As some of you may or may not be aware, when I am not talking or writing about rugby, I am a teacher. I have been for over ten years now and specialise in teaching English.
As an important subject, English can be an area of anxiety for some. It is, after all, a wide and all-encompassing course, often populated by things like opinion, detail, contrast and underpinned by a grammatical process that can make fools of us all.
To be better at English, reading really helps. The well-known children’s author Steve Skidmore gave me a wonderful phrase the last time we talked about it: “Reading and writing are like breathing in and breathing out; one cannot exist very well without the other.”
But reading is something with which children, especially boys, can fall out of love. Usually, around the age of 11, 12 and 13, other things start to fill their lives and reading slips off the table. By Year 8 (age 13), that lack of reading starts to do some real damage and boys can struggle when their English comes under pressure. Having enough vocabulary, being able to use syntax, putting across their point and opinion, is all made possible by reading. If you don’t read, confidence drains away and assessment marks can quickly slip south.
Books aren’t always the answer. For some, a weighty tome, however good the story, can seem daunting. Of course, you can start small but there are other ways around the problem.
I want to share with you an email exchange I had with a student of mine. He is a boy who found that he wasn’t reading. He was doing lots of sport and extracurricular activities, trying to keep up with school work and friends, and reading was something he didn’t make time for. We had had a few conversations. He was lucky to have supportive parents and they were keen for him to read. Our first attempt was to get a book that both he and his mum could read together. That can work for people. Separate copies, separate reading times, but then come together and talk about the chapters and the characters. It shows joint investment and it is modelling good habits. We tried this, but it did not work. His mum read the book, he didn’t.
His confidence was really low. He articulated the fear of the blank page, of not knowing what to write; not believing in his ability to conjure up the right word, and his attempts to cut corners and do the bare minimum. In one task I set him, he panicked and plagiarised something from the internet. I picked up on it and this is when I decided to intervene.
He is a budding rugby player. So, in an attempt to get him to understand what he needed to do, I wrote him the following email. It is copied below with his consent. You will also find my follow up email replying to him thanking me for my help.
Our thoughts in sharing it were that it might help someone else. My guess is there is someone else out there like this young chap. Who loves sport, maybe rugby, and who feels like he did about English and reading. It might help them. He says the email and its message really struck a chord. I hope so.
I just wanted to check in with you off the back of today’s lesson. What you did wasn’t the option I wanted you to take, but I am not cross with you. Although, maybe, it can serve as a little bit of a turning point.
You have the ability in English. You are a bright boy with all the requisite potential to get a good grade at GCSE. But, at the moment, you are selling yourself a little short. The good news is that we (and more importantly you) can do something about that.
I think all you lack is confidence. You see a challenge (like the one set in that task) and you just don’t have the confidence to give it a go. A bit like a rugby player who is passed the ball with seconds remaining in the game, with the time, space and need to drop a goal, but who doesn’t attempt it. The confidence in your own ability ‘to slot the three points’ is not there.
So, what would you say to that player? How would you go about giving him the confidence to drop the goal and win the match for his team?
You’d tell him to practice. Get out on the training pitch, take a few balls, and attempt that drop goal repeatedly. Keep doing it until he can hit it; striking it sweetly, without any real thought as to how he did it. Do it so many times that he becomes really confident, almost certain that he will make the shot.
But that would take time, patience and effort. No one would be there cheering him on in practice. He’d be alone. He’d probably have to do it for hours in the cold and the rain. It wouldn’t be pretty. He’d miss loads; some of them would be awful, barely getting off the ground, terrible: but over time, the kicks would start to go over, he’d get better; he’d find a rhythm, find his timing and the connection on the ball would become sweeter and easier. He’d start by slotting one out of ten. But as the hours went by, that would climb to three or four. Then five or six out of ten. Seven, eight. And after many, many hours of doing it, days, weeks, months of going back to the same kick and relentlessly practising, he’d start hitting nine out of ten over. And then one day, he wouldn’t miss a kick. He’d be the best drop kicker in the school. And when the ball came to him, out on the field, he’d make the kick without even thinking. Because he was so confident. Having built up that confidence with practice. It had taken time but now he had it. It was his. He’d always have it. He would always be able to drop a goal.
Now that, XXXXX, is a metaphor. And you are bright enough to realise that I’m not really talking about rugby, but English. You don’t have the confidence in English, so you need to build it up. Like the drop goal kid. And the best way to do that is by reading.
Now books might not be your thing. But that is ok. There are loads of other ways to feed your brain. I know you like sport, and rugby especially, so let’s focus on that.
Below are some articles on sport and rugby. They aren’t too long but they are very interesting to read:
Donald McRae is, in my mind anyway, the best sportswriter around. He captures personality so well. He’s famous in boxing circles for his incredible books on that sport, but he’s amazing on most things. He helped Eddie Jones write his most recent autobiography. Here’s a list of his pieces for the Guardian and Observer newspaper. As you can see, they are all on different sports.
Simon Barnes was the guy who first got me interested in sports writing. He doesn’t write too much on sport nowadays but this book (which you can get on kindle or quite cheaply in paperback) is a collection of some of his finest thoughts.
Jonathan Liew is currently regarded as the best in the business. I think he was voted ‘Sportswriter of the Year’ at the end of last year. He is excellent. He has some pretty strong opinions but again, the way he writes captures so much.
Now, most of these articles are for an adult audience and contain some complicated words. But that is ok. Try and have a dictionary handy when you read (one of the most used apps/webpages on my phone is http://www.dictionary.com) and look up the words you don’t recognise.
Look out for articles by these guys. Find an article you like, read it, show it to mum or dad, get them to read it and then have a quick discussion about it. Or me, show me one that you like and I can chat with you about it. It’s that simple. Just read. Don’t worry about books or autobiographies for now. Just read these.
And if you do it over and over again, one article a day, say ten minutes out of your schedule; writing and comprehension will start to get easier. Not immediately. But slowly and surely, you will start to find English easier. A bit like the kid dropping goals.
There’s no need to thank me. I’m just doing what any good teacher would do. I’m addressing the issue, not the symptoms. You chose to try and cut that corner not because you’re a bad person, but because you lack confidence. We have to work together on building that back up, not punishing you.
Listen, you’re about to head into the most difficult period. Trying to change your life and make reading a part of what you do every day is going to be tough. A bit like the first month or so of going out on the training pitch and practising your drop goals. It’s going to be difficult because it isn’t yet a habit and you aren’t going to be any good at it. You have to power through. Keep that mindset positive and your focus resolved on making this work. Especially when it feels like it would be easier to give up.
Maybe not to start with, but in a week or so’s time, it’s going to be so much easier NOT to read. And that’s when you are going to have to be tough with yourself. Come back to this email and remind yourself that this is the right thing to do. You may not see any results for a while. It may not be until halfway through next year that things start to click but I promise you, if you keep the discipline, keep working hard, those results will appear.