We love reading in my department. Really love it. And I don’t just mean for our own enjoyment.
We love reading in lessons. We do it all the time. It’s an absolute staple of our teaching. Along with talking. Writing. Listening. Card sorting. Looking closely at objects and images. Colour-coding timelines and creating living graphs.
Reading. It forms the core of probably half to two-thirds of our lessons. So much so that earlier this week I calculated that my Year 7 pupils have read over 20,000 words since September. Each.
I love it. I look forward to it. And (I think) my pupils do too. No longer do they complain when I hand out the reading for today’s lesson or instruct them to take out their booklets. Instead, I’m now faced with shouts of protest when we stop reading for the day. I’ve had to ban pupils from turning the page and reading ahead.
I’m even seeing evidence of this passion for reading history in pupils’ own book selections. And not just those who arrived at secondary school reading at the level of a 16-year-old. Just this week, a Year 7 boy who started in September with very limited English proudly showed me how far through Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads he was (and not the illustrated version).1 And a Year 9 boy, who struggled to write a sentence 18 months ago, made me go back a slide so he could note down the title of David Olusoga’s The World’s War.2
If I can continue along this direction of travel, I think it might become one of my proudest achievements as a history teacher. Because reading is integral to our subject. And the discipline of history. If pupils are going to choose to study the subject – at GCSE, or A Level, or university – they need to want to read history. If they are going to continue to enjoy the subject long after they’ve left school, it would help if they want to pick up a book.
And in the shorter-term, if pupils – all my pupils – are going to be successful at KS3 and KS4, they need to read and re-read. They need to want to read and re-read.
A love of reading history – something I am aiming to encourage in all my pupils.
So here are some of the things I’m trying to do in my ongoing attempt to make reading history accessible, and enjoyable, for all my pupils (as well as a way of helping them to learn loads).
1. Find, or write, the right text. A text that will come to life in the classroom. That will bring the past to life in the classroom. Not just analytical, ‘information sheets’ (I’ve written and used more than enough to last a lifetime!). But, as Christine Counsell, Paula Worth and Mike Hill (amongst others) have encouraged, texts that release the power of story.3 Stories, stories, stories. Stories that draw the reader in. That create – or re-create! – intrigue and suspense. Drama. Beauty. Surprise. Stories that follow historical actors as they move through their world(s). That paint images of the landscape – a physical landscape, yes, but also a landscape full of ideas and relationships. Stories that get us inside buildings, villages, towns and cities. On to ships. Observing the action. There are loads of places to find such texts, or inspiration for writing your own. I’ve included a list of starting points here, and include the opening of a narrative I’ve used to teach the Renaissance below:
The full narrative from my Renaissance enquiry can be found here.
N.B. There are obviously times when we also read extracts from historical scholarship or written sources.
2. Get the right balance of new and familiar. This means considering vocabulary – slowly introducing new words – as well as people, places and concepts. Not stuffing them all into the first two paragraphs! But, as Tim Jenner drew attention to in a recent talk, it also means checking there is enough that is familiar for pupils to latch on to more generally – someone going on a journey, someone worried about their family, a crowd protesting.4 In this (almost) denouement of my narrative of the build-up to the outbreak of civil war, pretty much everything is familiar. Pupils have already met the Earl of Strafford, have seen examples of pamphlets and are familiar with MPs. They’ve briefly come across the Act of Attainder before, but even if it’s not completely secure this passage will reinforce their understanding. On top of this, there are a number of the familiar ideas mentioned above. All pupils are now ready to enjoy the dramatic moments of April and May 1641:
3. Introduce, and build knowledge of, new concepts before naming them. Concepts like parliament, humanism and authority are tricky. Slippery. They can mean different things at different times and in different contexts. They are also huge. Each word – parliament, humanism and authority – stands for a complex web of meanings that seems to have no end. I find such words/concepts unsuitable for explicit vocabulary instruction. It is impossible to give a full definition. And approached in that way they are rendered abstract. A tricky new word with a brief, abstract definition. Nothing for pupils to latch on to. Nothing to latch on to pupils’ prior knowledge or pre-existing schema. Nothing that means anything to pupils or provides them with mental images. If I give a brief definition of parliament, can pupils see what Simon de Montfort called in 1265? No wonder my pupils always forget these words. Much more effective, I’m finding, to build pupils’ knowledge of the concept before they know the word. Give them concrete examples. Build their mental images. Start curating the webs of meaning. Then name it. Here’s a later extract from my Renaissance narrative, where I attempt to introduce ‘humanism’ in this way:
4. Ensure pupils can see, and are intrigued by, the puzzle at the heart of the enquiry question. I explored how I tried to do this when introducing an enquiry on the causes of the English Civil War(s) here. This is crucial – once pupils can see the puzzle in the enquiry question, half the battle is won. Pupils will be desperate to start reading because they want to resolve the puzzle. Sometimes, as in the way I started my Civil War enquiry, pupils need to have read something before they can see any puzzle. But I certainly try to have this established very early in the text, if not right at the start.
