Emma is an English teacher and Evidence Lead in Education at Manchester Communication Research School. She is author of the book Speedy Reading: Fast Strategies for Teaching GCSE English Literature Post Lock-down
Teachers are not supposed to voice their political opinions, yet we’re constantly engaged with that most political of acts – reading. Political enfranchisement developed alongside literacy; making reading illegal has been a means of keeping subjugated groups ‘in their place.’.
So if you teach any text at all, then you are in effect teaching protest – texts explore, illumine or criticise the status quo. All text is a political statement: sometimes simply by existing; others times simply by being read, regardless of content. That cosy, quiet activity that your students often reluctantly engage in is one of the most potentially seditious acts they can (legally!) be part of. So why don’t our students know this?
At first, I was going to write this blog on the importance of reading and some cross-curricular strategies, but really, that’s not the problem. Indeed, we have robust and reliable guidance from the EEF (Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools) on this already. I don’t doubt that reading instruction is improving in schools, but I doubt if students really understand why reading is at the forefront of their education. When I ask students why we’re spending so much time on reading the answers are mostly, ‘To pass the exam’ or ‘To get a job.’ We need to look at something harder to research and rectify: the image of reading that schools have been projecting. We’ve billed reading as The Carpenters when we should have been proclaiming it as The Sex Pistols!
If your students don’t want to read, and don’t want to read well, they need to know that what they’re really saying is that they never, ever want to either test, protest, ingest or manifest any idea at all! They are slamming shut a door that successive governments have only nudged ajar for them as it is. Reading proficiency is going to boot the damn thing open!
But what to do with ‘dangerous’ text? Often, we lie it down ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’ and make it safe, controllable. Peps McCrea’s Learning: What it Is and How We Might catalyse It says students ‘attend best to what they value.’ If we only say text should be valued because we can dredge it for basic information or so that we can fillet it into adjectives and metaphors, then there’s absolutely no reason why they should care about it. Frankly, it’s hard to get teachers to promote literacy too if we think this is what makes it valuable.
If we want students to take ownership of their literacy and meaningfully apply the strategies we teach, then they need to know that text is radical. In my book Speedy Reading: Fast Strategies for Teaching GCSE English Literature Post Lock-down, I begin with a chapter entitled Reading is Rebellion. Students shouldn’t arrive at this epiphany in KS4 but should be primed all the way through school in the power of text. But how?
A very simple way of illustrating the importance of reading is to teach the history of outlawing literacy. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography worked really well with Y7 – they simply couldn’t imagine being punished for reading as many had had the opposite experience! But we can also be brave and make students aware of the Chatterley trial, the ban on Letters from Burma, the resurgent satanic panics in the US around J.K Rowling, Not Without My daughter, The God Delusion, Married Love, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and the self-censorship of writers like Stephen King who allowed one of his own books to go out of print: King’s Rage scared and worried even its own author! Why are we putting reading into woolly socks and a knitted cardigan? Books are hard-edged inside and out. Let’s make that clear to students.
Reading is a thought process, so by increasing reading we increase thought. A student might eventually represent an idea in paint or music rather than print, but the ideas will have arrived through language. Reading is thought and thought is exciting. Therefore, I’m not keen on the idea of cosy and calming reads. There are many books that I will not read in bed because it would be like inviting a tiger to prowl around my head all night! Bedtime stories have their place, but for most students, reading at the end to ‘relax’ or at the start to ‘calm’ is, from their point of view, ‘middle aged’, and something that happens at them. How many times have students shouted out about the text whilst ‘having a quiet read’ and then been told to stay silent? We’ve just advised them to not care. No wonder some students find reading tiresome.
I also take exception to some schools’ ethos that students should ‘love’ reading. They should love certain texts yes, and simply feel the author is a friend. But we also need authors as edgy and slightly intimidating older brothers and sisters. I love Terry Pratchett; I’d holiday on the Discworld, but I dread George Orwell; and yet both writers are my heroes. I understand the appeal of World Book Day, but it’s really making cute an act that should be acute. Isn’t it better if students value reading as a potentially transformative act, not as a hug in a dust jacket? I probably read more during lockdown than possibly any other time than being a student, and most of what I read was troubling at best, outrageous at worst. I love that I can read, I often loathe what I do read.
I’m not saying explicit readings strategies are unnecessary (indeed I spend most of the book outlining them) but they’re facile if students only apply these to ‘neutered’ texts; even worse, if they only apply them in school. Approximately, a sixth of England’s population can’t read, yet almost two thirds voted. This tells me, we want to be politicised – our students are not naturally uninterested in ideas – but perhaps we’re often the cause of their apathy.
If we want to increase literacy, we must increase literacy’s worth. We can achieve this by:
1/ Discussing the ‘taboo’ parts of texts first. I’m not just talking English teachers diving into Macbeth’s porter scene but all subjects have their ‘no go’ areas. Go there!
2/ You can be coy; the text shouldn’t be. Say, ‘I’m not sure if you’re ready for this…’ ‘I once got complaints because of this reading…’ This builds a buzz.
3/ Make clear the text is not the author – problematic writers (or indeed any thinkers) can still articulate valuable ideas. Draw attention to these paradoxes. Writers can be amazingly perceptive and empathetic about one topic, whilst being ignorant and short-sighted in another. After all, text and ideas remain but the author doesn’t. Again, this makes text thrilling! Essentially, centuries old messages are made present in our classrooms. Text is a time machine.
4/ Be humble – the text itself is always a greater teacher than me. The text should ‘talk’ more; I should talk less. I can orientate my students and help them navigate the piece, but the ideas are not mine. I regularly tell my students that texts are the best teachers…
5/ As much as the text is the teacher, we’re not going to venerate it. The text is a series of thoughts, a process of ideas, not a definitive, finished product. We should respect that the ideas have been expressed, but ultimately be able to reject them.
6/ At the same time, don’t make value judgements on students’ personal reading choices. I’ve seen teachers actually sneer at students reading ‘Dork’s Diary.’ Let’s be honest: many of us are probably going home and watching Love Island not La Boheme, so we have no right to make students feel guilty about reading for pleasure, and pleasure is personal. If we keep showing them the ‘dangerous’ texts, then this is no consequence.
7/ An obvious one, but appear excited. It’s great if your students walk in as you’re reading and it seems as if you don’t want to put it down. It can work really well to begin reading immediately. ‘Hi everyone, quick, sit down, I really have to share this with you.’
All teachers need students to read better; society needs students to read better, and it really begins with a new image for reading.
So I’m off now to stick safety pins through a copy of Crime and Punishment…