Beyond the Blackboard Tutors

Ranulf Kinloch Jones, founder of Beyond the Blackboard Tutors and Science teacher extraordinaire, shares with us his thoughts on why reading for pleasure is a cross curriculum challenge.

There I am, a newly-qualified 24-year old teacher, standing in front of a sea of slightly perturbed but curious eyes in my first ever science lesson at a deprived inner-city London school. I’m incredibly nervous and very much showing it, but trying to overcompensate for this by using every body language power stance I can. Legs wide apart. Head held high. Deep booming voice. Fake it ‘till you make it, I tell myself. 

I have absolutely no concept of what to expect in this class. What do 15-year-olds like now!? PlayStation, I assume. TikTok? Our 9-year age difference seems both incredibly close and far away at the same time. 

There are so many questions about them that I want to answer, but I’ll start with the most pressing: How much do these kids actually know about science? I start to probe. 

“What is photosynthesis?” I ask, as an open question. 

“The way plants make energy,” I hear declaimed back at me. “Correct!” I say. 

Ok, that went well, try again. 

“What makes the plant green?” 

“Chlorophyll.” Correct! 

Ok, a slightly harder one. “Describe the process of photosynthesis from start to finish.” We work together on this one as a class and take it step-by-step. CO2 is taken in, added to water, oxygen is released etc etc.” The class gets excited and starts to shout out answers, and together we end up with a neat equation.

“Ok” I say, feeling like Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society at this point. “You get it! Now just write that on this 6 mark question and we’re done for the day.” They do so enthusiastically and I finish the lesson triumphant. 

It’s lunch time now, so I have some time to mark. I’ll have a look at some of their answers and crack out some marking. 

I read the first one. This isn’t what we discussed? 0 marks. They weren’t listening clearly, I tell myself. Next one. 

Huh? 1 mark. You mentioned a keyword. I start scanning the others. 

1 mark. 

2 marks. 

0 marks. 

By this point, I’m confused. They got this? They literally told me the answers a second ago. They understood! Why aren’t they getting 5-6 marks every time? 

It took me a few more months of teaching for the penny to drop on this one. There were many reasons for the low scores when they put pen to paper (one of which was that I wasn’t a very good teacher yet). But one of the key ones that came through loud and clear was simple, and something that I had taken for granted for many years: the ability to express oneself in writing. In other words, literacy. It didn’t matter how well a student understood a concept, remembered a fact, or could apply a theory. If they couldn’t write it down on paper, they just wouldn’t get the marks. 

Over my following years as a teacher this issue came up time and time again, and the sad truth is that it will extend throughout a student’s entire life if not tackled. If you can’t write a 1,500 word essay for university, a well-worded and concise CV for a job, or a delicately worded email to a colleague or client, it limits your prospects and opportunities in life. 

And the most effective way to improve literacy is to encourage reading for the joy of reading as early in a young person’s life as possible. 

That is why I have chosen Read for Good as Beyond the Blackboard Tutor’s charity partner. Together we hope to make sure brand new reading for pleasure books are distributed to the children and schools who need it most. Helping children develop a love of reading – for good. 

Ranulf Kinloch Jones