Leaving aside #NZreadaloud for a few weeks, it was clear talking to Kerri how passionate she was about the need for reading to be a regular and engaging experience for her students and the whole New Zealand student cohort and beyond. Let's be honest, as I said to Kerri during the hang-out, reading in this digital age of 2016 has never simultaneously been so under-practised, undervalued yet so essential. Look at the UK, the students there are expected to have three base educational competencies; literacy, numeracy and digital competency/citizenship. In the United States, leaving aside the political storm over the Common Core standards, there is a widespread acceptance that students regardless of their vocational intentions, must have significant capabilities in Mathematics and English, Language, Arts. In New Zealand, there is a general consensus that despite valid concerns with National Standards, students must be capable and aware in the skills of Numeracy and Literacy.
I myself very rarely read books anymore and among my many past and present roles, I am an English teacher and a strong believer that literacy is essential for not only academic survival but also for surviving in the world beyond school. In my school this year, we diagnostically e-asTTle-tested all our Year 9 and 10 students on Chromebooks in Reading and Mathematics. I took it upon myself to do all of the Reading testing. Although this may seem very giving of me, I did have an ulterior motive. While having a constant person managing the testing ensured consistency and a minimum of tech interference, it did also allow me to "assess" the digital literacy of virtually our entire junior cohort. It was very clear from the outset even in getting the student into the e-asTTle testing environment, just how varied the literacy capabilities of our students were. To put this diagnostic test into perspective, all students sit the same first ten questions and seeing as the test is adaptive, the difficulty of the questions changes depending on the student's successful or otherwise responses. Regardless of the questions changing, three elements of literacy are tested over the 45 minute period, plenty of time for the test to be completed to average attainment. So what were my observations?
First of all in every class in two contexts, there was the very fast finishers. Now at our school, we have two equal top stream classes, three equal low stream classes, with seven broad-banded classes in-between. In the broad-banded classes, there was very rarely a student who finished miles ahead of anyone yet in both the top and bottom band, every class had at least 2-3 students that finished distinctly faster. How was it possible that despite significant variance in ability, students finished at roughly the same time? Well, it's reasonably straightforward. The fast-finishers in the top band classes did so (yet still scored very high) because they informed me that they read often and usually high-quality texts and a result, the e-asTTle test was not a threat to them in terms of reading audit. Wonderful but true, many of these same students then used the Chromebook after completing their test to read further material on-line or even more pleasing to this old-timer, delved into their bags to retrieve their current novel of choice. In stark contrast, the less-capable students who were also fast-finishers did so to escape the uncomfortable, foreign environment of not only the reading but being assessed on their reading ability while under time pressure. Many of these students were honest in how little they read either on paper or on-line, in or out of school. It wasn't so much that they didn't like literacy or value it, they just had so little exposure and experience.
I may be wrong but I'd argue that although the readership of books may be in somewhat of a decline, this does not necessarily translate to a decline in reading. One must also take care in blaming the digitising of our society for such a decline. We only have to look at the proliferation of books about the on-line game Minecraft to see how digital can actually lead to greater textual productions.
I mentioned earlier that I don't read that many books anymore. However I still do read a lot and petty much daily, with the vast majority of it (maybe up to 90%) online. Even though I'm still reading in the modern context of digital, I would estimate that I am probably reading 2-3 times as much as I did when I was a student in High School. Furthermore in light of the fact that I read twitter, facebook, newspapers online and full-length articles or research, I believe I have become a more adaptable reader and one with a greater than before vocabulary. I however am fortunate. I can ready anywhere, anytime via my Chromebook, laptop, tablet or in the case of our national newspaper via my smartphone. This for me is key. Numerous studies world-wide have established a clear link between books in homes (nowadays, these would access to texts anywhere) and academic engagement and success. In reality, those who could not afford books in the home are within reason just as likely to to be the ones who now struggle with digital device affordability.
It should be pointed out that this concern over child literacy (or non-literacy) has been a known issue for years. Alan Duff, a high-profile New Zealand writer (Once were Warriors) was so concerned about not just Maori literacy but also the country's declining literacy rates that he established the renowned Books in Homes programme that now delivers free books to over 100,000 students three times a year. This is serious, this is a really big, important issue.
Although it has fallen out of favour in recent times, I am still a firm advocate of the explicit teaching of reading and aligned with this, explicit time allocation for reading. At Aorere College, every Year 9 class has one hour of Reciprocal Teaching a week: in effect, learning-to-read and learning-to-apply. Why? For our students to succeed in the junior levels of the New Zealand Curriculum and then in the world of NCEA, literacy is not a preference, it's an essential. This essential is why I have no problem with NCEA Level 1 (our first senior national qualification) and Level 2 and 3 (our subsequent ones) having very explicit Literacy and Numeracy requirements. If students can read and write, they have significant capital to transfer into any of our curriculum areas. Without such capital, they are not even at the starting line when the learning gun expires. I do not think it is accidental that Mount Roskill Grammar in Auckland, New Zealand excels academically and is one of the few secondary schools in New Zealand that has a time-tabled slot for Sustained Silent Reading, I believe every day. In my personal and professional experience, just as reading is and can be a habit, so too can be the practice of non-reading. As we all now, practice makes perfect.
So what's the solution?
First of all, all students must not be given the option of whether they read or not. As discussed earlier, the ones that don't read are the ones that most often need to but in all reality can't. Support for these students must be proactive, customised and enacted and sustained for as long as required even if it means temporary reduced access to subject content. I used to shudder at a former school where a number of teachers demanded that their students read novels and the like and nothing else. Despite my best efforts in pointing out the level of language complexity in say "Fours & Rotary Magazine", such texts were seen as inappropriate and not sufficiently academically rigorous. The end result, the "magazine" students, if they couldn't read their preferences in context, type and mode didn't. Today we have many educators questioning the legitimacy of Kindle-style reading. To me, frankly, I don't really care what or how some-one is reading, the key is that they are reading. I am genuinely surprised how people can read a novel digitally but who am I to criticise? I read our national newspaper daily online and haven't gone near a paper version in years. Has my reading suffered as a result? I'm pretty sure it hasn't.
Lastly students need to read to have access to ideas and issues beyond their own and to have access to people and places beyond their own. In doing such taking, I believe they are therefore more likely to be capable and confident in giving their ideas, issues, people and places to the world beyond theirs. We need our students of today and tomorrow to not only to be reading but reading and sharing and then contributing. Yes we need our students to be #NZreadaloud and on a bigger scale #Globalreadaloud but we also need our students to #readaproud for their sake and indeed ours.
Thank you for reading this. Remember every word counts!