Expanding foam and Dickens’ Twist-ing gift that keeps on giving or: how to get your students to read a ‘proper’ book all on their own

Sunday morning. I’m at home. I was supposed to be in Halifax for a comic-con pushing Stella’s post-apocalyptic tales, but Storm Jorge saw it postponed. That means I have time that I hadn’t planned for. A whole day with nothing to occupy me as I wasn’t supposed to be here. What to do, what to do…

I should write. I should grab that project, grab some zombies by their desiccated throats, and wrestle back the control and momentum that I’ve lost over the windy winter weeks.

Or read. Just for pleasure. My pile of Christmas presents remains untouched and there are lots of goodies in it. Plus, I’ve just bought a copy of Stephen Fry’s ‘Mythos’ and I’m quite giddy to get into it. Fry’s fabulous simile, ‘great ropes of semen trail in its wake like ribbons from a kite’, to describe Ouranos’s flung genitals (after his son, the titan Kronos, had cut them off with a scythe made by his mother, Gaia) did force me into a double take the morning after the night before when at Y10 parents’ evening I was recommending the book to all and assuring them it will raise their understanding of GCSE Literature texts and characters. Still, we’ll link all that brutal, bloody and spermicidal fury to Macbeth or Scrooge somehow, I’m sure…

But, I’m an English teacher and the best and worst part of the job is the expanding foam of our sources and stimulus. So, my gained Sunday is taken by the construction of an ‘Oliver Twist’ reading quiz.

This has been my Sunday routine for several weeks now and middle child commented this morning that if I simply didn’t bother I would be more popular with students and have more time for myself. Work less and get more, he said. It’s obvious to him. But I never could cheat.

And I’m not complaining. Expanding foam comes from a can with a button and nothing to force me to press it. I did press it, just before Christmas when I decided that Y9 would all be set nine weeks’ homework of six chapters per week of Dickens’ classic, running from January to March. It’s been a testing time, for them and for me.

How much is too much when it comes to reading? How much of a risk am I taking by setting so much and with such a demanding text? Musicals and repeated movies and TV shows have given Twist a reputation as easy entertainment, something familiar and accessible to all, but his 1837 novel is at times impenetrable for even the keenest of young readers brought up on Walliams and Rowling. And what about the not-so-keen, the dyslexics, the weaker readers and those with English as a second language?

It’s been a bumpy road. Great ropes of complaints and behaviour points for detentions trailing in the weekly reading quiz’s wake like the ribbons from a kite, if you like. At first the students simply refused and so I brought them it at break and read with them. We discovered together good practice and hints and tips to succeed. They began to help each other before, during and after the reading and the quiz. I gave them sweets for getting at least half the answers right. It’s amazing what they’ll do for a Maoam or a chocolate.

So, here are a few tips for helping students through a difficult text while still allowing the independence of reading it for themselves:

  • Read one chapter a week with them. If you’re brave enough, read in accents, bring the characters to life for them so that they can transfer the ‘voices’ to their own reading.
  • Youtube. Good old Youtube. Encourage them to find quality readings of the text. Let them listen instead of read. Do encourage them to follow along but do not do anything to turn them off accessing the words and the story in whatever way suits them.
  • For those who genuinely struggle, for whatever reason, let them read a summary of the story, preferably chapter by chapter, before they read. Knowing what’s going to happen allows them to focus on what they can gain from reading the language, and not having to figure out what’s going on allows them opportunities for understanding and appreciation, both vital for the difficult skill of evaluation.
  • Provide time and space to read at breaks, dinner times and after school. After all, you’ll probably have to read along with them to create your quiz, so why not do it all together?  Most won’t come. Some will only come once or twice. So what? You’ll still be reading.
  • Create lessons around what they have read. Let them realise that they already have control of the learning, how much time they have because so much of the lesson is not taken with simply trying to understand and allow them to bring questions about what they have read. It’s amazing how quickly they can understand the characterisation of Mr Bumble when they have spent time with the character rather than simply examined extracts.

And that’s that. Tomorrow I will quiz them on chapters 43 to 48 and then set them the final five chapters (they get a chapter’s respite for the final week!) for homework. From next week I’ll have to set them written homework again, and I’m hoping that they will complain, that they’ll regret not having another book to read, that they’ll ask me for another book, for a recommendation. Great ropes of hope etc.

‘Twist’ really is the gift that keeps on giving; the foam that has filled my Sundays has meant that I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting an old classic – it really is a delightful way to spend a Sunday morning – and I have a class of Y9s who now (some of them too-cool-for-school reluctantly) get to be proud of themselves on a weekly basis. So, how much of a risk did I take? It turns out, nothing. We can do this, their smiles say to me as they chew on their sweets.


Expanding foam and Dickens’ Twist-ing gift that keeps on giving or: how to get your students to read a ‘proper’ book all on their own

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