Teaching reading: it’s not as ‘niche’ as you think

by | Mar 8, 2020 | Literacy Leadership, Whole School Literacy

“Teaching reading at secondary is very niche.” I’ve heard it said, in different ways, many times. It is a very common view, and it is also a mistaken one.


Every teacher needs to know about reading because every student needs to read. In the ‘real world’, our students will need reading to deal with the mail, to follow the news, to sit their driver’s test, to decipher the instructions on a medicine bottle, to fill in employment forms, medical forms, tenancy agreements, mortgages, employment contracts . . . I don’t need to go on, do I? Reading is everywhere in our society. Despite early predictions, the growth of digital communication and social media has only increased the amount we are expected to read.

And in school? From consulting their planner in form time, through French, science, history, geography . . . is there any subject where students don’t read? Traditionally, PE was stereotyped as the no-reading, no-writing subject. That was never quite true, but now the GCSEs in this subject require as much reading and writing as many others. Maths teachers have sometimes sought to argue that literacy has nothing to do with their subject, but open any GCSE maths textbook and look at the Tier 3 vocabulary that students have to be able to decode and comprehend. The bar has risen significantly for literacy over the last few years, and students with poorer literacy skills are seriously disadvantaged without effective help. Being a teacher of a specific subject means that we have to teach students the literacy skills they need to succeed in that subject. Or, to put it another way, if we use written language to teach, then we must know quite a lot about written language in order to teach effectively.

This is a fairly standard argument for what is often referred to as ‘literacy across the curriculum’. When it comes to reading intervention at secondary school, however, we still fall into the trap of thinking that this service is ‘niche’. Real secondary teachers, the sentiment goes, are specialists in their subjects. But consider: when we teach a student to read, we make every subject more accessible to them. We change the way they feel about themselves as learners. We restore their confidence. We make them more motivated to come to school and to do well. They are proud of what they have done, and they want to show their peers that they, too, are good at reading. Reading feeds into so many areas of the mind and personality that there is no sense in which it can be regarded as ‘niche’.

Rather, reading is universal. It underlies virtually all other academic skills. It fosters knowledge, motivation, creativity, empathy, resilience and a host of other skills. It is the gateway to the background knowledge that we so readily (though often incorrectly) assume that our students have. Reading builds comprehension, vocabulary and even IQ scores. Reading is therefore foundational – and as such, is the fundamental priority for schools, outranked only by the need to keep children safe.

All of which raises the question, where does reading sit in your school’s priorities?


You may also be interested in:

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

Reading is Knowledge

Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

No Excuses Left


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