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The power of stories: Integrating high quality reading to raise achievement

Written by: Rachel Watson
4 min read
RACHEL WATSON, HEAD OF HISTORY, BISHOP CHALLONER CATHOLIC COLLEGE, UK

The power of stories must not be underestimated. Stories are used from an early age to develop children’s vocabulary and understanding of the world around them; so why do we not use stories more often in secondary school lessons? The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2018) state that it is the responsibility of all teachers to teach reading in their subjects to improve their ability to access academic texts. Mary Myatt (2022) has developed this to suggest that using a combination of non-fiction and fiction stories will make learning more memorable. As such, from September 2022, I introduced a new strategy to the history curriculum at Bishop Challoner. I carefully selected a set of stories to introduce students to the topics being studied, in order to deepen their knowledge and understanding of, as well as engagement with, the subject.

In his article ‘The privileged status of story’ (2004), Willingham claims that our minds ‘treat stories differently than other types of material’ because we find them ‘interesting, easy to understand, and easy to remember’. The challenge of a story – that there is new information we can understand but which still puzzles us – he argued, is considered more interesting than information that is too easy or too difficult. Unsurprisingly, then, it makes sense to build stories into the curriculum.

As a history teacher, it feels natural to incorporate stories into my lessons. To have an impact – to make learning more memorable – this needs to be engaging. Thus, I focused on building teacher-led stories into the curriculum. Myatt (2018, p. 114) states that in the classroom we should replicate the experience of ‘snuggling up with a trusted adult and a wonderful book’. To create this feeling, during reading the interactive whiteboard was switched off so that it was just the students, the adult and the book. Teachers were encouraged to read with expression and students were not discouraged from putting their heads on the desk, the intention being that for this part of the lesson they would feel completely comfortable and relaxed. 

The history department embedded three challenging texts into the history curriculum, which would be read for 15 minutes at the beginning of each lesson:

  • Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest (2013) to teach the Battle of Hastings to Year 7
  • Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) to teach the Industrial Revolution to Year 8 
  • Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) to teach the Holocaust to Year 9.

 

According to the EEF (2018), there are five reading strategies, and these were used while reading the book.

These five reading strategies are:

  1. Activating prior knowledge: Students think about what they already know about a topic from reading or other experiences and try to make meaningful links to build a fuller ‘mental model’ of the text.
  2. Prediction: Students predict what might happen as a text is read. This causes them to pay close attention to the text, which means that they can closely monitor their own comprehension.
  3. Questioning: Students generate their own questions about a text to check their comprehension and monitor their subject knowledge.
  4. Clarifying: Students identify areas of uncertainty, which may be individual words or phrases, and seek information to clarify meaning.
  5. Summarising: Students summarise the meaning of sections of the text to consolidate and elaborate upon their understanding. This causes students to focus on the key content, which in turn supports comprehension monitoring. (Summarised from EEF, 2018, p. 15)

 

Initially, these tasks were heavily modelled by the classroom teacher. For example, a series of five questions were asked about the text, such as ‘How does this connect to our classroom learning?’. Students were sometimes given a series of true or false questions, and occasionally a simple gap-fill activity was used to support with summarising the text. As students became more familiar with these techniques – which were explicitly highlighted to them as reading strategies – they began to complete them independently. Teachers chose the reading strategy and students created a task for their peer to complete. Another technique was the use of the immersive reader function on Microsoft Forms, followed by a series of reading comprehension strategies that students could complete upon listening to the story. 

The project is still in its early stages, but the impact expected is that, through regular exposure to narrative texts, students will make significant progress in their core historical knowledge by developing a more connected understanding of the big stories in history. We have already seen the positive impact on student engagement and motivation. Students will regularly come into their history lesson looking forward to ‘what happens next’ and beginning to make predictions for themselves. Others have completed independent research into the historical event to find out the answers to their burning questions. A further benefit is improvement in student vocabulary, which is particularly seen in students below their reading age. Students feel more confident to use tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary in both their spoken and written responses. 

Moving forward, we would like to adopt a consistent approach to whole-school reading across all subjects. It seems to me that there is infinite potential in tapping into the power of stories, and that it can only be beneficial to do so.

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    Sumiyah Yasin

    A very beneficial article. I will certainly be incorporating more stories in my MFL lessons. Thank you for sharing.

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