Woodroffe has always had a reputation for paying close attention to literacy and, of course, the promotion of reading. I like to think that the school genuinely has a reading culture. I am also confident that all staff, and not just English teachers, work hard to ensure that our students are both literate and keen to read.
There are times, however, when the promotion of good English and the encouragement of reading seems like an uphill struggle. Two incidents recently have made me think about this and reflect upon the best ways to ensure that secondary school students do not abandon reading altogether. The first will undoubtedly make me sound like a dreadful old fogey and an appalling pedant. It involves a visit to a coffee shop. As I was queueing to put in my request, I had to listen to the young woman in front of me exclaiming, ‘Can I get a regular cappuccino?’ I can just about cope with ‘Can I’ instead of ‘May I’, as this construction is becoming increasingly redundant, but it was the combination of ‘get’ and ‘regular’ which put my teeth on edge. ‘No,’ I wanted to interject, ‘the shop assistant will get it for you’. I, of course, would have avoided the dreadful, aggrandising ‘barrista’ but I would then have liked to have pointed out that a coffee cannot be regular: buses are regular, beats are regular but coffees are small, medium or large. As if aware of my discomfort at this shocking assault on the language, the shop assistant proceeded to join in: ‘Would you like it to go?’ she said with a smile. Again, I wanted to say, ‘Go where?’
The rational linguist in me knows that language changes, it is flexible and it adapts. Part of the richness of English is its ability to grow and develop and, as Shakespeare amply illustrates, words change all the time. So, I need to move on. However, there is surely a careful balance to be struck between accuracy and change, and it is always important to learn the rules before you can break them. If the young lady in the coffee shop knows how grammatically inaccurate her question was, I would feel a lot better.
The second incident relates to the recent staff training day which took place before half term. Because of the complexity of the changes to the Key Stage 2 schemes of work which primary school pupils now have to follow, we thought it would be a good idea to get some of our primary colleagues to take us through the requirements of the new English tests. I think it is fair to say that most of us were a little taken aback by some of the demands of the new tests and we were all somewhat alarmed by what can only be described as the extreme emphasis on grammar.
Having demonstrated my pedantry, you would think that I should be welcoming the new tests with enthusiasm but my first thought was, ‘These are going to kill any enjoyment students may have had in reading and writing’.
As secondary school teachers, we must prepare ourselves to ensure that we are familiar with what has been taught in primary schools so that we can build on it in Year 7 but it is clear that we now have a much more important task – to make sure that students can still learn to appreciate learning about our language and, above all, still enjoy reading.
So, what are we doing to make this happen? We are already unusual as a school in that we include a separate subject in Year 7 entirely devoted to reading – this is in addition to English lessons – and our students read a great deal. We continue to promote reading groups in Years 8 and 9 and we have a strong focus on literature at both GCSE and A Level. We also do lots of work as a school to improve literacy across the curriculum. We work hard to make sure there is easy access to books and that there are pleasant places to sit and read. We now have two libraries and both have full time librarians: the sixth form library is stocked with books directly relating to A Level study and the main school library is a bright, colourful place full of recent publications. Children seek novelty so we cater for that and make sure that our library stock is always up to date. As a result, both libraries are used throughout the day and both are full every lunchtime – and not just with students sheltering from the rain. We have even removed virtually all of the computers in the main library to ensure that the focus is on books.
Woodroffe is well known for the quality of its art and, as every visitor discovers, every wall is covered with paintings, photographs, graphics and other high quality visual imagery. It is time now, however, for literature to assert itself and, over the next few weeks, students will begin to see poem posters appearing in amongst the artwork. We will not only showcase the work of students but scatter examples of our great poets across the school. The hope is that the inspiration offered by the fabulous art around the school will soon be complemented by an explosion of poetry.
If successful, this initiative will become a regular (and I don’t mean ‘medium’) feature of the school.
We need to do everything we can to keep people reading.