Tests blamed for decline of reading for pleasure

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Children are spending less time reading for pleasure because the relentless focus on tests and targets has squeezed storytelling and joy of reading out of schools, a five-year study by the education watchdog Ofsted has shown.

Many teachers no longer read poems or stories to their class because they feel guilty that they are "wasting valuable teaching time", the report, English 2000-2005, warned.

Instead teachers now regard texts as "a kind of manual" for teaching about "adjectives, metaphors and contrasting short and long sentences", it concluded.

This had already had an impact on children who now regarded reading as a skill needed to pass tests or to get a good job rather than as something they might do for pleasure. The inspectors said it was vital for children to hear stories being read out loud because this was the best way for them to "develop a vocabulary and an understanding of narrative ... which they need ... in order to read with full comprehension".

Teachers also struggled to find the time to keep up with the latest children's fiction and so schools were forced to rely on the same books year after year.

"Teachers often make use of texts without adequately considering their impact upon the pupils," the study warned. "They appear to regard texts primarily as a means of teaching writing: a poem is mined for its use of adjectives, metaphors and contrasting short and long sentences without attempting to engage pupils' personal response to the ideas and feelings it expresses.

"The text becomes a kind of manual rather than an opportunity for personal response to experience. This can then lead teachers to choose any text, irrespective of quality, instead of choosing the most appropriate texts for different purposes."

Inspectors warned that many schools were failing to promote the importance of reading for pleasure. Individual reading had often been squeezed out of lessons in favour of the group and whole class work, which had been given greater emphasis in the Government's literacy hour.

Most schools expect pupils to keep a record or journal of their reading, but the quality of these is mostly very poor, inspectors found. Pupils did not understand why they were expected to keep a record of the books they read when most teachers did nothing with them.

Teachers themselves told inspectors that "teaching reading has lost its fun" under the government's strategies. Staff were confused about how to meet government targets and prepare children for tests while still teaching an enriching curriculum, inspectors concluded.

Teachers asked themselves: "Is it appropriate or not any longer simply to read and share stories with their class; do they always need to analyse the text and set exercises?"

The inspectors concluded that all these approaches were potentially valuable ways of improving reading but that staff, unfortunately, often lacked the confidence to adopt them. They also warned that there was still "significant variation" in the quality of schools' teaching of phonics - the sounds needed to decode text.

The issue of how to teach reading has always been controversial but the Government has put it back on the agenda this year by commissioning the Rose review of phonics teaching, which is due to report soon.

Ofsted noted that standards in English have improved but warned that they remained below government targets . The quality of teaching in 30 per cent of lessons in primary schools was no better then satisfactory, which would not be good enough to help the weakest readers.