Does reading decline in secondary schools? | Series 1, Episode 3

School Reading List Podcast - series 1, episode 3

Episode 3

Episode 3 show notes

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Episode 3 transcript

Blast from the past – Rosemary Sutcliff

In this episode, I will be looking at an author who wrote every day until her final day, despite pain and disability, to create absorbing visits to the past, atmospheric revitalisation of traditional tales, and gripping recounts of long-forgotten events – spanning the Roman conquest through to the Medieval period.

This month I’m checking into a realm of historical fiction, myths and legends.

Let’s time travel back into a world of second-hand books.

Born in 1920, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote over forty books for children and young adults over a 42 period, stretching from 1950 until she died in 1992. Her books remain widely respected for their historical detail, accuracy and pathos and ‘The Lantern Bearers’ was awarded the Carnegie medal in 1959.

In her own words, she wrote “for children of all ages from nine to ninety.”

I’d like to highlight two of her books that remain highly relevant to secondary pupils today.

The Eagle of the Ninth, which features on our Year 7 books list, was first released in 1954 and remains in print to this day. It follows young Roman Officer Marcus as he travels undercover to the far North – over Hadrian’s Wall to search for his father and solve the mystery behind the missing Ninth Legion. Epic in scale – there are seven sequels – the novels cover themes of slavery, the supernatural, farming, political and social unrest and the importance of respecting cultural differences.

The sequence of stories shows how people lived and worked together in different times and situations, and how lives were impacted by class, power, religion and an often hijacked and manipulated fear of the unknown. With an impressive focus on social history, storytelling and class structure, they provide an empathetic glimpse into past lives and add colour to periods of history still dominated by a dry diet of dates and events in school teaching.

Knight’s Fee is a particularly interesting short novel that will appeal to students in years 7&8 learning about post-1066 medieval history in KS3. Published in 1960, this compelling drama weaves intrigue and military battles and is set in a class-riven feudal society. It brings life and empathy to manorial society, the farming rural economy, and the concepts of service, sacrifice and medieval retinue.

It follows Randall, the orphaned child of a Saxon mother and a conquering Breton soldier. He’s taken in by the Lord of the Manor and lives as part of the local nobility until conflict breaks out and pits one half of the family against the other in battle.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels are perfect for younger readers who don’t simply want to read about history but need to become fully immersed it in – Immersed in the conversations, the landscapes and the almost multimedia descriptions of contemporary life.

Sutcliff writes with passion and conviction, and with an authority derived from scrupulous research and a meticulous eye for detail. Her writing isn’t historical impressionism, it’s closer to camera obscura. Readers are aware they have been taken back into the depths of time, but only just, such is the realism.

Does children’s reading decline in secondary schools?

There’s been a lot of discussion on social media this month about secondary schools, transition and progress in reading from year 7 onwards. Some suggest progress declines after primary school. Some even suggest it can regress by the end of GCSEs. But is there enough evidence to make a judgement, and are we, as educators, looking in the right places?

Less confident children placed in a new and unfamiliar setting tend to revert to what they are familiar with. That comfort zone might be reverting to printed handwriting in year 7, overreliance on teachers or parents to remind them to bring pens, books, bags etc, and – when given freedom of choice – picking books that they’ve already read.

KS2 reading is often highly monitored. Children’s book choices are recorded. The number of pages completed each day is noted. Parents are encouraged to sign logs and teachers keep track of Lexile scores and how many genres have been covered. There are schemes, programs, systems, theories and training, consultants and mystical gurus on hand to ensure reading is delivered.

Then the children arrive at the big school.

KS3 can be wonderful, with sparkly-eyed librarians to encourage and enchant like a literary magician fanning a pack of perfect book choices. For the majority, though, while there might be more books, there’s something of a blank page syndrome. Year sevens file in, marshalled by the fifth in department teacher who’d rather by wowing an A-level crowd. It’s “Here’s the library. We have 5000 books. Choose one. Any one. 5 minutes. Go. Now. And after a silent movie scene to rival Harold Lloyd – “The most important thing. DON’T LOSE IT. And bring it back this time next week.” And now you shall read. 

While there’s often choice, is there any guidance? Here’s the library. Read what you like. Isn’t it wonderful? It’s a nice idea, but can be hugely offputting for the less confident. The choice and the pressure to choose quickly can be paralysing for reluctant readers, who will often opt for the something – anything – that’s familiar. Over and over we see a repetitious diet of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Roald Dahl and David Walliams even into Year 9. And then in Years 10 and 11 the main meal is the compulsory Shakespeare with a side of An Inspector Calls and Frankenstein, splashed with an insipid gravy of unloved poems.  Well-stocked secondary school libraries are no use without an experienced librarian and timetabled time to deliver that experience. It’s about time big school libraries and big school exams were at least a la carte with a helpful menu.

And I’m not one of those teachers that believes the library should be a sacrosanct space. It should be a place that promotes reading and books. It should also expose students to books. In any way possible.

