Does a mandatory reading programme have a positive impact on attitudes to reading among Year 10 boys, or does it deny them autonomy, reinforcing a negative perception of reading as a chore?

by Richard Riggs, Head of English

Context

A frequent talking point at parents’ evenings is the perception amongst teachers and parents that reading for pleasure plummets around the age of 13, particularly amongst boys. This is backed by research. For example, Hall and Coles (2002) report “a clear trend towards fewer books being read as children grow older” and that “there is a significant decline in numbers of books read by 14 year old boys”. However, there is very little research on reading during the GCSE years and seemingly none conducted at independent schools.

At my school, the English Department was concerned that many of the boys do not read enough (particularly once they have moved beyond Key Stage 3). As a result, we have implemented a ‘Reading Carousel’. Boys are given whole class sets of novels to read during each half term, followed by a quiz and discussion at the end. The books are not studied – they are merely read for enjoyment; the quiz and discussion at the end of each half-term was essentially a light touch form of accountability. The books are preselected by the department and rotated around the Year 10 classes, and considerable thought and investment has gone into buying sets of books we believed the boys were likely to enjoy – and the texts are continually added to and updated (see the Appendix, below, for the list of texts and the rationale for selecting them).

Having run this reading programme for two years, it seemed a good time to evaluate whether it was having a positive impact. Over the course of Year 10, in addition to the texts they study at GCSE, the boys will read at least six novels. Some novels are also set over holidays to increase the total beyond this, although this varies from teacher to teacher.

Whilst increased reading of fiction seems to be a prima facie benefit to children, and a short step from the class readers that are routinely given out as part of the English curriculum, mandatory reading lists divide opinion. For example, in a recent study in which my school participated, Maunsell (2017) asserted that by not allowing the boys to choose their own books, we are “arguably reinforcing the perception of boys’ incompetence and lack of agency”.

There is currently a fashion for the notion of autonomy in current reading research, as can be seen in Maunsell’s assertion that “boys cannot be forced to read as a leisure activity”. However, his study also found that when given the choice, boys often chose not to read at all, and that “reluctant readers are often not adept at finding books that interest them”. This is underscored by the fact that when asked to rank six activities in terms of preference, boys in the study rated reading as their least preferred activity (‘playing sport’ came top with 41%, followed by ‘watching YouTube’ (19%); only 5% of the participants chose reading). Maunsell (2017) also writes that the approach at my school “tallies with Pabion[‘s] (2015) [findings] that these students are not adept at choosing books that interest them, and not willing to invest in reading as a leisure activity unless forced to do so”.

This is the conundrum that confronts many English Departments: if autonomy is the goal, but boys frequently choose not to read when given a choice, then how do we get them to do something that we believe is extremely important for their development into adulthood?

Research question

Does a mandatory reading programme have a positive impact on pupils’ perceptions of reading, or does it deny them autonomy, effectively reinforcing a negative perception of reading as a chore?

Research summary

My approach was to create a pupil perception survey in order to capture the boys’ perceptions regarding the Reading Carousel. I surveyed the whole of Year 10 (138 pupils, of which 127 completed the survey)as they approached the end of a year-long mandatory reading programme. Boys were given a brief survey form to complete at the beginning of an English lesson, with the promise that the survey was anonymous and that they would be collected in by a pupil at the end of the lesson and returned to the teacher. This was to discourage the boys from writing compliant statements (i.e. saying what they thought their teacher would like to hear). The survey form seemed the most pertinent method of investigating the pupils’ perceptions en masse, and the plethora of statements attempted to cover all the responses they might have.

My initial intention was to survey parents to capture their thoughts on the Reading Carousel also, but eventually I decided against it on the basis that it seemed rather a foregone conclusion, and that it would be likely to invite positive responses regardless of whether they had noticed their sons reading more. However, this remains a potential future line of inquiry.

