Education Quandary

'I read that silent reading first thing each day helps secondary-age school children to read better. Why don't all schools do it?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

This simple query has huge questions behind it. Like: who says what works in schools? Will something that works in one school automatically work in others? Will it work for every pupil? And, if something appears to work, should schools be ordered to act on it, or left to decide for themselves?

The difficulty in education is that good teaching is essentially an art, and no classroom technique is infallible. Studies done in the United States show that silent reading appears to encourage concentration, gives pupils confidence in their ability to read and increases enjoyment of reading. But some researchers have questioned how much it helps pupils understand what they are reading, and whether the enjoyment is sustained over the long term. Also, it needs to be introduced with some skill, otherwise the less-good readers are likely to waste time choosing books and settling down to read, and may be easily distracted.

Add in that school heads are already tearing their hair out wondering how to squeeze citizenship, increased PE and everything else they're being told to into the curriculum, and you can see that another diktat that takes 30 minutes out of their day would be received very badly.

Schools need good, clear and up-to-date information about what they should be aiming for, and about what seems to work in terms of getting there. But ultimately, they are professionals. Heads must be free to shape the culture at their own schools – and teachers must be free to decide how to deliver it.

Readers' advice

No education can happen without good reading, and if we know what makes children become good readers we should insist that schools deliver it. Left alone, so many teachers seem to want to cling to the wishy-washy ideas they were trained in, despite the fact that the results speak for themselves. This is what happened with phonics. Teachers had to be forced to use it, otherwise they would have carried on with "look and say" and all the other techniques that let down a whole generation of children. Phonics took years to bring in, but we should not waste that amount of time again if there is something else that is known to work.

Marla Enwright, London SE23

I taught in a Canadian elementary school that practised sustained silent reading in the top year groups. The pupils liked it, and it settled them down well at the start of the day. It also made them more independent as readers and learners. They weren't allowed to ask what words meant. They had to look them up themselves afterwards.

Harriet Doyle, Devon

Schools that are already good in English should not have to take a chunk out of the day for something pupils don't need. They may need to focus on something else like maths or science. It should be their decision.

Bryce Winterton, Bedfordshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

Our 12-year-old daughter is totally committed to becoming a doctor and always has been. Should we move her to private school? We can't afford it easily, but we would do it if it ensured that she got the A-levels she needs for medical school. The secondary school she is at is OK, but it is not that good in science.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 22 October, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax to 020-7005 2143; or email to Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters of advice are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition