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3 August 2020
By Zoe Enser

Breathing the Text: Advice for Supporting Struggling Readers

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reading has always been a big part of my life. My mum read to me every night, dropping off to sleep as she read the antics of the Malory Towers gang, of the 'Magic Faraway Tree' (we had a stack of second-hand Enid Blyton books) or the magical world of Cornwall and dragons in 'Green Smoke'.

My older brother with his 'Biggles' and Agatha Christie collections (again second-hand so rather eclectic) picked up the mantle as I got older and decided that I needed to be educated into the ways of Douglas Adams and John Wyndham ('The Chrysalids' was a firm favourite). We would sit for hours as he read me some of the edited highlights, deleting anything which might be too mature for my delicate ears, a tactic which would guarantee to fuel my desire to improve my reading ability so I could find out for myself which bits were being blanked out on my behalf. Fierce and stubborn, I was never a fan of censorship.

Reading was woven into the very fabric of my childhood. My parents’ own struggles with literacy meant they valued it all the more, and the relative ease of acquiring hand me down books from relatives and neighbours, coupled with weekly visits to the jumble sales, meant that we had quite a collection to pick from. Engaging with books and reading became as effortless and necessary to me as breathing.

It is little wonder then that this became one of my strongest subjects at school as I arrived with a head start, already feeling successful in relation to my peers. We know the more success a child experiences in any area, the more positive affirmation they are given and the more motivated they then become.

Understanding Reluctant Readers in the Classroom

When reflecting on the reluctant readers in my classroom it is clear to see they are not motivated in the same way. They are often the ones where the find reading difficult, although I know it is not always the case - even expert reader can feel demotivated and disengaged sometimes. However, I see those who struggle do often have limited experience of books. They have, at some point in their educational development, struggled to have acquired the reading knowledge they needed. As result they often lack fluency, having to spend time to decode, finishing the task later than their peers, unable to piece the parts into a coherent whole and are always left feeling they are playing catch up with their more capable peers.

These students will often spend longer trying to grasp the basics of a text, needing time to go back and forth and sometimes losing their place and thought process as they try to retain the main ideas in their limited working memory. Students who are stronger readers will have more of this embedded into their long-term memory, effortlessly retrieving information from their reading schemas to allow them access and reforming them in light of the new information they are receiving from the text.

Frequently the struggling readers will hit barriers with unfamiliar vocabulary and, unlike their peers who have more experience and a wider vocabulary due to their encounters with a range of texts, they are overwhelmed by a barrage of difficult words and ideas. As Alex Quigley demonstrated in is book 'Closing the Vocabulary Gap', it only takes gaps in understanding a few technical terms to remove meaning from even the most expert of readers. Expert readers will also have the tools available to them in order to deal with these kinds of obstacles and through experience, the metacognitive skills in order to move past them.

Common Mistakes when Trying to Re-engage Struggling Readers

When we consider all of this, is it any wonder that they are reluctant? Often attempts to re-engage students in reading focus on trying to find them a text which would be high interest for them. They like football or music, let's give them a text all about this. For some this hook of course can be a motivator and I have seen students pouring over books on topics which they have a prior interest in knowing more about, in order to learn more about it.

However, sometimes inevitably, this not only doesn’t engage them, but backfires. The level of frustration they experience as they can’t access this information either, leads to a loss of motivation rather than a gain. People say to them it’s just about finding the right text, but they can’t even do it when they have this either! Why bother?

Alternatively, we give them simplified texts or extracts which then never provides them the challenge of that sophisticated vocabulary or exciting narratives. Students can quickly feel bored, patronised and despondent.

Recapture the Magic of Reading and Storytelling

If we really want to motivate students with their reading, we need to pause and have a rethink. They need to be able to have a certain level of competency before we can encourage this independence and give them the joy of the level of automaticity expert enjoy. We want them to read as unthinkingly and effortlessly as Scout does as shown in the breathing comparison. We want it to be as necessary to them as breathing really is.

Therefore, I propose that we increase the time we spend simply reading to our students. Just as my mum and brother did when they read with me, we need to share those stories, but with those readers we need to stop rushing to the higher-level activities of analysis and evaluation. Let’s just focus on the excitement of the stories, the roundness of the characters (or not depending on the text and the purpose) and the richness of the language which brings that all to life.

An interesting approach to secondary reading was explored via Sussex University a few years ago, whereby students read two texts back to back in class. The texts are pitched at a level slightly above that which students could access independently, and they are read in class, one after another, with relatively little interruption. No essay writing, or character analysis or empathetic writing. Just predominately reading. We do this a lot with young children, but somewhere along the line we have decided that this is not enough. Interestingly the study seemed to show that it is, with good gains seen in the reading abilities of students, particularly those who had the lowest starting points. The study showed that all students made gains of 9 months and those with a reading age of 12 months or below their chronological age, gained 16 months.

Access the full 'Just Reading' report by Sussex University

Choosing Appropriate Reading Material

The appropriate selection of the text is key, and you want something which students need to strive for as you read, but good narratives, powerful characters and challenging vocabulary would be a good place to begin. The study highlighted the difference between how an accomplished reader accessed narrative and character and how a struggling reader will experience texts. Too often they are offered piece meal over a series of weeks and months, compounding the sense students may already have of struggling to hold the parts of the whole together.

The gains these students will have made will be huge, not only in terms of their ability to read but in terms of their motivation and feelings of self-efficacy. They will know how it feels to really engage with a story and the sense of fulfilment when it reaches its conclusion. I wonder how many texts those students will have started and simply never finished? I have seen students reading the same relatively short text in their personal reading sessions for the best part of a year, often starting from a different place each time they open the book and try to recall what on earth happened last time they opened it. Is it any wonder that we hear such deep sighs from them when they know we are going to be asking them to do some ‘reading for pleasure’?

There will always be a place for the complexities of analysis and time to apply knowledge into their writing, but if we are really committed to improving reading, especially at Key Stage Three where we have the space and time, this could be just the approach we need.

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