The boys were asked to tick ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ to the following statements:

Before the Reading Carousel, reading books was something I used to do more in Lower/Prep/Primary School

  • Reading books on the Reading Carousel…
    • has been a generally positive experience
    • has made me read other books
    • has stopped me from reading other books
    • has given me ideas for other books
    • has made my parents pleased
    • has got me back into reading
    • has put me off reading
    • has confirmed that I do not like reading
    • has been the subject of conversation between me and my friends
  • The Reading Carousel has benefitted me in the following ways:
    • I have become a more confident reader
    • I have become a faster reader
    • It has developed my vocabulary
    • It has developed my knowledge of the world (eg places, people, history)
    • It has helped me do better in English lessons
    • It has helped me do better in other subjects
    • I have mostly enjoyed the books

The pupils were also asked to place a tick next to the carousel books they had enjoyed, and a cross next to books they did not enjoy. In addition, they were asked three open questions:

  • Is there a novel that you would like to see on the carousel?
  • Do you vividly remember any books from Primary School? If so, can you name the most memorable ones?
  • If you are not a keen reader, what are you more likely to be doing instead?

I asked these questions to help the English Department make future selections regarding texts, and to look into future avenues for research (e.g. the notion of reading memories). I did not process the data gathered by these questions as part of this project.

In hindsight, the statement ‘reading books on the Reading Carousel has been the subject of conversation between me and my friends’ was too ambiguous; the boys could interpret it as either that the books were of interest and had therefore been the subject of discussion – or that they had complained to each other how much they disliked the books. As such, I do not believe that it produced any useful data.

In addition, it would perhaps have been useful to further investigate – via a focus group – why boys did or did not find the Reading Carousel a positive experience. It would also have been useful to unpack what the pupils meant when they made this assertion: were the books uninteresting? Were they an unnecessary imposition on top of general homework, sport, music lessons, socialising etc? Or perhaps they were too difficult for some individuals – something staff know from experience many of our boys do not like to admit to. Again, these are all potential lines of future inquiry.

Making sense of the findings

Firstly, I divided the responses into two groups: those who agreed that the Reading Carousel had been a ‘generally positive experience’ and those that did not. I then analysed the data in light of these responses.

The first finding was that, true to expectation, most (67%) of the boys said that they did read less than they used to:

Secondly, a similar amount (66%) of pupils stated that the Reading Carousel had been a ‘largely positive experience’:

This was an encouraging result, with two thirds of the pupils enjoying (or finding benefit in) the extra reading. It also confirmed the English department’s anecdotal evidence that most of the pupils seemed to be participating with a degree of enthusiasm. However, we should not ignore the 34% who have not found it to be a positive experience – this is still a significant number.

For the 85 boys who found the Reading Carousel to be a ‘largely positive experience’, their responses break down as follows:

The responses of the 42 students who did not find the Reading Carousel to be a positive experience break down as follows:

Pupil responses: key points

Of the boys who found the Reading Carousel a positive experience, the vast majority reported having enjoyed reading the books. Few reported any perceived benefit in other subjects, but in over half of the cases they reported that through reading, they felt they gained more knowledge of the world, their vocabulary improved and they became better at English. More than half of these boys also reported that reading more books had pleased their parents, but that it also stopped them from reading other books.

Of the boys who found the Reading Carousel a negative experience, the majority said that mostly they did not enjoy the books. Interestingly however, a quarter of these boys said they did enjoy the books, from which we might deduce that they found the imposition of compulsory reading a burden (as well as the associated time pressure/quizzes), rather than the texts themselves. In contrast, not all of the pupils who found the Reading Carousel positive said that they had mostly enjoyed the books. Here, we might assume that the boys considered the reading to be good for them rather than finding it enjoyable.

Interestingly, some of the students who broadly agree that the Reading Carousel was a generally positive experience wrote that it had confirmed that they don’t like reading. This would suggest either that the boys were not filling the questionnaires with any degree of thought, or they believed that reading was good for them despite the fact that they disliked it.

As with the positive responses, in the negative category, the increase in vocabulary was perceived by the boys to be the most substantial benefit, and ‘it has stopped me reading other books’ was the biggest complaint. In both categories, a small amount of boys wrote that the Reading Carousel confirmed that they do not like reading or that it put them off reading.

We need to consider the 34% of pupils who did not find the reading programme to be positive or beneficial. It may be that some of these boys do not want to read and will not enjoy any books they are given – but the data does not necessarily support this, as only a small number of boys said that it had confirmed they do not like reading or that it had put them off. The most substantial area of complaint seemed to be that it had stopped them from reading other books.

