English teacher, Douglas Wise discovers a book that will immediuately impact on his classroom practice
If anything, schools’ dependency on technology to see us through lockdown has made literacy even more of a critical issue. Alex Quigley opens his latest offering, Closing the Reading Gap, by stating that reading is the “master skill of school”, a phrase he repeats four times in the introduction, and it is hard to imagine it isn’t all the more so when ‘school’ has essentially been reduced to a computer screen. Yet according to Quigley, reading doesn’t receive the primacy it should in classrooms up and down the country
The book’s opening chapters provide a history of reading that encompass everything from the tablet schools of Sumer to the farthest reaches of the Internet, before moving onto the science of reading and some of the current debates around how young children are taught to read. Together, these form an intriguing theoretical framework for what comes next, which is a closer look at classroom practice and the challenges associated with helping students to read with greater fluency.
The complex and interacting factors that make reading difficult – the ‘arduous eight’– are deconstructed in chapter five and Quigley recommends practical strategies that teachers and support staff can use to evaluate the accessibility of different texts prior to using them in the classroom.
It is already influencing my online teaching
The chapter on dyslexia particularly resonated with me. Quigley writes sensitively and in depth about the struggles typically experienced by dyslexic students and ways in which the barriers they face can be gradually overcome. Despite having taught English for over a decade, I realise now that my knowledge of dyslexia and its associated challenges was superficial at best. Read the anecdotes about Matthew at the beginning and end of the chapter and you may well feel the same way as me.
Quigley dedicates a whole chapter of the book to examining the specialised ways of reading, knowing and doing in different subject disciplines. He covers everything you’d expect and more, from the distinctive ways in which a geographer reads to how phonics teaching can aid vocabulary development in a second language. There’s lots there. If you’ve got an eye on developing evidence-based approaches to ‘disciplinary literacy’ within your department or across the whole school, this chapter will serve you very well. Irrespective or your subject area or role though, Closing the Reading Gap will provide you with the knowledge you need to develop your students into fluent and skilful readers.
Particularly eye-opening for me was the overview provided on strategies to help students engage with the distinctive structures of textbooks (and booklets and worksheets). We take this for granted at our own peril, and there’s a decent chance that spending some time reading Quigley’s exposition on this topic will have an immediate impact on your practice. It certainly will on mine.
The final chapter of the book begins with a reminder about why closing the reading gap is so vital. Roughly a quarter of children arrived at secondary school in 2019 having failed to meet the expected standard. Quigley provides clear and detailed guidance on how best to assess reading at school before focusing on ways of growing a meaningful reading culture and curriculum. His writing is supported by two case studies – one from a primary school and one from a secondary – and he helpfully summarises the steps to take right at the end.
Beyond the actual content itself, Quigley applies his theory to his own writing, so that Closing the Reading Gap is an easily accessible text. The useable evidence, recommendations, strategies and case studies are all presented so that the book is easy to read cover to cover, and just as easy to use as a reference text.
Altogether then, I enthusiastically recommend Closing the Reading Gap with five shiny Schools Week stars. I know it’ll genuinely change significant aspects of my classroom practice for the better when school finally resumes, as it is already influencing my online teaching.