Improving Engagement in 16-19 Study Programmes

Havant and South Downs College

The purpose of this project was to increase learners’ time spent reading and to demonstrate to them the impact that reading can have on their ability to communicate with the world around them.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK].

Summary

A Reading Culture Group was established by three English teachers, two of whom are Teaching and Learning Coaches (TLCs), across two college sites. The group consisted of the three teachers and one group of learners per teacher.

These learners were 16-18 year olds on vocational study programmes, who were working towards Entry/Level 1 Functional Skills and GCSE English.

The project would focus on three activities which would develop a reading culture in the groups, as well as develop learners’ skills related to reading and writing. These included a ‘Read Anything Initiative’, a book swap and finally, the opportunity to enter a writing competition where the winner was published in the local paper.

Rationale

Evidence suggests that a limited exposure to literature will have a negative impact on a learner’s drive (and ability) to learn how to express their thoughts, opinions and aspirations through their writing.

Our project aimed to overcome this resistance to reading by demonstrating that literature can be accessible and interesting, as well as a tool to aid expression. We hoped that the project would demonstrate to learners that reading in order to develop writing provides them with the skills they need to pass exams and also enriches their lives, gives them a voice and aids in their progression in to employment and beyond.

Approach

Stage 1: Read Anything Initiative – Learners were given a clock or questionnaire to complete, stating what they believed they read on a daily basis. They initially needed assistance with this as they believed that when we spoke about reading, we were focusing purely on novels. Once we discussed all reading, such as shampoo bottles, timetables, and so on, the learners became more engaged. This backed up the idea that students only associated novels and fiction with reading.

Once learners had completed the questionnaire or clock a group discussion arose around how learners chose what they were going to read and what they liked/disliked.

From this, we found:
• the majority of learners read what is needed for studies, not for fun;
• learners are more likely to read something that had been recommended by a peer;
• learners wanted to read something that will immediately engage them and that has a clear purpose.

The learners were then put in to Thinking Pairs (Kline, 1999) at the beginning of each session where they were asked to summarise what they have enjoyed reading in one uninterrupted minute. After the learners had shared their experiences this was then brought into a whole class discussion. Some of the questions raised from these discussions were:
• What was the last thing that the learners had enjoyed reading?
• How long ago was this?
• Why do they no longer read for ‘pleasure’?

It became clear, from this, that most learners stopped reading for pleasure aged 11, when it was no longer compulsory to read at school.
Following this, learners were tasked to read anything of their choice (e.g. social media or a bus timetable, and progressing on to areas currently less familiar e.g. newspapers, book from the resource centre etc, differentiated by individual learners).

Stage 2: Literature Swap: Learners (who have progressed from Stage 1 and have been encouraged to identify a genre they like to read from the variation of activity from the Read Anything Initiative) brought their texts in to share with others. This was also shared on a Padlet. Again, they were put into thinking pairs where they summarised, in one minute, why their partner should read it, using persuasive techniques they had been working on within their GCSE and Functional Skills lessons. This could be a literary work, an article or even a useful document linked to their vocational subject – whatever they wanted to share.

The learners were also given time to read for ten minutes at the start of the session. Some read in the library and others in the classroom environment, depending on what was more suitable for that group of learners: for example, Foundation stage completed reading or were read to in the classroom, Level 2 / Level 3 BTEC learners were more engaged when reading in the Learning Resource Centre independently.

During this stage there was a learner who was reluctant to carry on reading. After discussions it became clear that he did not enjoy the book he was reading yet he thought he had to continue. This was rectified by us going to the LRC and choosing a different book. Once this was completed the learner was re-engaged and enjoyed the book that he was reading. The learner thought they were expected to complete all books and were not familiar with the practice when reading for pleasure of leaving a book and choosing another.

Another teacher went down a different path and took the learners to a local primary school. Here learners were actively involved with reading with younger pupils. The feedback here was that the learners were amazed at how passionate the younger learners were about reading and this reignited their own passion.

Stage 3: Writing Competitions: Learners contributed to writing competitions using a sample text for inspiration. They were taught how to complete ‘shadow writing’. Students were to create some writing using what they have read to help them with ideas, structure, vocabulary and punctuation. The connection between the development of their reading skills and increased exposure to literature was highlighted by their tutors as they created the competition entries (150 words creative writing).

The winner from the competitions was chosen by vocational tutors and then published in the local newspaper (Figure 7a-1). This demonstrated to the learners how, through reading more, they were able to have a voice in their local paper. All other learners’ writing will be published in a high-quality booklet at the end of the year.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

As the project progressed the three teachers involved developed their skills as reflective and evaluative teachers. They all felt that engaging in the action research project gave them the encouragement to try new things in the classroom, especially those they anticipated would meet resistance. They became more aware of the need to compile evidence of whether a teaching and learning approach was working for their groups and provided areas to think about with regards to responsive teaching that they may not have considered previously.

For example, by collecting evidence from learners about how much they read at the outset of the project compared with the amount they found themselves reading at the end of the project we were able to see how effective the teaching approach had been. We took account of changes in behaviours, thoughts and opinions as well as what they read as evidence that our teaching approach was effective. Developing their reading and writing skills was value-added for the learners.

Staff feedback showed that the action research training empowered them to experiment in the classroom, to try something that doesn’t end up working for some learners, to reflect upon this realisation and to modify approaches and try again. For example, the staff intended that all learners would be part of the Reading Culture group, but found for some that the expectation of each stage was too high. However, they succeeded by modifying the approach from the learners reading themselves to the teacher reading to some groups and the use of audio books for those who found reading for themselves too demanding.