5. Annotate the text before reading in class. Which sections might we need to re-read? Which words will I need to briefly pause on and quickly define? Which words might I need to explicitly teach before even starting to read (I find myself doing this slightly less than I used to with texts I’ve written myself – see above)? Which words will I need to stop at and spend more time explaining, checking or discussing, perhaps getting pupils to use the context to practise working out possible meaning(s) or exploring the etymology? Where will I pause to ask a quick question to check knowledge or emphasise an important narrative moment? Where will I stop for longer to hold a paired discussion about a bigger question or emphasise some core points? Which sections of the text might I skip completely? Texts I write usually end up far too long, but there’s nothing like the thought of actually using it in the classroom the next day to focus the mind with some last-minute, post-photocopying editing!
6. Cut the text to ensure each lesson finishes on a cliffhanger. Although we might sometimes want to include single-lesson stories to bridge gaps in our curriculum, I think a narrative usually has to run across a number of lessons in order to fully realise the power of story-telling in history in making pupils want to come back for more.
7. Read aloud as a class. Make it a joyous, communal activity. Experience the narrative together, with all its twists and turns, gasping, laughing or sitting in thoughtful silence as one. Jo Facer has lots of brilliant tips for whole class reading in her book Simplicity Rules.5 But feel empowered to read aloud yourself as well. Choose some beautiful passages of great story in your text and read these from the front. Before the lesson, practise reading them out loud with drama and suspense and intrigue. Consider how you can use changes in volume, pace and tone, or carefully placed pauses, to draw the pupils in. Get your department to offer some feedback (or record a voice note and do some self-assessment). Then go live in the classroom and enjoy the thrill of taking your pupils on a journey with you. There’s no debate about who gets to read this account of the Boston Tea Party in my lessons:
8. Ensure there is silence before starting to read. Complete silence. Adam Boxer’s Golden Silence.6 Not only does this help to ensure 100% focus on the text, it is a way of showing that the text is important. Something to be valued. Something special.
9. Keep things simple, and pupils’ focus on the text. The first time we read a text as a class (at least, the section we’re reading in that lesson), I rarely get my pupils to ‘do’ anything (one exception below). No annotating. No highlighting. No written answers to questions. I want, and need, the narrative to flow. I want, and need, pupils’ attention to be on the text, and the text alone. I want, and need, pupils to enjoy and engage in reading for reading’s sake. Not reading as a way of completing a task or activity. If I want pupils to highlight, or annotate, or write (and I usually do), they do this later in the lesson, after the first read of that particular section, re-reading as much or as little as is necessary.
10. Get pupils to draw images as they listen to the narrative. This was an idea suggested by one of my brilliant colleagues. I watched her pupils doing it once and I was hooked. The attention. The focus. Every pupil listening as carefully as possible to decide what to draw. Doodling quick sketches on their mini whiteboard. And then they have a useful resource to use as they re-tell, or re-shape, the narrative. I’m loving trialling this in my own classroom, and find it works especially well for very human, concrete passages of story. Pupils’ subsequent recall is always superb!
So, reading. I love it. Now my pupils do too. They’re learning more than ever and the possibilities are beginning to appear endless.
Hill, Michael. “Curating the imagined past: world building in the history curriculum”. Teaching History 180 (2020): 10-20.
Kesterton, Natalie. “Using narratives and big pictures to address the challenges of a 2-year KS3 curriculum“. Teaching History 176 (2019): 26-34.
Jenner, Tim. “Making reading routine: helping Key Stage 3 pupils to become regular readers of historical scholarship“. Teaching History 174 (2019): 42-48.
1 Peter Frankopan, Silk Roads: A new history of the world (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
2 David Olusoga, The World’s War: Forgotten soldiers of empire (London: Head of Zeus, 2014).
3 Christine Counsell delivered a session on the power of story-telling in history teaching at the 2021 HA Conference. Michael Hill includes the use of narrative as a key strategy in world building in the classroom (“Curating the imagined past: world building in the history curriculum”, Teaching History 180 (2020): 10-20). I have also been inspired by narrative texts written by Paula Worth and shared on her blog e.g. https://lobworth.com/2020/05/14/what-do-the-stories-of-the-often-forgotten-armies-reveal-about-the-western-front/ and https://lobworth.com/2020/06/06/the-history-of-medieval-mali-some-ideas/.
4 Tim Jenner, Keynote address at the 2021 HA Conference. https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/resource/10129/film-curriculum-and-progression-in-history-and-of
5 Jo Facer, Simplicity Rules: How simplifying what we do in the classroom can benefit children (London: Routledge, 2019).
6 Adam Boxer, ‘Golden Silence’, A chemical orthodoxy (7 November, 2021). https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2021/11/07/golden-silence/