading engagement has steadily fallen over the past four years and only 30.8% of children said they read daily. (Children and young people's reading in 2017/18 – Literacy Trust)
3.     We are exposed to the majority of new vocabulary through reading , not speaking. The Oxford English Dictionary estimates there are about 171,146 words in current use.   Our ‘Basic Lexicon’ consists of about 5000 which we use in every day conversation. According to Jim Trelease (The Read Aloud Handbook) about 83% of our conversational language with children comes from the Basic Lexicon of Tier 1 vocabuary.  If we want pupils to be exposed to more Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary then (as well as explicitly teaching it) we need them to read.
4.     We read to learn – in all subjects.  English is the language of our subjects.  For pupils to be able to progress as learners throughout their lives they need to be able to read to learn – and increasingly complex texts.  As teachers, we are expert readers.  We have studied at university level and that demanded independent reading to learn.  Pupils are novice readers.  No matter what their current reading level we have a responsibility to help them progress.
5.     Reading impacts on writing.  We can’t write beautiful prose if we don’t know what it looks like.  We can’t express in writing ideas that we don’t know about.  The best writers read.  Successful reading relies upon our ability to track complex syntax and decipher meaning and knowledge held within words.
6.     We benefit from expert modelling.  ‘One of the biggest benefits of reading aloud is that students are exposed to and come to know what the artful syntax in beautiful sentences – varied, rich ornate sentences – sounds like.’ (Doug Lemov, Reading Reconsidered.)  Children as old as 15 or more benefit from being read to but as parents we tend to stop once our children become independent readers.  Reading aloud is an opportunity to model more complex and advanced texts that pupils might not otherwise read.

So back in 2016 I temporarily took on a Year 9 form whose tutor was on long term absence.  They had had varied cover tutors in Year 8 and routines were few, despite a programme of activities.  One such activity was silent reading which was supposed to happen once a week.  The usual process: pupils bring in their own individual reading books and read silently for the 15 minutes.

As I tried to implement this, much to the disgust of some pupils who really didn’t want to read, I found my relationship with the form was increasingly challenged.  Pupils either didn’t bring books, or simply read their class text set as English homework or stared into space and did not engage – very few actually read.  It turned out this wasn’t unusual.  Pupils who didn’t have books would run to the ‘library’ (I use the term lightly) and ‘borrow’ a book they grabbed haphazardly from the shelf. One perfectly capable girl once came back with a Biff and Chip book – clearly as a signal that she was not interested in participating properly.  At the end of the year the TAs informed me that we had lost about 140 books from the library that year in part because of pupils being sent by tutors to ‘borrow’ books. A further impact was that these pupils interrupted any intervention work that was taking place at the time.

It seemed to me that something needed to change; this was a symptom of the fact that reading simply wasn’t valued in the school – beyond the English department.  A few years previously our library had been dismantled (budget cuts) and we no longer had a librarian. The texts that remained had been salvaged by dedicated TAs (who promoted reading among the pupils they worked with) and a disgruntled English department and they amounted to a wall of books.  We were a high performing school who valued academic ethos, yet we didn’t have a library – it seemed a jarring juxtaposition to me.

Around this time I was given responsibility for whole school literacy and part of this was to set up and oversee the Accelerated Reader programme which was in the final year of its licence.  Purchased a few years earlier, it had never been fully implemented and yet we were considering investing in another licence.  The librarian had labelled up all the books before her departure and various SLT members had taken responsibility for it, but it had never been established: hardly surprising without a library.  I trialled it with a small group of pupils in Year 7 with the help of our amazing and supportive TAs.  Although I could see the potential, I didn’t see it working successfully in our school context or being worth the cost of a new licence (which would have only been for Year 7.)  The cost versus impact didn’t balance.

Concurrently, I had heard Katie Ashford speak about the tutor reading in place at Michaela School and had enjoyed reading both her and Jo Facer’s blogs on the subject.  Reading Reconsidered was a seminal text for me in terms of developing my rationale around reading and I put together an evidence based proposal for a new literacy and reading approach – a ‘tutor read aloud scheme.’  

So how does it work?

