Engaging reluctant readers

Written by: Georgina Jonas | Published:
Image: iStock

Younger reluctant readers in secondary education are in danger of entering adult life functionally illiterate – with all the risks that this brings. Georgina Jones offers some advice on re-engaging these learners with reading

As he walks out past the gates, a fair haired young man flings a book into the overflowing rubbish. It wasn’t with disgust nor contempt, more just with a sorrowful shrug. There was no way he was taking home another stupid “Easy Reader”.

His teachers were always well-meaning; same old talk, sometimes delivered with head tilted to one side, sometimes delivered crossly with threats. Often goals were given, sometimes targets and incentives. It didn’t make any difference, the words on the page were hard. Too hard. He felt rubbish. He lit a cigarette, roared with laughter to a passing friend and tried to push to the back of his mind a simple fact: he couldn’t really read.

This is sadly an all-too-accurate account – an account given by too many young men at the beginning of their secondary education, with all the cosy care of primary education left far behind.

Research highlights again and again that if you reach secondary education having not achieved basic reading skills you are likely to flounder – likely to never attain a functioning level of reading.

Approximately 16 per cent of adults – which, in stark figures, equates to more than five million people – in England are described as functionally illiterate. That is to say, their literacy levels are below those expected of an 11-year-old. They can understand straightforward texts and function at a very basic daily level, but anything unfamiliar will be a problem.

Those 16 per cent were not functioning at secondary school; they entered the adult world unable to access what the majority take for granted, that is good job prospects and daily functioning reading skills. Without a paying and satisfying job it is not surprising that many use their latent intelligence to seek other forms of making an income.

Statistics time and again show us the abnormally high rate of illiteracy in prisons, youth offender institutions and among young adults with criminal records. Specific research shows that more than 50 per cent of young offenders will have a dyslexic profile of different variations.

It is the obvious to conclude that reaching out to those who have slipped through the net in primary education has to be a key goal of secondary level educators, bearing in mind the civilised and educated society we are currently in. This is not pre-1870s England.

So from the voices of teachers through to targeted research, we know that for young people and predominantly young males, we have an enormous problem.

“Compassion, calmness and resilience have to be at the forefront of our planning. We must not give up, it’s too easy to pass the problem onto the next teacher.”

This was the refrain from one high-profile headteacher who I spoke with. Throughout our interview he wanted to urge teachers to keep going, to keep trying to resolve any literacy problems.

Many teachers feel huge empathy for their pupils – if your friend is reading for pleasure, reading things quickly or simply able to stand up in front of the class and read, then you, incrementally, day-by-day, feel worse and worse. Your self-esteem plummets. So, you need to find another outlet, but you do need to understand the importance of reading: “If it’s sport as your outlet, that’s fine, but we have to make sure that strong literacy is in place to back up your sporting life.”

We must accept that there is a problem for young adults if they have not already gained the reading skills they need. We must target them and help them in any way we can.

It is our duty of care as a functioning and compassionate society to not let these young boys and girls slip through, knowing that all that awaits them is likely to be failure. It will have been our failure as educators.

So, as educators, how do we solve that problem? How do we help? Here are some quick tips:

  1. Quickly, very quickly, identify a struggling reader.
  2. With speed isolate the problem, stop the floundering.
  3. Use basic diagnostic tools that are available free online. Make it acceptable to have testing done. Test all the children: use a large net to catch those few fish.
  4. Deliver the help needed with consistent care. Aim to have one person as a constant point of reference.
  5. Try to empower them; teachers are currently the best they have ever been, we all know how to do this. Involve them in the book choice, schematic choice; look to comics, magazines, interactive games.
  6. Use targeted and specific schemes designed for older, struggling readers.
  7. Use mentors, taking on board everything that Steve Biddulph spoke about in his excellent book, Raising Boys.
  8. Involve parents – tell them it’s okay to tell their children that they also found things hard.
  9. Teach them that it is okay to read slowly but it is not okay to not read – be blunt about it, this is no time to be too vague, they need to read.
  10. Teach acceptance. It’s okay that you are never going to read Harry Potter, but be able to read the bleach bottle to discover it is not lemonade.
  • Georgina Jonas is the author of The College Collection (Crown House Publishing, ISBN 9781785831072), a set of six books in a reading scheme designed to support and extend the acquisition of reading skills and the enjoyment of reading.

Further information

You can download for free the teachers’ notes from The College Collection at www.crownhouse.co.uk/featured/college-collection


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