Sophia Bobdiwala is the Head of Key Stage 3 English at a school in Hillingdon, London and carried out this research in her fifth year of teaching during the 2014-2015 academic year. Her enquiry explores the effects of paired reading on the participants involved. The Buddy Reading Scheme (BRS) is an approach to supporting and encouraging reading. It involves ‘pairing’ younger readers with older, more experienced students. The project investigates the effectiveness of this approach in relation to the pupils’ motivation and engagement. It offers an account of the BRS as experienced by different students, their responses and feelings about the project and the extent to which the scheme might be said to improve attitudes to reading. It is an exploratory investigation into the potential benefits and problems of a programme designed to support and develop pupils’ reading, their skills, but also their feelings about themselves as readers and their enthusiasm for reading.
As Head of KS3 English, it is my responsibility to orchestrate reading interventions and the BRS had been running long before I was employed by the school. Although it is not uncommon for secondary schools to provide paired reading support, many students see it as a sign of their weakness and consequently, are hesitant to receive such help. If anything, the same if not more attention to reading is needed at secondary as research has found that older children spend less time reading than teenagers (Moje, Young, Readance, & Moore in Strommen and Fowles Mates 2004). Aidan Chambers argues that “reading aloud is necessary all through the school years” and we make a “mistake” by assuming this stops in the early stages of learning (2011: 51).Young adolescents have a strong sense of personal image, especially once they come into secondary school and the possibility that there may be embarrassment experienced by the younger ‘buddies’, was something I noted quite early on. Students who may either have been, or feel that they have been, selected for the process because of some sort of perceived ‘underperformance’ in reading was, I think, one reason for the sporadic attendance.
It is evident that some Year 12s felt challenged on how to help their buddies overcome this. One sixth former states about the BRS:
“The only thing I don’t like: kids think it’s a punishment. No matter how many times you tell them, they think they are not doing well and they are being punished for it.”
Several issues are raised here: getting help with reading can be seen by the pupils as embarrassing or even humiliating. It can seem to signal ‘failure’ and for some children, it is seen as a form of chastisement. In fact, it appears to be embedded into the psyche of some students as being an arduous and/ or mundane process, something which they are being forced into. This is something which I really wanted to look into more.
The context of my research is Hillcrest School a mixed gender, multi-cultural secondary school in Hillingdon, London. The intake in the 2014-15 academic year was 1,283 pupils and the school achieved “Good” in its last OFSTED inspection which took place in 2012. It prides itself on its status as a performing arts specialist school and students are often involved in small-scale acting projects such as the BBC sitcom Big School, leading to an author talk by David Walliams- something which my report will later touch on. 29% of students are classed as Free School Meals Students in the past six years (FSM6) and 28.4% do not have English as their first language. 51% of students are boys and 49% are girls. Issues of gender which are often seen as an important factor in debates about reading is something my research delves into.
The Buddy Reading Scheme Investigation
Over the 2014-2015 academic year, 29 Year 12s were recruited (half of whom were studying AS English) and 40 Year 7s (14 during the Autumn term, 12 in Spring and 14 in Summer) to take part in the BRS. There were also 12 Year 8s, most of whom stayed on for the whole year. Through a combination of group discussions and questionnaires, I tried to find out about their experiences of being part of the paired reading programme.
Overall, the results showed that positive experiences of the BRS outnumbered negative ones. In comparison to reading with a teacher, the Year 12 students found that paired reading in the BRS was “very casual” and “less pressured,” allowing the Year 7s and 8s to make mistakes. Some talked about the benefits of “making a connection” with their buddy and the reading time once a week allowed some students a way “to relax and escape”. They saw paired reading time as not just a way to help their buddies to get better, but also as a “pleasurable, indulgent, play[ful]” activity (Meek 1991: 103) on both parts, echoing Vygotsky’s case as to how play is a leading factor in a child’s development (1978: 101); in this case, their progression in reading.
At the same time however, building relationships between the older and younger readers takes patience and commitment so that trust can be built. Sixth formers were asked how they thought the Year 7s and 8s felt reading to them and the following words came up again and again: “reluctant, nervous, embarrassed, judged, afraid, intimidated, shy, uncomfortable and reserved”. Two sixth formers even said that they would find it “stressful” reading aloud as their younger selves.
The sixth formers who felt the BRS had changed their feelings about reading talked about how it had impacted on their own reading as well as how younger students access texts. Most said that they either read more or have been encouraged to read more. Many appreciated the social impact of taking the time to help young people read and being ‘role models’ endorsing reading whilst others saw there was a real importance in “correcting” students to help them recognise their errors. Many of the sixth formers appreciated how challenging some of their students found reading to be and this changed their own perceptions of reading.
How will you teach differently and why?
As Head of Key Stage 3 English, the value of this research for my practice is considerable as the sole responsibility of how the scheme is run rests with me. My findings have affirmed my belief that the way paired reading is orchestrated in the BRS needs to be adapted. For the past two years I have thought about what direction to take the scheme in and although I do not have the ‘perfect model’ yet, looking at the experiences of the students involved has given me ideas of where to go in September 2015 with it. In all, this report has raised more questions than answers.
At the start of the BRS, I gave the Year 12s a very brief “training session” which was largely administrative rather than getting the sixth formers to think about their own reading habits and how to encourage effective paired reading. In doing the latter, it would allow them to be clear as to what their role is in the scheme. The London Nautical School in Lambeth runs a very successful programme where once a year, PGCE students and school students bring in a book which holds meaning for them. They then work in pairs or small groups, discussing and sharing their thoughts on the texts and reading. This idea of a community of readers is something which I feel needs to be built into the BRS. This could start off with the sixth formers sharing with each other a book of significance to them in the first training session. They would then do this with their younger buddies, sharing and talking about texts.
The role of the sixth form volunteer in the BRS is a complex and important one. One of the greatest limitations with how the scheme currently runs is how the Year 12s are used. I think with paired reading, the older reader must feel confident to create a dialogue about reading both in school and out of school with their buddy. This would in turn lessen pressure for the younger reader. My enquiry has been absorbing; at times I am fascinated by the things pupils say but at the same time, dealing with the fact that my much loved programme has so many flaws can be difficult to hear.
Sophia’s full report can be read here: S BOBDIWALA PBE REPORT 2015
 Names of all pupils and institutions have been changed throughout the report to respect the privacy of those involved.