On Teaching Reading.

07 Jan 2021


“There will always be another book to read, or guiltily to reread. And that is a joy for all of us.” Stig Abell ‘Things I learned on the 6.28.’

One book. That, dear reader, was the sum total of my Christmas gift stash. One book. My status as a mid-thirties male, however, was firmly entrenched: legions of socks; more ties than I could possibly dream of; not so subtle attempts to steer my fashion sense to something befitting of my age; an alarming supply of anti-wrinkle face cream (I should never have shared the anecdote about that eleven year old who loudly interrupted a lesson: “you are so wrinkled, Mr Thom!”)

When I raised this festive book drought with my wife, she suggested that there might have been a collective agreement that I spend too much time with books – perhaps to the detriment of other things in my life. Cue predictable reference to the “to-do-list,” that is yellowing and frayed on our fridge door.

Unfortunately for my anti-reading conspirers, that lone, solitary book turned out to be rather magnificent. Stig Abell’s ‘Things I Learned on the 6.28,’ has a very simple premise: a diary of a year of reading books across genres and time periods on Abell’s train journey to and from work. The fact that Abell was, at the time, the editor and publisher of The Times Literary Supplement, gives his reflections on literature an added weight. He is a superb writer and I am a big fan of his column in ‘The Sunday Times’, regularly copying it and using it in lessons. How my mother-in-law knew this I will never know (the irony of my mother-in-law being the sole book purchaser is not lost on me). I recently used an excellent piece he had written on altruism with my class as a comprehension piece.

He is a wonderful reading companion, brimming with passion, humour and knowledge about literature. It is a book that makes you want to read more, learn more, understand more about yourself and the world.

With my English teacher hat on, I was reflecting all the way through it about what lessons it might teach me about how to transmit some of that excitement and vibrancy about reading to my own students. That noble intention is, surely, towards the top of our hierarchy of English teacher essentials – and one that I never feel I am doing well enough. Here are five areas, as a tentative start:

Talk about what we are reading. Excuse the simplicity, but I think this is particularly important. Abell’s book is like a secret window into a journey through books. As English teachers, that reading window should always remain firmly open with our students. How often do we rant and rave about something we are reading with young people, or go on epic tangential loops about wonderful writing, photocopy brilliant extracts and spend half a lesson discussing it?

When I cast my mind back to my own Higher English adventures in 2001, I remember very clearly my English teacher, who happened to be my father (making the book Christmas crisis even more alarming), using the opening of Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’. There was no real reason for it, other than to allow us to luxuriate in the power of a brilliant opening to a novel. I don’t think we can underestimate as English teachers just how transferable our own interest and passion in the written word is for young people. Rave, rant, endlessly talk about the books we love.

In Daniel T Willingham’s ‘The Reading Mind’ there is an interesting chapter on ‘Becoming a Reader’. He highlights how “seeing yourself as a reader helps bolster positive reading attitudes… If “reader” is part of your self-concept, reading will occur to you as a viable activity more often.” The messaging of this is important in our lessons: just how often do we refer to our young people as “readers”. How often do we create a shared, collective sense of us all as readers? Role modelling the richness that is involved in being a reader – what we learn, the enjoyment we take from it – is surely a positive starting point in helping them to see themselves as readers.

My favourite quotation about reading is from Kafka – “a book must be the axe which smashes the frozen sea within us.” It reminds me to always remind young people about the powerful impact that words and writing can have on us – and to help them to find the book that can be their own axe.

Delve into the contextual worlds. Abell’s book is full of stories about the texts he is reading, often about the life of the writer themselves. These stories are always deeply interesting, and have reminded me about how badly I have approached this aspect of teaching reading in the past. I have set mind-numbing boring tasks like find ten facts about Arthur Miller for homework.

Abell’s gift with storytelling illuminates just how reductive this approach is. Tell the stories of writers, continue to tell them all the way through the text they are studying, remind them they are dealing with a living, breathing human being who is poring their soul into art for them. Take Abell’s effusive discussion of Blake’s life as a case in point – does this not make you want to delve into his poetry?