It is worth considering this issue from different angles. Firstly, is one book every six weeks or so such an imposition for a competent reader at a high achieving school? Surely there is time to read other books too? Perhaps the volume of homework and extra-curricular activities at my school makes this harder than English teachers might think. In some of their responses to the question ‘If you are not a keen reader, what are you more likely to be doing instead?’ a number of the boys referred to playing computer games. There is not enough data to make an issue of this, but it is there in the background – we know from research as well as anecdotally that many young people spend hours each day online or gaming.

Equally, it is possible that the fact that the novels were not chosen by the boys made it harder to undertake with enthusiasm. Introducing some kind of autonomy into the system might be a useful compromise; for example, allowing pupils to opt out of a single novel per year, or to read something else and produce a different kind of response (eg creative) in order to fulfil the reading requirement. We might also consider what the pupil is substituting – is it quality fiction? To what extent should we monitor the quality aspect? (i.e., is it enough that they are reading, regardless of the quality?) The other difficulty here is that the mandatory nature of the system is what makes it work; if too much freedom is given to the boys, then the system will collapse and very little reading will be done – we will undermine what we have achieved. This needs to be discussed as a department and considered carefully.

Changes for the future

The majority of responses to the Reading Carousel were positive, which suggests that we should continue the program and that we are doing something positive to tackle the drop in reading experienced by the majority of the boys since lower/prep/primary school. The money the department has spent on books seems to be paying off in getting the boys reading.

Since Year 9 is where reading seems to drop off, next year we will roll out the Reading Carousel to the Year 9 boys as we no longer do Library lessons with these pupils and they will not be included in next year’s Trinity Book Award (a reading programme for pupils up to and including Year 8, where they read books from a shortlist and write reviews, vote and produce creative responses; this is followed by an awards ceremony for the authors and pupils).

In response to this study, next year we will introduce an element of autonomy to see whether this increases the boys’ enjoyment of the Reading Carousel. We will also set up a focus group in September to investigate a) why some pupils felt that the Reading Carousel was a largely negative experience and b) whether the proposed autonomy would increase their enjoyment.

Appendix

Below is the current list of books that make up the Year 10 Reading Carousel. The books were selected by the department based upon their experience of teaching boys, although our own personal preferences also had an influence. The general feeling was that our boys enjoy humour, action, certain types of genre fiction and the bizarre; equally, another factor was the importance of quality fiction – we should only include novels of sufficient literary quality. However, certain quality novels suggested by staff were left out of the final list (e.g. Jane Eyre, Rebecca) because of the feeling – rightly or wrongly – that female protagonists and specific themes (love, marriage and so on) may not elicit too much enthusiasm from the boys. It should be noted that the list is dynamic: we have added to it and intend to continue to do so, so these texts could be tried out with a class at any time. Finally, we decided to leave out non-fiction texts because we have observed that these seemed to be reasonably popular with the pupil cohort, and we were trying to get them to engage with what they do not read: fiction. However, Maus and HHhH are both arguably texts which sit in the divide between fiction and non-fiction.

The final list is as follows:

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  2. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
  3. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
  4. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
  5. Maus by Art Spiegelman
  6. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  7. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  8. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  10. HHhH by Laurent Binet
  11. The Keep by Jennifer Egan
  12. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  13. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

These choices are partly circumscribed by the summer holidays reading the boys are required to do at the end of Years 9 and 10 (the boys must choose four from the list, including one starred – i.e. classic – novel):

Year 9

  • The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe *
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens *
  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
  • Slade House by David Mitchell
  • Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
  • The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
  • Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells
  • PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

Year 10

  • The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte *
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
  • Company of Liars: A Novel of the Plague by Karen Maitland
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker *
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Proposed Year 9 Reading Carousel Books for Next Year

  • A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  • Genesis by Bernard Beckett
  • Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Spies by Michael Frayn

References

Eyre-Maunsell, T. (2017) A Study in Perceptions of Boys’ Reading for Pleasure Amongst Heads of English. MA dissertation.

Hall, C., Coles, M. (1999). Children’s reading choices. London: Routledge. 

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