The Weekly Read

City of Liverpool College

This project was designed to encourage learners to read a wider range of non-fiction texts outside of the classroom and to view English not so much as a barrier, but as a gateway to vocational achievement.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).

Rationale

Learners on GCSE resit programmes tend to read little outside of their English classes which restricts them in a wide variety of ways and plays a role in limiting their ‘cultural capital’ as defined by Bourdieu. The aim of this project was initially for them to read an extra article each week outside of class, in order to experience a wider range of quality writing, see the wider relevance of English skills and, ultimately to achieve grade 4 in their GCSE resits (see Appendix 3).

This ‘Weekly Read’ approach was an idea I had discovered a few years ago on Geoff Barton’s blog (Pick ‘n’ Mix, 2013), which linked to similar studies at St Columba’s College, Dublin (Articles of the Week, 2022) the work of Kelly Gallagher (Deeper Readers, 2022)

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme and took place in the English department of our FE college, where we worked with three groups.

Although our groups are notionally grouped by grade, in real terms they are comprised of mixed ability groups drawn from students who have already achieved a grade (1, 2 or 3) at GCSE, but have yet to receive a grade 4.

Part of the wider City of Liverpool College (COLC), the Arts Centre covers visual and performing arts, and media and IT courses between Levels 1 and 3. Learners always study English and maths as part of a wider-learning programme and never in isolation.

As a result, learners are often reluctant with their maths and English studies which is reflected in lower levels of attendance than for vocational classes. Similarly, learners’ attitudes and behaviour can reflect the mandatory nature of English and maths courses

Approach

In the first stage of our project, we talked to the target groups of learners and explained the rationale behind it and discussed potential subject areas of interest and presentation i.e. would learners prefer a formatted and word processed document or a simple link to a webpage? (See Appendix 3 for a list of websites that we went on to use as source material. Two are shown below.)

A screen shot of a news item on the BBC news website saying 'how I escaped a hidden world of gangs and exploitation'The feedback we gathered at this stage was promising and learners seemed to understand the concept and could see the potential benefits.

However, initial progress was slow. Although learners took paper copies, few of them looked at the Weekly Read articles online or completed the associated reflection questions. There was a feeling that the activity was optional and, as a result, learners opted not to participate.

Homework has never been part of studying for GCSE English resits during my time at the college, so completing Weekly Read activities at home involved a complete culture change which felt overambitious with our cohort. After discussion with my OTLA mentor, Helen Hewlett, we relaunched the Weekly Read as a mandatory class-based activity after the Christmas vacation.

In lessons, a PowerPoint slide was used to mark the formal end of the lesson and to ask the learners to pack up their resources. The aim of this was to draw a clear distinction between the lesson itself and the Weekly Read. Only then did I distribute copies of the week’s article and ask them read and reflect upon the attached questions.

As learners read quietly, I monitored their reactions and noted down any clues about their A screenshot of a Guardian newspaper article about Emma Raducanu and multiculturalism in the UKengagement, recording minute-by-minute reactions to the text. An example of this would be to look how long it took for a learner to become distracted and check their phone or start to put their coat on. Details I included for each group would be allotted time, time taken to settle and any disturbances or interruptions, as well as the numbers of learners in attendance (see Appendix 4).

At the end of the task, I asked the learners for feedback on the article, asking an open question to the group about how they felt about this week’s article. I then followed this up with targeted questions when a learner hadn’t spoken. I transcribed this myself, because I felt that the group may have been distracted by the recording equipment.

Latterly, I began to ask for anonymous feedback using Mentimeter (see below for an example). This was partly because I doubted that learners were being completely honest. Firstly, they tended to agree with the first comment a learner made. Secondly, I had to consider whether learners were telling me what I what I wanted to hear. Lastly, there were a few learners who were relentlessly optimistic and upbeat, and in contrast, one or two who were the opposite. I found that the usage of an anonymous feedback via an app like Mentimeter was a far more accurate gauge of impact.

A screenshot of a Menti slide showing learners' views about their 'daily read' (e.g. 'It was funny, relatable and sometimes different than usual')

At the end of the project, I asked the participating learners to complete surveys about their thoughts about the Weekly Read project, but also more generally about studying English. As a contrast, I then asked two groups who had not taken part in the project the same questions about studying English in order to see if there were any notable differences (see Appendix 5).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

I tested learners’ attitudes towards English at the end of the project. I used a combination of resources to help me to gather this data including MS Forms or Mentimeter questionnaires, or also focus one-to-one interviews to gather the learners’ views (see Appendix 5).

I also plan to measure grade improvements in these specific groups against control groups that had not taken part in the project. However, I did feel that it would be hugely optimistic to expect a sudden or marked shift and, even if there were to be positive change, it would be unrealistic to assign the Weekly Read as the main or sole cause of the improvement.

All the groups simply settled down and got on with readingHowever, the response of the learners had already convinced me that there was something to this idea that was worth pursuing. For example, at no point had classes become unsettled or disruptive, or even questioned the purpose of the Weekly Read project. These were, by definition, learners who often lacked any real intrinsic motivation, so this was positive already. All groups had simply settled down and got on with reading this week’s text independently which met the initial aim of the project with the learners being exposed to a wider range of non-fiction texts than they might usually have been.

I feel that the introduction of the Weekly Read concept from the very start of the academic year would have strengthened the project as a whole and may even have meant that learners undertook their reading tasks outside of the classroom setting. Completing the Weekly Read could have been incorporated into early lessons about acceptable behaviour and conduct in class alongside punctuality and bringing the correct equipment. I was encouraged by the fact that one learner who did complete all of the Weekly Read activities from the start of the project until mid-January passed her GCSE resit with a Grade 5 in the November resit exam.