“Two days later, and I have fallen immediately, belatedly, predictably, somewhat boringly in love with Byron. He was the archetype of his age – the dark and handsome man of action and intelligence – but curiously ahead of it too. Facts about his life endlessly fascinate me…”

It certainly has more of a ring to it than research ten facts about Blake for homework…

Read out loud. I have a wee boy, who will turn three in a few months. Like many parents over the festive period, I was searching for inspiration. I decided that our spare room should be transformed into a bear-library, with all his books and run by bear members of staff (obviously). He is the youngest of eleven cousins, so as you can imagine we are lucky enough to be the recipients of lots of second hand books and clothes.

My wife clearly felt I had been tipped over the edge as I spent a good few hours feverishly setting up the library. In the morning, bearly (sorry – allow me one) able to contain my excitement, I threw him in the room to use his bear trolly and bear library card to chose a pile of books.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news (ok, allow me two), but after an initial mili-second of “engagement”, he was much more focussed on sitting down and reading the books he had chosen with immense speed. He tossed the bears aside and we read lots of books. Indeed, the only bear that he was remotely interested in was in Michael Rosen’s wonderful ‘We’re going on a bear hunt.’

My wasted hours of painstaking bear and book arranging, seemed to me to be a metaphor for much of my teaching of reading – far too much fluff and far too much distraction from the main event itself. Instead the wee chap loved the listening, the expression, the variation of tone, all the wonderful things that make up good reading out loud. I will happily confess to be remarkably boring in most walks of my life, but I don’t hold back when it comes to going for it when reading out loud.

When I think of my classroom, this seems to be true: young people love being read to. They pretend they don’t, but their faces as we lose all inhibition and really go for a piece of reading tell us the real story. The key is in losing that inhibition, reading with the passion and excitement we feel about the text. It takes practise, and a degree of confidence, but like all aspects of teaching, it is a performance we can lose ourselves in.

Words. Abell writes frequently in the book about the origins of words, and their fascinating backgrounds: “I constantly – much to their eye-rolling consternation – tell my children about the etymology of words… Understanding why a word became a word is one of the great puzzle solutions of life.”

The eye-rolling is true of teenagers in the classroom. Yet it always sparks genuine interest: they like to know where they come from, how they can connect them with others, how they can use them masterfully in a sentence. It gives them something tangible to hold on to, in the slippery mystery that is often our subject.

One of my better homework tasks is asking young people to use a new word we have unpicked in a lesson in some original context that evening at home, and to report back the next day about how that process went. “My goodness, the peas are ubiquitous on this plate!” – has been a particular favourite so far.

As Alex Quigley notes in ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, there is so much more potential that this exploration of words can open up in our schools:

“Too often, though, or focus on vocabulary in schools is shallow. We share a glossary here, attempt to explain a word there, offer up a quiz question or two. Habitually then, we fail to plump the rich depths of words that can unlock essential knowledge and understanding.”

Maybe, just maybe, with some of the above strategies, next Christmas there may be legions of young people bemoaning the fact that their book supply over Christmas was rather slight. Maybe.

Reading this week: The aptly entitled ‘Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times’ edited by Neil Astley. I don’t think there are many who wouldn’t find this particular poem resonates this month:

And the Days Are Not Full Enough by Ezra Pound 

And the days are not full enough

And the nights are not full enough

And life slips by like a field mouse

Not shaking the grass.

Listening to this week: Gerry Cinnamon ‘The Belter’. In times of stress, there is no better song than ‘Where We’re Going’ – which was our first lockdown family anthem, and is likely to be the second. My wife, however, is unhappy that toddler is prone to randomly shouting out the refrain: “Where we are going, this shit don’t matter.” I have discussed the fascinating etymology of shit with him, so don’t see the issue myself.

Thank you for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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