Previously, my approach to a text read in lessons has been to interleave the reading of a text with analytical lessons focused on developing reading skills. The aim of this would be that students practised their analysis writing skills as we explored a text. However, I found that I have been more and more worried with the lack of retention when it came to the overall plot and key events (despite regular quizzing).
This led me to the concept of ‘Faster Reading’, where students read two novels back-to-back (focusing on plot rather than detailed analysis) before going back to analyse key extracts once they have a clear understanding of the plot as a whole. The idea is that it allows students to focus on knowing the plot well rather than the ‘read a section, analyse a section’ approach that I had used previously.
With so much focus on remembering a plot for the GCSE Literature exams, I was keen to trial some of the principles with my Year 10 class this term (reading ‘A Christmas Carol’) and I have been surprised so far with the positive impact it’s had on their retention of key events.
Teaching a mixed attainment group, I was keen to ensure that students were still able to access higher levels of thinking whilst we read, so I chose to get students to make notes as we read (training them in the Cornell method as we did so). For this, students had differentiated questions to address in their notes, focusing on comprehension questions at the lower end and a sustained focus on considering Dickens’ polemic message for top-end students.
I was also careful not to overload students with too much time spent reading, so most lessons followed the structure below, with about 20 minutes of each lesson spent reading the text.
- Retrieval task through five questions on previous events (focusing on events that were significant to the events of that lesson’s chapter).
- Reading of the text, with breaks to add to notes (using the Cornell method) and to discuss some key moments/vocabulary in the text through whole-class discussion.
- Task to reflect on aspects of a key character or theme from that day’s reading- this could be as simple as sketching a character and labelling with adjectives to describe them, or writing a comparison to how they were presented earlier in the text.
- Students write (in their Cornell grid) a short summary of the events from the section we read that day.
In terms of time, this meant that the reading of the novella was condensed considerably, spread over 16 lessons instead of 35. The remaining lessons, then, involve going back over key extracts and conducting a detailed analysis, including links to other events across the whole text.
As we read the text, I was pleasantly surprised when students were able to make links to previous events- sometimes coming up with ideas that I had not considered myself. This, perhaps, could be a result of reading the text in a shorter period of time: the previous chapters were fresher in their minds and, therefore, allowed them to access this information more readily.
I have also found that, in the subsequent analysis lessons, students were being more creative with their interpretations and have been much more confident with the analysis of Dickens’ methods as they can draw on other areas of the text to further support ideas.
However, the result I am most impressed with is my students’ ability to recall quotations and events with ease and confidence in discussion tasks. This was particularly evident in a recent lesson where they were used for an interview lesson. Here it was intriguing to see what they were able to recall without my direction or scaffolding- again reinforcing how confident they feel compared to previous tasks.
It is important to note that my approach could not be considered rigorous, as there are a number of other variables that could have generated my findings, including a different mix of students and also the introduction of Cornell notes and training in self-testing for students to complete at home. That being said, I am looking forward to coming back to the text in Year 11 to see if the students recall more a year later in comparison to previous year groups.