The Reading Teacher: Improving literacy standards

James Ashmore

James Ashmore is the coauthor of The New Middle Leader’s Handbook. He has spent 11 of the last 13 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. In 2012, he became a specialist leader of education. At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, and now works as an educational consultant. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.

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Image credit: Max Pixel. Image credit: Max Pixel.

A couple of weeks back, I went to the first meeting of a new book group. I’d been thinking for ages that I wanted to join one and then, while my little lad Arthur and I sat waiting for our Saturday morning haircuts in the barber’s, one just sort of presented itself to me in a poster stuck to the antique dresser they use as a reception desk. It was for men only, it was to be held in a pub and the first book was a cracker, ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy, a shatteringly bleak post-apocalyptic vision I’d taught to some dream Year 9s about 4 years previously – how could I not go?

So, I rolled up clutching my battleship-grey copy of McCarthy’s novel a couple of weeks back, the book held at chest-height so I could be easily spotted by my future literary brothers-in-arms. Once all together, each of us were invited to provide a potted personal history of our life in books and when the first guy, Rob, had finished talking I felt like saying, “...Yeah, what he said”.

You see Rob, as it turns out, was a former full-time English teacher like me, and Rob had had something of, if not an epiphany, then a stark "Rob read Year 10 essays on Othello, articles in the TES, pizza menus… anything but fiction."realisation – he didn’t read. Well, he did – 32 Year 10 essays on Othello, articles in the TES, pizza menus, the back of his Coco Pops box, the Sky Planner… anything but fiction, the art form that he loved the most. Reading novels had been squeezed out of his life, as it had mine up until about four years ago, by the job, bitterly ironic considering the hours we both spent in school berating non-reading students. How could I in good conscience lead English and literacy across the whole school while never actually reading a bloody book myself?

I started reading again (all seven Game of Thrones, David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Murukami, Le Carre) and cleared out the cobwebs. And I carried a book all over because you never know when you can squeeze a bit of your book in – dead time like the queue in the post office, trains, those awful ‘man zones’ outside fitting rooms in clothes shops – and I read and read and read. Like I used to, like I should’ve been as an English teacher, and then I decided everyone else should be reading, too. But you can’t force people, just like you can’t force children – to do so is perversely contrary to the nature of reading. We had to develop a culture of reading, we had to make reading the new normal in the school, or to at least try to, for both the students and the staff, I decided.

You might have someone in your school whose job it is to ‘lead’ literacy or to ‘coordinate’ it at the very least. This might be the head of English, an English TLR holder, someone completely outside the English faculty, an SLT member, it might even be you. Once, it was me. It can be a thankless role. If the whole school does not fully grasp the significance of improving the standards of literacy in the children they teach, if they don’t comprehend their own significant role in achieving higher standards of literacy (be they a teacher of Geography, the office manager, an HLTA), if the literacy lead is unsupported by the senior team, then any drive to boost literacy will irreparably stall.

Just because a school may have someone designated as literacy lead, it doesn’t mean that all responsibility for literacy should be abdicated to that one person."It is the job of every other adult to place literacy at the forefront of their work." Their job is to keep an eye on the school’s literacy improvement efforts, to suggest and promote initiatives and opportunities, to keep the profile of literacy as high as possible within the school. It is the job of every other adult to place literacy at the forefront of their work – not at the expense of, say, the Science content needed by students to pass their GCSE in Chemistry, but as a golden thread woven through their curriculum that enhances their students’ chances in assessments, and in life, not hinders them. Explicitly link success to reading.

And if you are the reading teacher, talk about the books you read, wear that badge with pride (literally – make one!). Don’t wait for the person in charge of literacy to ask you to display a poster announcing to classroom visitors what book you are currently reading – do it yourself. Don’t wait for someone to suggest ten minutes of quiet reading at the start of every lesson would be an excellent idea (it is, by the way) – do it yourself. Don’t leave a shelf in your classroom empty if it could be filled with the amazing books you believe your students would enjoy – fill it up.

Reading is a private and personal pleasure, something I’ve rediscovered these last couple of years. It enriches your life, and it can enrich the lives of your students, too.

Do you find the time to read for pleasure? Share your thoughts below.

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