Few educators would argue that reading is critical to a successful education. Reading builds background knowledge: of ideas, of vocabulary, of sentence construction, of spelling and of punctuation. It helps reduce the Matthew effect, and is possibly the only way to mitigate cultural bias implicit in GCSE and other standardised assessment. The more you read, the more you can read, and the more you will learn. David Didau presents an intuitive argument that having access to more culturally rich knowledge can spiral into advantage:

  • more knowledge potentially gets you into a better class at school, which pushes cognitive development compared to a weaker class
  • more cognitive development plays a part in determining the type of people you hang out with
  • those associations with people of equal or higher levels of cognitive development push and strengthen further cognitive development
  • higher cognitive capability opens access to cognitively demanding jobs, which are normally higher paid
  • intellectual levels are maintained via environmental contexts and demands

The graph below represents the potential widening of the gap between students when they are presented with varying cognitive demands over time.

Designing curriculum that demands intellectual rigour then becomes more than simply a consideration: it becomes imperative, with reading at its core. But crucially, we must design the sequence of teaching with precision, in order to avoid gaps in learning. The incomparable Tom Needham advocates such an approach here. This means that we have to be pragmatic at times, and if necessary, provide struggling readers with extra sessions to accelerate their levels to match those in their class.

Despite the enormous benefits of reading, unfortunately for many young people, and perhaps more pertinently for students who are in the higher grades at school, the love of reading, and thus reading independently, seems to have become as fictitious as the books we espouse, except for a select few. The causes of this are for another post, but it leaves educators with a dilemma. How can we get students to read outside of class?

SHORT STORIES

Building capacity to sustain attention is critical to engage students with reading for pleasure. Whilst incredible literature will always rise to the top, it is important to note that lots of it takes some time to achieve its greatness (length), and most of it requires expert teaching to help unlock the potency. The average student can be put off by a multitude of reasons, but difficulty with the cognitive demands of a text as well as a lack of perseverance are two large factors that quickly become indomitable forces against reading, invariably resulting in students not reading at all. I am certainly not suggesting that we pander to these inadequacies, but shorter stories could become the gateway to longer texts, and if it comes down to reading a shorter text or not reading at all, the choice is clear.

This can be achieved by exposing them to short, 400 – 600 word stories. It just so happens that this is the length they are required to write for their exams, so focusing on this length has an extra benefit. In fact, exposing students to these types of stories has 4 large benefits:

  • it is an extremely accessible length – 3 – 4 minutes of reading
  • it models good exam creative writing – this can be in terms of structure, as well as offering multiple opportunities to engage with vocabulary, varying sentence construction and its effects, and spelling and punctuation.
  • it provides students with ideas to generate their own stories
  • it inspires reading for pleasure

EXAM LENGTH STORIES

I need your help to build a bank of strong stories, so that students from around the world can develop their reading.

For this reason, I have decided to create a platform for students to read and share such stories. It is along the same lines as Cloud 9 Writing, but the criteria is a little less strict. Having said that, the quality still has to be maintained, and submissions need to be error free, of the designated length, and be entertaining. The platform is called EXAM LENGTH STORIES. At first, the name seems rather unimaginative, and therefore ironic, but I wanted it to say what it does on the tin, and explicitly direct students to engage in reading to assist their exam preparation. I don’t think I could make it any more explicit.

I need your help to build a bank of strong stories, so that students from around the world can develop their reading.

Student stories are submitted by teachers (an immediate quality check) via completing the upload form,* and student names of course are withheld from view. You may point out that there are quite a few sites online that publish short stories, but I can see that the quality control in terms of suiting exam style criteria is lacking, and so EXAM LENGTH STORIES may well better suit students sitting GCSE and other standardised assessments. The other advantage of this platform is regarding posterity.

Posterity

One of my great laments is that I never kept really good stories written by past students. I must have read hundreds of them over the years, and certainly have read a few out to my respective classes, but invariably, most were written in exercise books that were thrown out, never to be read again. The waste of resource is staggering. EXAM LENGTH STORIES seeks to eliminate this, calling on teachers to submit stories that are just plain and simply good reading. They don’t have to be mind blowingly author level good, they just have to be good. With access to free, moderated, purposeful stories that can be read on the bus, train or any time where 3 minutes is available, we eliminate potential barriers for the reluctant reader. Shortly, I will be creating comprehension activities to go along with each story, so they can be used as a teaching resource also.

Ultimately, EVERY story read is a movement in the right direction. Let’s all help build this so we engage our students with enough stories to hook them as readers for life.

*If you submit the form and don’t receive a reply, it will not be from want of trying from my end. Sometimes, school emails block the message generated from the platform’s email address. If this happens, please recontact and send stories to mosstribeeducation@gmail.com Thank you.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and discussions.

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