  1. I took ownership of any class sets of texts in the English stock cupboard that were gathering dust as we no longer taught them since overhauling our KS3 curriculum (books like Holes, Private Peaceful, etc.)  With a small budget, I had been given in lieu of the Accelerated Reader licence, I bought class sets of more challenging texts that we wanted our pupils to be exposed to.
  2. I organised books into year groups.  (Form groups read different books as we have a varied selection due to budget.) Each child has a book and is expected to follow along.
  3. I introduced it to tutors and colleagues during initial September CPD and created clear guidelines and posters for each form room.
  4. We launched it from September 2017 in KS3, but after Christmas we launched it with Yr10 also.  Yr. 11 we left as independent study/reading.
  5. Tutor groups read twice a week according to a planned schedule – ideally it would have been for more sessions if time had been available.  This meant valuable lesson time was uninterrupted.
  6. SLT, myself and certain other colleagues from all positions (teaching, admin, TAs) go into forms as ‘guest readers’ on a planned schedule so that each group hears other voices at least twice a term and tutors are supported.  Reading is now seen to be valued at all levels, contributing to an academic ethos.

We have now been running this system for two years.  I have reviewed and refined along the way, taking feedback from tutors and pupils. Some books have been moved to different year groups, some have been removed as they were too long, new books have been added.

Overall it has been a resounding success.  At first certain teachers were wary and frankly nervous about reading aloud to their class – something I found surprising.  I clearly underestimated how little reading takes place within lessons and I have since promoted this in CPD.  However, we are professional, degree educated people who teach in the English language and who meet teacher standards.  Tutors are not being asked to teach English or literature; they are simply being asked to read.  As such, although I understand the hesitation if one is unsure, I feel passionately that we have a responsibility to model reading for our pupils.  In this we act in loco parentis; there are pupils in our classes who do not read and are not read to.  One girl in that Year 9 form told her returning tutor, at the start of Year 10, that she had never been read to at home.  This was one of the factors influencing our decision to extend tutor reading into Year 10 after Christmas. Simply heartbreaking. 

Tutors who were initially reluctant have changed their minds.  Feedback has been extremely positive with people appreciating the calm and relaxed start to the morning before sending pupils off to lessons. Discussions about the books enable tutors to get to know their pupils and their preferences.  We can't always please everybody with the choice of book but children learn to see that people have different likes and dislikes and we can’t all be the same. If they dislike a book they can at least give an informed reason why and can compare it to others they have read.

The groups that have had the most success and have therefore got through the most texts are clearly organised with routines in place.  Form captains hand out books before the tutor arrives on the designated days. The valuable 15 minutes are used efficiently.  Pupils read along and are focused as they know the expectations.  

Over the last two years one form in Year 10 have now read The Metamorphosis, The Catcher in the Rye, a section of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Lord of the Flies, The Turn of the Screw.  Another in Year 10 have read The Old Man & the Sea, The Metamorphosis, The Catcher in the Rye, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One Year 8 form has read Private Peaceful, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, The Pearl and The Giver.  It is a varied selection and there are many other books.

There has been occasional dissent from some of the loudest pupils in the odd form but, with routines in place and support from SLT, these are usually quelled.  It may seem harsh, but they are not the pupils I feel strongly about here.  They benefit as much as the others and many perhaps need it more as they are pupils who profess not to read independently.  

However, for every voice of dissent there are many more in the silent majority who when asked in pupil voice, or when speaking to their tutor or English teacher separately, say how much they relish the quiet and the chance to read calmly.  It is on behalf of these quiet, introverted pupils that I am most proud of this system we now have in place.  

A selection of our books include:

Years 7 -8:  Private Peaceful, Skellig, The Giver, Rooftoppers, Holes, Refugee Boy, Mortal Engines, Treasure Island, Ruby and the Smoke, The Pearl, Noughts & Crosses,Stone Cold,  Around the World in 80 Days.
Year 9-10:  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Old Man and the Sea, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Metamorphosis, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies, I Am Malala, The Sign of Four, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Turn of the Screw, Selected Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Grahame Green’s Twenty-One Stories.

Twitter: @MissJoT


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