Tuesday P4: What’s happening ‘behind the eyes’ when students read in English?

Beware: this panel promises to unsettle.  While students’ voices are mainly silent in our discussions about how to teach reading, this session will focus on what they have to say about their reading experiences at school.  The stories involve a murky mix of mind wandering, fake reading, strategic regurgitation, and polite compliance.  Many young people know the nature of engaged reading as an imaginative, puzzling, embodied, dialogic, reflective experience and yet when it comes to reading at school, the experience for them is more like ‘work’.  Invigorated and prepared to respond positively to what students say, the teachers participating in this discussion have decided to do things differently.

This session is based on the VATE Reading Project which is in its fifth year and funded as a Strategic Partnership Project by the Victorian Department of Education and Training. It has involved over 30 diverse Victorian secondary schools and teams of English teachers and their students.  Initiated by Amanda McGraw and Mary Mason, the project involves Critical Friends working over the course of a year with teachers in communities of practice. The starting point for developing an inquiry focus is listening closely to what students say.

Smith (1998) suggests that there is an ‘official theory’ of learning; one that is technically driven, limited in scope, based on hard work and memorisation, individualistic, and easily forgotten.  The ‘official theory’ is unquestioned because it permeates educational culture and we have come to think that it is too dangerous, too risky not to comply. It is time to challenge the official theory and to use deep understandings of what happens ‘behind the eyes’ (Smith, 1978) when we read, to inform what we do in our teaching.

Smith, F. (1978). Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, F. (1998). The book of learning and forgetting. New York: Teachers College Press.


Amanda McGraw

Amanda McGraw is a senior lecturer at Federation University Australia where she coordinates the Master of Teaching (Secondary) program.  Her research interests include reading in English, dispositions for teaching and teachers’ professional learning.  She taught for nearly 20 years in both state and independent schools and held a number of leadership positions in schools including Deputy Principal.

Mary MasonMary Mason is a teaching and learning consultant. She was a leader of curriculum, learning and research at Methodist Ladies’ College, Wesley College, and Geelong College. She is a past Vice President of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE) and presently leads the Professional Learning and Research Committee of VATE.


Chris Davies

Chris Davies' work as English curriculum leader at Phoenix P-12 Community has included scrapping the set-text and re-framing the way the school teaches English around the reciprocal nature of reading and writing.

Leon Furze

Leon Furze is currently the Director of Studies at Monivae College, Hamilton. He has been an English and Literature teacher for over a decade, and regularly presents for VATE.

Jade West

Jade West has taught English for twelve years and is heavily involved in the promotion of reading as a rich, authentic and pleasurable experience to the young people at Salesian College - many of whom are reluctant readers.