By David Didau
26 February, 2021
David Didau, senior lead practitioner for English at Ormiston Academies Trust (OAT), has been working alongside English curriculum leads, subject teachers and mentors to develop the English curriculum and subject-based pedagogy for schools and teacher training across the Trust. Here, he discusses how he came to teach English, what made him fall in love with reading, and why we need to change our collective focus to ensure this vital part of a student’s development is engaging and rewarding for everyone.
The (not so) secret history
As a youngster growing up in Birmingham there was relatively little to do – especially if you weren’t sporty – so I read. Interestingly, I struggled to learn to read, myself. One of my teachers in primary school told my mum that I would probably never learn to read but, luckily for me, she wasn’t having that! She took me out of school and got me working through a phonics programme until I was able to read fluently. Then, to get me into the habit of reading, she read half of a chapter from a Famous Five book and then told me I’d have to read on myself if I wanted to know what happened next. From there, I hoovered up my dad’s collection of 1950s sci-fi and then moved on to our local library.
It’s hard to say what the most important book I read whilst at school was, but my GCSE English teacher, Mr Birch, saw something in me and would talk to me about books and make recommendations. We studied The Mayor of Casterbridge and he encouraged me to go away and read other Hardy novels like The Trumpet-Major, as well as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which I loved. He picked me to read the part of Mercutio when we read Romeo and Juliet, and he’d give me loads of poetry to read and discuss. All of this fed my mind and helped me to see a wider world. Without these kinds of experiences, I would probably never have gone to university and become a teacher myself.
On the road
After I finished my degree I trained as a teacher of English as a foreign language and taught English in various different countries for a few years. When it became clear that this probably wasn’t a viable long-term career option, I enrolled on a PGCE course. This was back in the late 90s when relatively few English teachers had my experience of teaching grammar, so I found myself surprisingly in demand. Although I stopped teaching English full time back in 2012 and have spent most of the intervening years focusing on literacy across the curriculum and whole-school approaches to improving teaching and learning, literature remains my first and best love. In fact, I have a new book, Making Meaning in English, which attempts to distil all my knowledge of teaching English into a readable format, due to be published this month. I hope that by applying some of the ideas and principles outlined in the book I can help support English teachers across OAT to ensure that the subject is loved by all of our 30,000 young people.
As I’m sure you can appreciate, the pandemic has made this a very unusual start to a new job. Ordinarily, I would have wanted to visit as many schools as possible to get to know the English departments across the trust but instead I’ve spent most of my time speaking to people on screens. The upside to this is that I’ve been able to meet pretty much every head of English and have been able to provide remote training to English teams on subjects as varied as grammar, creative writing, poetry, oracy, and Shakespeare. Part of my brief is to oversee the production of an OAT curriculum offer. However, having spoken with heads of English across many of our academies, almost every OAT school has overhauled its English curriculum over the past three years and so doing this again did not feel the right approach. Instead, my plan has evolved to agreeing some common principles around what English teaching should be and then providing some structures which schools can adapt to better showcase their curriculum components. To make this come alive I’m planning to showcase some of the extraordinary work that’s been undertaken across the Trust to make suggestions and provide worked examples on different ways our schools are making the subject come alive.
Brave new world
I’m currently working on a project to build a culture of reading across the Trust. Although many students – especially in secondary schools – claim to ‘hate reading’, it’s always been clear to me that they invariably love being read to. Over the past few years I worked with a number of schools to initiate a solution to this conundrum that tries to get away from the old-fashioned silent reading approach and instead focusses on teachers reading aloud to students.
I’m planning a conference for Tuesday 9 March which will be aimed primarily at senior leaders and will focus on what schools can do to build the reading culture in their communities. It will address the research around the importance of reading to children’s academic and emotional development and will explore the barriers that commonly exist. I believe that possibly the biggest hidden obstacle to school improvement is the fact that an estimated 20% of students leave primary school every year unable to decode fluently enough to access the secondary curriculum. I say ‘hidden’ because it’s very difficult for schools to get good data on this as it requires one-to-one testing to discover the extent of the issue.
Part of the conference will address how we can identify, intervene with and monitor the progress of these students. The other strand will discuss the idea that independent reading for pleasure is impossible for students who are not fluent readers and that our best bet to narrow the attainment gap between our most advantaged and disadvantaged students is to read aloud to them. We’ll finish by looking at some of the successful models from across the Trust to see how these strategies can be embedded. It really is no exaggeration to say that this should be one of the top priorities for school leaders, especially in light of the widening disparities caused by Covid-19.
We often talk about valuing passing on a love of reading but if this really is something we value we need to ask ourselves why do so few young people – especially boys, as has been indicated through all kinds of research – value reading. If school leaders don’t value the merits of a love of reading enough to make it a priority in schools, then maybe it’s small wonder that students get the message that reading is what you do to pass tests and little else. I passionately believe that reading allows us to visit times and places that would otherwise be out of reach. It allows us to time travel and get to have conversations with some of the most remarkable minds that have ever lived. Young people today have so many other options available to them that reading – even for skilled readers – is often pushed to the bottom of the pile. This is another reason why taking the time to read to our students is so important. There really is no better way to address the deficits in cultural capital, background knowledge and vocabulary.