Recently, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever ‘Spinning’ class at my local gym. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Spinning is exercise for people who hate themselves. The indoor cycling phenomenon, which became trendy a few years ago, is still the calorie-burning activity of choice for those who enjoy pain and sweat-soaked, arse-cramping humiliation.
About five minutes in to the session, I thought I was either going to have to stumble out, throw up all over the bike, or cry. I looked to my left to see that one guy had already managed to escape. He looked back over his shoulder as he exited the room; I caught his eyes and, without saying a word, begged him to take me with him. But there was no chance of escape. The coach was crouched in front of me, screaming in my face, shouting at me to go faster. In that hour, I experienced new levels of pain and left feeling that Spinning should most definitely come with a warning label saying “Not for the physically and/or mentally feeble” or something like that.
Landing back on my couch an hour or so later, I limply whimpered and hugged my legs to remind them that they still existed. As I recovered, I thought about the parallels between the horror of spinning, and what it must feel like for a struggling reader every time they are asked to pick up a book.
Reading is incredibly hard work for some children. It’s so hard that they want to give up before they have even really begun- just like I felt after a few minutes of the spinning class. It was my first time, so I went in thinking that I was going to fail. For a struggling reader, merely picking up a book can bring all sorts of anxieties and fears. Some kids even give up and decide that there is little point in trying right from the off. They are afraid to give reading a chance. It’s hard, it’s arduous; frankly, it’s a task that is easier to avoid than to confront.
So what can we do to motivate reluctant readers? It’s something that teachers across the land have pondered for decades. In some schools, I have seen teachers industriously searching for texts that appeal to kids’ interests. In other schools, I have seen teachers redefine reading completely, asking pupils to use iPads rather than books (Indeed, I once visited a school where the library had been replaced entirely by Apple products- not a single book remained- a fact that the Head was most proud of; she assured me this strategy had dramatically improved reading motivation across the school.)
Like thousands of other educators, I have mulled this over for ages. I’ve picked up lots of ideas over the last few years, but here are a few that work well. None of this is revolutionary- quite the opposite!
- Get them into the right habits
We must help children to form the right reading habits. If we allow them not to read, they will never learn to do it. And if they never learn to do it, they won’t learn to love it. It’s a nasty, vicious spiral that we should endeavour to snap them out of as soon as possible. Like going to an exercise class, it will be painful at first, but if you don’t even bother going, how will you ever get fit?
Daily reading is something I have seen work excellently in Primary schools. Secondary teachers, I implore you to visit your local primary right now and see how much those kids are reading every day. For some reason, not all Secondary schools keep this up. Often, we just give them a library card, tell them to go and find something they like, and then leave them to it. NEWSFLASH: this is not enough.
I’m not advocating a military regime where we chain them to a desk and force them to read, but is it wrong to insist that pupils read every single day for an extended period of time? Yes, this will mean that you have to make space for it in the timetable. Yes, it will mean that you might not be able to use tutor time for endless announcements and pupil voice surveys. But it will make a difference- trust me.
Of course, for the most reluctant readers, silent reading time can simply be an opportunity to stare out the window. To avoid this, use these chunks of time to run small group reading sessions with the weakest readers. If a teaching assistant can cover the rest of class whilst they are reading in silence, the teacher can take out the few who need the most support and read with them.
Daily reading practice is vital for habit change and motivation. If every Secondary Head teacher in the country could prioritise this, we’d be a lot further along in solving the problems of literacy in the UK.
- Help them to experience success
Believe it or not, I did in fact survive my first Spinning session. As somewhat of a glutton for punishment, I have since been back a few times, not just because I enjoy public humiliation, but because I really want to get better at Spinning. (Currently, my aim in life is to go once a week and not die.) Surviving my first session made me realise that I absolutely can do it if I keep going. If I throw in the towel, I’ll never get there. But the taste of success has persuaded me to keep trying.
The same is true of struggling readers. They must feel that they are learning and improving every time they pick up a book. First, ensure that they are on the right reading programme (more information on this here). This will enable them to succeed and feel that they are making progress. Secondly, help them to track their progress. Visual trackers and displays make success more visceral and appealing for struggling readers. A simple star chart will suffice. Again, I’m not advocating anything revolutionary here.
- Increase the challenge
By far the most frightening moment in Spinning was when the coach came over and increased the level of resistance on my bike. At that point, I thought I was about to leave this mortal coil for good. But then I looked around the room and noticed that he was only increasing the resistance for the people who looked like they were dying the least. It gave me such a confidence boost (‘Check me out! I’m winning at this! I’m ready to go up a level! I am awesome! I’m winning at life! I love Spinning!’), that I felt so motivated to keep going.
I thought about this whilst I was recovering later on. Maybe it was the dopamine talking, but an increased level of challenge really gave me a buzz. It stopped me from feeling like a complete failure and made me realise that I was totally capable of doing it. There was nothing physically preventing me from carrying on- as per usual, my stubborn head had been the only thing getting in my way.
I’ve applied this to our reading motivation strategy at Michaela. I’ve seen struggling readers patronised with graphic novels, magazines, comics and all sorts of nonsense in the past. It’s an approach that aligns well with that old adage “It matters not what they read, as long as they read something” – a line that I wholeheartedly disagree with. If you only ever eat KFC, you won’t be very healthy; if you only read picture books, you won’t get better at reading.
We have an after-school reading club at Michaela. The 15 weakest readers come every day after school and we read great books together. At the moment, we are chomping our way through the Classic Starts series: so far, they have devoured Frankenstein, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Sherlock Holmes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roman Myths and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They absolutely loved reading them. This is partly because they are great stories with brilliant characters, but it is also a consequence of increased levels of challenge. We don’t patronise them with nonsense that intends to appeal to their interests; we want to expand their horizons, not limit them. It has given them an enormous sense of achievement to sit and read all of these books, to understand them and have an opinion of them.
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that weak readers should read more challenging books, but the paradox of reading is that we must be challenged in order to improve.