Let’s say you’re scared of something, for the sake of this let’s say spiders.

Ever since you can remember spiders have been a bad thing. It’s not that you got bitten, or your life was in actual danger, but they always seem to say *negative experience* to you.

There’s the hairy legs and the creepy crawly-ness; there was that time that your little brother put one down the back of your t-shirt, there was the other time you were dared to hold one on your face for £2, but couldn’t do it and Sally teased you infront of everyone for the next 3 weeks, and now you come to think about it neither of your parents liked them either. At best they were picked up with a glass and put out the window, at worst squished.

Spiders = bad.

Now let’s say that you’re a pupil at school, and nearly every lesson involves you having to be near a spider, pick up a spider or, in the particularly painful lessons, make friends with a spider.

How does that make you feel about those lessons? What would the natural way to react be?

Now replace “spider” with “book”. 

***

Before we get anywhere near comprehension, levels, reading for pleasure and improving Reading Ages we need to deal with the very real fact that for some of our pupils – often the ones with behaviour and other learning needs – just touching a book can bring back difficult memories and associations.

“I was made to read out a book in front of the class in year 4. I couldn’t read all of the words. I hated it, I felt stupid.”

“We were supposed to follow along with our finger – I couldn’t do it.”

“I’m not f*ing reading.*

In the work I do with pupils with Social Emotional Mental Health difficulties (SEMH), the obstacles to reading are rarely to do with the skill itself, but more often are associations of reading in their educational journey. Put on top of this pupils with actual learning needs around reading, such as Dyslexia, and you have a more complex need for adapting your learning.

So what can we do?

Begin with ourselves – ask yourself – or your staff:

  1. What is your relationship to reading and writing?
  2. How do you feel about encouraging our students to read – and write?

The answer to these two questions will affect how you are able to support the pupils’ reading. It is worth saying – not all staff will feel confident with reading (they may be scared of spiders too), and so thought is required to think how these members of staff might comfortably work with pupils. 

A great example recently, when working with a pupil in care who has missed 5 years of education, who has recently had a Dyslexia diagnosis, a colleague of mine with Dyslexia offered to spend some time with the pupil just talking about and normalising it. It was of great inspiration to the pupil to realise that even adults have Dyslexia, and they have happy lives, families, jobs etc.  In this particular situation this colleague, who finds reading a challenge, was of more use than me ‘ the reading expert’ because the journey for the pupil was an emotional one at this stage – I have no idea what it is like not to read the words on the page, I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.

The coaxing stage is important, and often gets forgotten – particularly in mainstream settings. This is the stage before the reading, where you need to reassure the pupil that they are in a safe enough space to potentially ‘fail’ at something they hate – possibly in front of others.

Once this stage took me nearly 10 weeks with a pupil in a special school. He refused to read with me for his session repeatedly. In the end it took me going on a school trip with him, getting stuck up a tree and him helping me to get down before he could trust me enough to come to a session. Interestingly, I discovered this 12yrold had a reading age of 16yrs: highlighting, it was not his ability in reading that was his issue, but his relationship to it.

Practical ways to do this:

  • Get books and text in front of them as much as possible in every lesson.
  • Don’t get worried if they’re reading at the ‘right’ level at this stage – for some just picking up the spider book is the big first step.
  • Model reading as much as possible – ensure it’s a diverse range of genders, types of staff etc.
  • ‘Accidentally’ get them to read – instructions in recipes/labels/ooo can you please just grab the X….done subtly you can get a general idea of their reading level and confidence this way without the pressure of reading. Later on however, you can remind them that they did do this successfully.
  • Key words – it is a common practice in most classrooms – and can be the vital strand to hold on to for pupils who won’t be able to read every word in your textbook/handout. Be sure to repeat them often whilst pointing at the word, so the association grows.
  • Find the positive memories! Often pupils will have one or two positive experiences with reading – usually from primary school. If it means you read The Twits a couple of times to a 17yr old, so be it. It will give re-enforce positive associations, which will be easier to build from.
  • Play games with books – anything: build castles, dominos games, decoupage with old books – it is IMPOSSIBLE to do these things and not start having a look at the content…
  • Read to them. When was the last time you were read to? It can be a relaxing, enjoyable, enriching, bonding experience – give that experience to your pupils.

Finally

Do what you know the child needs in their next step on the reading journey. I recently had to defend a reading choice to an Ofsted inspector. They were a non-specialist doing a deep dive in English at an SEMH school – they knew little of either of these categories – a whole other issue in itself… They challenged the fact I had let one of my pupils chose a book that was ‘too hard for him’ and argued that I should be providing texts at the ‘right’ level. 

I defended my decision: this pupil had taken 6 weeks, to step into the library and sit with me, he had a positive memory of reading his primary school teacher reading Darren Shan, so that’s what we were reading together. He was engaging in reading for pleasure, his vocabulary was extending, he was being challenged – and all I had to do was scaffold up for him to be able to access the story – I consider that my job.

Also – get this poster up around your school.

The sentiment is spot on.

Download a print quality PDF of the poster (1.56 MB)

I offer a training workshop for staff on Encouraging Reading and Writing for reluctant pupils or How to get them to pick up a book.

You can book with me here.

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