Reading – standards are always falling
No area produces more controversy than reading [see the companion primary website] and our trainees can certainly benefit from a recognition that it is likely to continue to do so. It is also a field which has an enormous research literature, especially from an international perspective. A little history can some times go a long way. Perhaps the most lastingly famous report on English teaching [see above] , The Bullock Report: a language for life , was the indirect result of the then Minister of Education’s (Margaret Thatcher) decision to investigate if reading standards were falling. The report took on a much wider brief but it certainly aided a fundamental shift in the way English teachers thought about reading. Lunzer and Gardner’s research, partly undertaken in response to the reading standards enquiry, led them to publish The Effective Teaching of Reading  which was one of the first texts to provide evidence that reading needed to be taught in the secondary school. Their concept of DARTs [Directed Activities related to texts] provided a lasting foundation for English teachers.
The other reason to start with that period is because it has strong parallels and contrasts with the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy [see Goodwyn, 2002]. One source that trainees should be aware of is Colin Harrison’s review of research, Key Stage Three English: Roots and research, undertaken to assess whether the secondary strategy was properly research based. He covers all the modes but literacy/reading is most in the foreground. His book length research study Understanding Reading Development  is an ideal overview of the area and I recommend it highly, not only a really intelligent and informative text but written in a lively and engaging way. Harrison does not devote very much space to literary reading although what he does have to say is excellent. I suspect that is because recent emphases have been on reading from a broadly functional perspective. Some of this is justified because of the recognition [as with Bullock] that literacy across the curriculum remains an issue because many subject specialists have little real understanding of the literacy demands of their subject. This is a key point for trainee English teachers who may find themselves positioned as the literacy expert by other students and by colleagues in school. I think my edited collection Improving Literacy at KS2 and KS3  provides a good, research based and research informed, overview for trainees of some of these issues.
Reading standards are always changing – as reading changes
Despite persistent controversies and media debates there is no evidence of a decline in reading standards although there is a recognition amongst researchers that what we mean by a ‘standard of reading’ is hugely problematic. Trying to compare a reader from the 1950s with a reader in the 21st century is in many ways pointless, their textual environments are so different. Perhaps their experiences in the school setting are more directly comparable? However, more recent controversies about the SATS tests at KS3 illustrate other issues such as marker reliability and the potential for political interference once governments set ‘targets’ that absolutely rely on such scores going up. Student teachers certainly need to know that national claims about reading standards are usually misleading and that parents are often misinformed.
An area of real interest for student teachers centres more on reading choice than reading standards. There have been a number of surveys over the years that offer insights into young people’s reading preferences [see, for example, Hall and Coles, 1999] These do also offer useful points of comparison with the past as comparing surveys shows how preferences are changing. Most of these surveys are, inevitably, self-report so must be taken with some caution. An area ripe for research is the attempt by many schools to generate interest in adolescent fiction through engagement with extra-curricular activities such as shadowing the Carnegie prize or running voluntary book clubs. These activities may well be seen as intrinsically valuable but we would benefit from some evidence of what difference they make and also of what models of practice seem most effective. Student teachers often get involved in these projects and they would find research evidence especially helpful.
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