The project also encouraged the English teachers involved to look further than their own teams and colleagues for collaboration; for example, collaborating with the Literacy Lead in the infant school was a valuable link as we were able to gain a more in-depth understanding of the phonics-based teaching methodology employed in Early Years education. As more of our learners progress through the phases having been taught phonics at school, I anticipate that I will be able to incorporate this into our teaching, in particular for the newly introduced spelling requirement of FS English.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

By engaging in this project, three English teachers working across two different sites had the opportunity to develop their professional relationships and communities of practice by sharing best practice in a way that they had not been able to do before. The teachers who engaged in the project have commented that the dissemination and training events gave them the opportunity to discuss and consider their practice with colleagues from other providers. They felt that it was refreshing and gave them a new perspective to assess how best to help our learners develop their English skills in meaningful ways.

Further collaboration includes the relationship developed between the English teachers and the Learning Resource Centre staff, as well as the students talking to the librarians about the kinds of books and authors they would like to see on the shelves in the College library. This conversation was unlikely to take place in the everyday business of the library. The librarians also got involved in showing the students how the journals could now be obtained digitally. Library staff are now considering the viability of introducing a more in-depth induction to the library, with the view that learners from all areas, even those not participating in English can be involved, creating a reading culture that will be college wide.

In terms of further cross-college collaboration, inviting the vocational TLCs in to judge the creative writing competition initiated discussions about how we could encourage the students to read more widely, such as through building library sessions into the timetable. This will be implemented next academic year.

TLCs from all departments were also given a visualiser to use in the classroom in order to encourage the use of the printed word for vocational study, rather than only online resources. This encouraged the TLCs to engage in the project and role model how a ‘Reading Culture’ can link directly into learners’ chosen vocations. These initiatives have sown the seeds of a culture of a more holistic approach across the organisation to developing a Reading Culture.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Questionnaires regarding their reading habits at the beginning of the project included learners commenting that: “I don’t read books…takes too long…old people like [books], younger people like their phones” and “At senior school you would be called a swot or geek if you read”. This indicated some of the reasons for a lack of engagement in reading literature for pleasure.

The same learners questioned at the end of the project reported that they had enjoyed the experience of reading again and were engaged and on task during the reading sessions without the involvement of the tutor. Tutors reported that attendance was good throughout the project with attendance at 95% for the learners involved, compared to 89% attendance in English classes across the college. Learners actively looked forward to the sessions and would ask in advance if the reading session was going to take place that week.

Teachers who engaged in the project were able to show changes in learners’ reading behaviours. Some learners who were disengaged with reading at the outset were encouraged to explore different genres, increased their reading time from zero hours to 45 minutes per day. After engaging in the project, a teacher was reported as saying, “Student A has regained her love for reading. She is now reading for an average of 45 minutes a day on the bus home from college…she has now read a variety of different genres and will often be seen around college with her nose in a book or in the LRC looking for new reads”.

Further evidence that the learners changed their feelings towards reading include how the group self-managed their reading behaviours: for example, one group set up a book club type activity where they were all reading and discussing the same novel. A second group chose to read a single book out loud to each other, even including two students who were not members of the class. Others chose to read independently.

Reading a variety of texts enabled learners to produce some fantastic competition entries and it is hoped that it will contribute to the development of the skills required to write more creatively for Functional Skills and GCSE exams. Not only has reading introduced them to new terminology, interesting spellings, developing vocabulary, demonstrated use of punctuation but has also built their knowledge of the world and provided them with information they can draw on to respond to transactional and creative writing tasks.

As a result of the Reading Culture group activities, all students felt confident to engage in the story writing task and reported that the reading had generated ideas. They were also sufficiently confident in both the quality of the story telling and their ability to read aloud that they read their stories to their peers. This is something they were reluctant to do before the start of the project.
33 learners, across both colleges took part in the project, with 21 completing the writing competition. Whilst learners were encouraged to participate it was not a compulsory activity so we were amazed at how many learners chose to take part. Learners were encouraged to use ‘new and exciting’ vocabulary from texts they had read during this project.

Learning from this project

We learned that sometimes the expectation that learners are able to pick up a text and start reading, even if it is for their reading ability, is not always possible. However, by using alternative approaches such as audio books and reading to the learners, all learners were able to enjoy the process of reading especially when they were told it was fine to stop reading something you were not enjoying and read something else.

The research confirmed that learners viewed reading as an academic activity solely linked to English lessons and this had become an attitude embedded throughout their school life from when they stopped reading for pleasure at about age 11.

We learned however that by empowering the learners to choose their own texts, recognising and building their existing reading skills the time became pleasurable.

Our views about the extent of reading digitally were confirmed by the project questionnaires and that the nature of most on-line reading led to learners reading only brief texts. This meant that they found it difficult to read longer texts.

We also discovered that reading paper-based texts was viewed as an old person’s activity, which possibly explained much of their reluctance to read magazines, books or other texts.

The latter stages focused on how to develop their skills as a writer. The publication of the stories gave the learners tangible evidence that being able to write gives them a voice and is not a skill restricted to use in an English lesson or examination.

The tutors have learned from this project the value of including the views and opinions of the learners through the use of questionnaires, empowering them to choose their own reading material and helping learners to recognise that not only do they have reading skills but that they also use them all the time. These findings were significant in the overall success of the project and can be replicated in other curriculum areas.

Finally, the tutors learned the value of trialling different approaches and of holding professional conversations with colleagues across the country to develop themselves professionally. They now feel empowered to do the same for other topics.