Creating a reading culture at Oakham School
Written by Bernadette O’Hanlon (Operations and Reader Development Librarian)
It has long been acknowledged that reading for pleasure is linked to improving a child’s vocabulary. This knowledge alone should be sufficient in championing dedicated time for reading, for a limited vocabulary can be a barrier to understanding and this can have an impact across all subject areas. Relatively recent studies (2013) have highlighted a broader impact of reading by suggesting that children who read for pleasure are likely to do better in Maths and English than those who rarely read in their free time (Sullivan & Brown, 2013). Reading facilitates ‘increased cognitive development’ but it has also a wider appeal which should be considered on the Oakham Journey.
As Oakham School moves towards the MYP, never before has the need for dedicated reading time been more apparent. The IB Mission : . . ”to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”, (International Baccalaureate, 2015) commands a more considered approach to reading at Oakham. Reading widens our experience and allows us to feel what it is like to be someone else, someone who we’ll possibly never meet in person, or the like of them; someone whose world is so far removed from our own.
As students engage with the FOSIL cycle of Inquiry they are asked to Connect – “Drawing on what you might already know in order to better understand what you do not yet know”. How can a child of 11 or 12 draw on knowledge of the trenches, the concept of cowardice, the moral dilemmas that war brings, in their to date, short life experience? Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful goes some way towards presenting the historical reality of the First World War while allowing us to care what happens to the main characters. Similarly, how can a Middle/Upper school student translate what the images of refugee camps on television news broadcasts mean in human terms? A dangerous crossing, by Jane Mitchell charts the journey of a Syrian boy as he makes the perilous journey from Syria to Greece in a sinking boat crammed with people. And, is it possible for a White Middle class student to feel the sting of Islamophobia and understand the draw of radicalisation without reading the likes of Muhammad Khan’s I am thunder?
Reading, as demonstrated above fills in the gaps where experience of the world is limited and according to Maryanne Wolf offers: “an incalculable gift. . . .Perspective taking not only connects our sense of empathy with what we have just read but expands our internalized knowledge of the world.” (2018, p. 45)
Maryanne Wolf was the Director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research and it is in her latest book: Reader, Come home: The Reading Brain in a digital world, that she addresses the importance of deep reading. Deep reading can be seen as the antidote to the immediacy of the digital world where on-screen reading can deny the reader the ability and the time to make connections, draw analogies and form new concepts. Regardless of medium however, Wolf argues that the quality of how we read a sentence or text depends upon the time we allocate the processes of deep reading. It is with the intention of making time for reading that I write to you now. Feedback I have received from students is that they just do not have time to read. When speaking to groups of F4 girls, they stated that the time they like to read is when there is a long holiday ahead and they can relax with a book. As busy people ourselves we can relate to this, but forming a reading habit is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give to our students. Alberto Manguel stated that reading is cumulative and Wolf elaborates on this:
“The consistent strengthening of the connections among our analogical, inferential, empathic, and background knowledge processes generalizes well beyond reading. When we learn to connect these processes over and over in our reading, it becomes easier to apply them to our own lives, teasing apart our motives and intentions and understanding with ever greater perspicacity and, perhaps, wisdom, why others think and feel the way they do. Not only is this the basis for the compassionate side of empathy, but it also contributes to strategic thinking”. (p. 61)
What we are doing
In partnership with the English Department, the Library has dedicated reading schemes for students from Lower One through to Form 3. Lower One and First Form Students come to the Library once a week for their reading lessons and Second Form and Third Form come on a fortnightly basis. Here reading for pleasure is encouraged and in the allotted 50 minute lesson, students are encouraged to read from a range of genres. To cement the reading experience, Library staff and English teachers engage in dialogue with the student about the books they have read, thereby eliciting recall, prompting a reaction to events in the story and suggesting connections with other books. For reluctant readers the modelling of behaviour by keen readers and staff is a powerful visual aid. Deep reading requires time for the processes of reading to take place and the 50 minute lesson affords a quality time for this.
What more can be done?
Deep reading is a life-long skill which, in the age of digital immediacy needs to be practiced habitually. As a school we can promote reading for pleasure, to see it as an essential activity in an already busy life. The key, I believe, is not to make students feel that reading is being imposed upon them but to discuss books read in an informal way. If you are a reader, maybe at the beginning of a lesson you could mention a book you’ve read recently that really engaged you. It is valuable for students to see that teachers whose subjects don’t necessarily lend themselves to reading, take the time to read.
I am aware that reading opportunities already take place in House with some tutor groups reading the same text, and some Houses allocating reading time before bed. It would be useful to get an overview of whole-school reading so please let me know of any reading- related activities that happen on a regular basis within House and Tutor groups or within your subject areas. If you would like to start a reading initiative with a group of students then please let me know as the Library is keen to support such initiatives.
International Baccalaureate. (2015). The IB Middle Years Programme. International Baccalaureate Organization.
Sullivan, A., & Brown, M. (2013). Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: the role of reading. London: Institute of Education: University of London.
Wolf, M. (2018). Reader, come home: the reading brain in a digital world. New York: Harper Collins.