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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.

What if in every school every pupil spent an hour a day reading fiction?

There is a significant movement building towards securing better reading outcomes at eleven. That sounds a bit anodyne. Let's say rather that there is a large group of people who are asserting that we should ensure every child leaves primary able to read well. 

Could there be anything more important? My personal belief is that literacy equals freedom. That it opens doors to opportunities. That it raises possibilities. And that getting lost in a book is itself a form of escape from ourselves and our situations.

This is, of course, more than just the technical skills of reading, more than passing a test. It means being able to read well enough in terms of vocabulary and fluency to find pleasure in it. 

Government policy in recent years has focused on the component skills of early literacy, particularly the systematic application of synthetic phonics. Let me get this out of the way now: the systematic use of phonics has the best evidence base of working for the largest amount of children in terms of delivery decoding skills. It does not work for every child, nor is decoding the only component of reading. The official advocation of phonics has at times appeared to risk caricature when it neglects the development of vocabulary and the habits of storytelling. 

But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water, let's build from here. What are the next big steps for the system in unlocking the birthright of every child to access the world of literature, to have the privilege of spending an hour or two on a regular basis of looking out at the world though someone's eyes?

I suggest that the focus now lies on either side of Key Stage 1 - into early years and up into Key Stage 2. In early years, we need to turn our attention to speaking and listening. This is the foundation for decoding. Our nurseries should be alive with conversation, between adults and children and between children. 

In the older years of primary school, I think the trouble is that children just don't read enough. We should strip back the social engineering and the constant initiatives forced on schools and just spend time reading.

What if in every school every pupil spent an hour a day reading fiction from the ages of seven to eleven? What if teachers could settle down alongside them and read too? A peaceful time but an immensely productive one. Ironically, this would lift standards far more than frantic coaching to the test. What burdens could be lifted off schools to make this practice widespread?

We get into many arguments about 'canon'. What should a well-educated child have read by age eleven? There is no complete answer. What if every primary school created and published its own canon? These are the books your child will have read by the time they leave and here's why we think they're great. I'd rather see this on a school website than a list of activities to promote British values. And I'd learn far more about the school. 

I'm sure this is not a comprehensive diagnosis or prescription, but some elements that stand out to me.

31 October 2014