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Readicide – schools and reading

Kelly Gallagher’s 2009 book Readicide is subtitled How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it.

This gives a very clear indication of the book’s thesis. In an effort to improve educational outcomes, education authorities across the US have increased their emphasis on testing, often using multiple choice tests, and this has had a negative impact on the amount of time teachers are able to spend on reading with children in class. In turn, this has had a negative impact on the amount of reading that young people do and on their reading ability. Gallagher’s claim is that reading is dying in American schools and, worse yet, that schools are playing an active, though unwitting, part in this process. The major features of this killing spree are cutting up texts into small chunks, obliterating the text with sticky notes, moving away from the book repeatedly to focus on a worksheet and adding yet more sticky notes.

This may be a recognisable trend in some schools and it is certainly worth being reminded of the dangers of such an approach. While there is statistical evidence to suggest that reading by some children and young people is declining, I don’t think it is helpful to blame this to any large degree on English teachers when there are so many external factors and pressures in modern life, beyond the control of schools, which discourage young people from reading for pleasure. Indeed, elements of this debate seem to have been around for as long as I have been connected with the profession, now worryingly close to 30 years. I can recall, though having moved recently, no longer find, a brilliant paper written by my first head of English, Victor Adereth when we were both at Langdon Park School in Tower Hamlets. He’d been at a meeting about assessment back in the very early days of increased accountability. His point then was that weighing a pig did not, in itself, contribute to its size increasing, though he made his point with much greater wit and originality than I suggest. Gallagher’s book makes it clear that in many US educational authorities this lesson has never been heeded and that the situation has become much worse, with misguided assessment processes skewing teaching in a range of negative ways. Teachers in England will be all too familiar with this sorry state of affairs.

Gallagher makes it clear that English teachers have been forced into this situation. We are responsible for the results of our students and it is a very brave teacher who does not resort to some of the reductive techniques described here to try to maximise their chances of passing their examinations. We all want to spend our working lives developing in our students a lifelong love of reading for pleasure but, as we are not measured or graded against this noble aim, it is very difficult to justify the time and effort required to achieve it. It becomes all too easy to accept the agenda imposed on us by the assessment regime, as the negative impact of this – less active readers with decreased general knowledge, less interest in civic affairs, less ability to communicate effectively and to empathise with others etc. etc. – is so much less immediate than the hysteria that often accompanies poor GCSE results.

So, what can be done to remedy this situation? Gallagher concludes with a section headed Finding our Courage in which he proposes how “we can find our way again”.

After a brief but now seemingly compulsory paean of praise for how these things are done in Finland (basically, very little testing), Gallagher provides a list of things that teachers must do to develop recreational and academic readers. He calls this the 50:50 Approach, with equal degrees of emphasis being given to each of these two forms of reading. The list is a useful one and includes many reminders of key ideas that are all too often lost sight of in the busy life of schools, such as the need for teachers to model reading by being active readers themselves. The Rooted in Reading Teacher’s Passport would be one way of making this palpable within schools and you can read more on this here. He also emphasises the need to introduce students, who may not have discovered it for themselves, to the pleasures of reading FLOW, a little researched issue that I have written briefly about here. With academic reading, Gallagher says that teachers must “demand that students continue to read books that may be a shade too hard for them. This is why the teacher is in the room.” Echoing an earlier section on To Kill a Mockingbird where he decries the approach of the 155 page Los Angeles Education Department scheme of work on this novel, which, through meticulous analysis serves to both obscure the central concern of the book – issues of race – and turn readers away from reading by making it a disjointed experience of little relevance to the world, Gallagher encourages teachers to “surround academic text with high-interest, authentic real-world reading” and to “design lessons that help students transfer the kind of thinking they are doing in the book to the kind of thinking we want them to exhibit in the real world. Help them uncover the real value found in the book.” While some might bridle at the heading “teachers must…” I think this list of, let’s call them suggestions, would make an interesting basis for a staff discussion about reading policy, perhaps in conjunction with the more general ideas in the 15 principles underlying Rooted in Reading which you can find here.

The book concludes with a couple of appendices. Appendix A is 101 Books My Reluctant Readers Love to Read which is interesting both for its oxymoronic title and because the 2 line synopses of some familiar and some unfamiliar titles could be just enough to hook some readers. Appendices B and C provide some brief structures for encouraging students to reflect on their reading, very similar in approach to the pages of the various Rooted in Reading passports, more information about which can be found on the NATE website if you want to save yourself a lot of effort.

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