Organisational Development

COVID absences and an ongoing industrial dispute at the college meant that lessons were frequently disrupted during the autumn term. This may explain partly why the project didn’t initially gain traction. As a result, the project was not expanded to engage learners beyond the initial three groups.

In light of the impact of the industrial action in the autumn term, I feel the project deserves to be extended because the potential gains outweigh the minimal costs.

Recently, COLC has started to foster links between vocational courses and foundation English (and maths) because attendance for English and maths tends to be considerably worse. This could be an option for the Weekly Read going forward: a weekly article to be read during vocational class time and (perhaps) linked to the vocational area. Vocational tutors often have a greater influence over learners in their subject area and this would emphasise the idea that English is something that will continue to be useful and isn’t simply a barrier to stop learners achieving their vocational potential.

I plan to present the findings of the project to the rest of the English tutors in the college. While they have been curious about the research during the year, I want to complete the project before sharing the findings more formally with the rest of the English team.

Learning from this project

What Went Well

At the end of the project, I asked all of my learners to complete surveys about their attitudes to English (the cohort that had taken part in the Weekly Read experiment were also asked additional questions). While generally the results were consistent, one question showed a marked difference between the two groups. 71% of the Weekly Read cohort reported feeling “confident” or “somewhat confident” about their own abilities in English, against 54% of the control group (see Appendix 5).

71% of the Weekly Read cohort reported feeling “confident” or “somewhat confident” about their own abilities in English, against 54% of the control group

The reaction of the learners in all three groups has been encouraging. Even on those occasions when feedback comments were critical of that week’s text, the learners had been engaged in reading the text quietly and carefully (see Appendix 4). In those weeks where the Weekly Read was cancelled (for example, during GCSE mocks), some learners commented that they enjoyed that part of the lesson and missed it.

As noted earlier, the response of the learners has already convinced me that there is something to this idea that is worth pursuing. In light of the low motivation levels and disruptive behaviour characteristic of a GCSE resit class I was delighted to see how all groups settled down and got on with reading the week’s text independently and began to explore a wider range of non-fiction texts, which was the original aim of the project.

During the early stages of the project, one learner did engage fully with the Weekly Read activities and was thorough in her reading and reflecting on the articles outside of her English class. She completed the GCSE resit course and passed her November exam with a grade 5.

A screenshot of a BBC (online) news article about 'the pressures and rewards of being an influencer'A small body of resources has been built up that can be used in future and shared with the rest of the English team in the college.

Looking at the learner’s feedback from individual articles, two articles proved particularly popular. One was an extract from a memoir set in Liverpool in the 1970s and the other was an account of the pros and cons of being a social media influencer.

Words like ‘relatable’ featured frequently in feedback for both articles. The conclusion I would draw from this is that learners may be more comfortable reading something that is somehow familiar to them. However, it is unclear whether this is because they lack the cultural capital to tackle an unseen text or for other reasons. Also, it is unclear whether ‘local’’ writing might prove as popular in other parts of the country.

It reminds me of a learner earlier in my career who had been excluded from school and had ended up in her mid-teens in adult community education studying literacy. Her passion was rap music and the culture that surrounds it, and I was initially able to engage her with biographical texts about famous music artists. However, after one or two sessions when it was time to broaden her reading, she was very reluctant and wanted to know why we couldn’t stick to that specific subject matter. Similarly, if the Weekly Read articles were drawn from modern popular culture (for example, video gaming or social media) or local writing, would that really achieve the purpose of exposing the learners to wider range of quality reading?

Even Better If

I feel that the project would have got off to a stronger start if it had been launched at the very start of the academic year. In this way, the learners would have been clear that it was a mandatory part of the lesson and important to their future success. They may also have been able to see the impact and usefulness of the Weekly Read articles on their English studies.

We also had to contend with the ongoing disruption caused by COVID-19 and continued industrial disputes at the college. COVID-19 affected the attendance and both learners and staff at college. It also meant that there was a lack of momentum during the wider academic year. It will be interesting to see the effect of this on GCSE grades in the summer.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners

    One of the main goals of the project was for the learners to read more outside of the classroom. However, after early difficulties in engaging learners in reading articles as homework, I felt the project only started to make progress when I began to build the activities into lessons.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and Knowledge

    Feedback from the learners demonstrated that some enjoyed and benefited from a short period of quiet and reflection. It further demonstrated that English could be relevant to real life and not simply a barrier to progression.

  • 5. Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion

    Although teaching assistants and students made suggestions, I chose the articles for the Weekly Read but I was mindful that my background and heritage was very different from that of many of the learners. As a result, I was careful to try to choose articles that reflected a diverse range of experiences and opinions. For example, articles have explored homelessness, migration, addiction and mental health.

Appendices

Appendix 1: The project team

Appendix 2: Learner case studies

Appendix 3: Weekly Read articles

Appendix 4: Reflective teaching notes on six sessions

Appendix 5: Learner surveys

References

Barton, G. (2017) Weekly Reading. Available at: http://blog.geoffbarton.co.uk/site/Blog/Blog.html (Accessed: 17th March 2022)

Gallagher, K (2022) Building Deeper Readers & Writers. Available at: http://www.kellygallagher.org/article-of-the-week/ (Accessed: 2nd August 2021)

Riches, A (2020) What Does OFSTED Mean by Cultural Capital? Available at: https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/what-does-ofsted-mean-cultural-capital (Accessed: 19th May 2022)

St. Columba’s College, Dublin (2021) Articles of the Week. Available at: http://www.sccenglish.ie/2013/09/articles-of-week-2013-14.html (Accessed: 2nd August 2021)