You don’t have to use your library for packed lunches, queuing for home time or martial arts sessions; (although even then children would at least see a book every day)  but if you have quieter extra-curricular activities that happen to involve children who are reluctant readers – whether it’s a Dungeons and Dragons clubs, a war gaming activity or film-making – why not subliminally expose them to books by running the club in the school library?

All of this is assuming that reading is declining. But is that a given? How do we measure reading – is the decline real, fair or just perception? Teens read to find things out. To experience their world. To keep in the loop. The Internet, magazines, narrative poetry (including drill, songs, raps, and spoken word), ebooks, podcasts, graphic novels, texts, social media and mobile apps are their everyday literary canon. Just ask them to analyse those texts. You will be surprised.

To illustrate: Graphic novels are booming according to the bookseller magazine. They dominate the YA charts at the moment. We’ve also seen this on our website. We have two pages of graphic novels on the site, one for KS2 and one for KS3&4 – and we’re developing more as I speak.

So: to prove a reading decline or not.

There’s nothing out there, yet, that measures word reads per day in the same way that you can measure steps taken or breaths inhaled per day. Until there is, it’s arguable that the evidence isn’t there.

Also, is ensuring development in reading ability and fluency driven by the amount we read, the reading age of the material or the quality of the text?

When we consider children’s reading development, we must also consider what the purpose of reading is. What is the end goal? Are we promoting reading for pleasure? Are we looking to create critical readers? Are we teaching reading skills for the workplace? Are these purposes linked and are they mutually exclusive?

Context and motivation are important to assess the impact of reading in KS3 and KS4. It is not just reading for pleasure, but reading for a purpose. And that purpose needs to be abundantly clear.

For example: teaching and interpreting the trial scenes in Merchant of Venice. Often pupils would ask what is the point. Why are we doing this? I used to employ hot seating, discussion, and debates, and however exciting the teaching delivery was, it didn’t fully engage. Until I took a week’s lessons to enact two mock trials. (If you want some ready make resources, there are some great resources on the young citizen’s website and Smart Law.) One mock trial was contemporary, about a street mugging, and the other superimposed the MofV trial onto a Crown Court trial format. Then the students were engaged.

Similarly, when one student told me that all they wanted to be was a professional footballer, and asked why did they have to complete a line-by-line poetry analysis exercise? I pointed out that this analysis was a useful skill. Later that week took 30 minutes, as a class to analyse part of a sample football player’s contract of employment, helpfully provided by the PFA. (There’s also one here.) We analysed it line by line, using the same analytical skills. The engagement was better after that.

One teacher recently messaged and said of her students: “They’d read a book for GCSE if it was Colleen Hoover, Alice Oseman or Karen McManus”.

So why not study more modern and widely popular authors? Wasn’t Shakespeare a verified blue tick Elizabethan era influencer? Who’s trending today? Studying a bestseller would at least show students how to write for an audience. And why limit literature studies to mainly books and plays? Why not study the power of adverts, propaganda, and political speeches in a variety of media – text, film and script?

It’s worth remembering that Ridley Scott honed his skills on adverts before picking up Academy Awards and Salman Rushdie developed one-line zingers for admen before collecting a Booker Prize.  Who’s to say Collen Hoover won’t be anthologised in future generations, as the last gasp of viral internet age pre-apocalyptic American prose? See – there’s even a deep and meaningful genre to keep the exam board happy.

Is it enough to determine a teen’s reading development by what they are (or are not) reading?

Shouldn’t we also be asking what students are reading and why; before focussing on why they are not reading what the qualified educators are asking them to?

Consider this. If reading is declining in 11-year-olds and upwards, what effects would we, as teachers, expect to see?

In school, surely we’d expect to see a growing inability to access progressively more complex exam questions – in all subject areas. But we’d also expect to see an inability to formulate complex internet search queries to find and discern information. We’d also expect to see difficulties when reading and making decisions about nuance, tone and the veracity of text on social media – and deciding how to respond to it.

While there may well be evidence of a decline in comprehension skills in school, I wonder if teenagers today are more equipped and adept than adults when critically analysing social media.

Perhaps educators should reflect more on their childhoods. How many of today’s educators lapped up their parent’s choices of music, clothes or books?

I sometimes wonder why we still ask and demand that teens read dry textbooks, repetitive revision guides and novels that were already a generation old for their grandparents.

Put it this way. As a teacher, would you binge on black and white movies in your downtime, rave to a banging Charleston on Friday after work, or curl up with a vintage Reader’s Digest bound in fake crimson pigskin?

Reading should be enjoyable and spark the imagination. No writer wants to send their readers to sleep. Publishers aren’t part of a clandestine plan to sabotage future book sales. So why is the teaching establishment still obsessed with books that turn the next generation off literature?

And perhaps that’s a more plausible crux to any apparent decline in reading amongst secondary-aged students.

Episode 3 chapter markers

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Episode 3 credits

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About Tom Tolkien

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Tom Tolkien is a highly qualified (BA Hons, PGCE, QTS) children's literature expert and teacher with over 25 years of experience. He has led inset courses, developed curriculum materials, spoken at conferences, advised on longlisting for several international children's literature literature awards and written for educational publishers including contributing to a BETT award-nominated app. Social profiles: Twitter | Linkedin