Teachers as Readers: The effect of reading background on primary teachers attitudes to reading in the classroom


Neil Bechervaise, Janet Egan & Jenny Van Gorder

University of Sydney




Developed from previous research into the effects of family reading on reading development, this paper presents findings to suggest that atitudes to reading in primary teachers are largely determined by their own reading background.


The results of a survey of 200 begining primary and secondary teachers are presented to support the view that childhood reading history is a powerful influence in shaping teacher attitudes toward reading in the classroom, but that it is not, alone, sufficient to generate positive attitudes towards the educative value of reading.  The paper proposes strongly affirmative reading support for primary teachers with minimal early family reading experience and suggests ways in which publishers and professional development presenters can assist.


Teachers as Readers: The effect of reading background on primary

teachers ‘ attitudes to reading in the classroom.


Becoming literate is one of the major teaching and learning tasks of primary school education.  What constitutes literacy has recently been the subject of much discussion and refining  ( Luke,1993).  The proven variations in home literacy practices (Cairney1994; Heath,1983,1991; Teale,1986; Tizzard and Hughes,1984) provide teachers with a very different picture of the literacy skills, values and attitudes of young children in the primary school years from the view held traditionally by teachers.   Recent research describes  the differences in home literacy  practices as differences rather than deficits. It  focuses on the differences in context and text type used in reading with young children in the home (Heath,1983)  and on the similarities across mainstream and non-mainstream families in home literacy practices masked by differences in the text type used.  (Pelligrini,1991). Whether this body of research has actually changed or begun to change teachers’ perceptions of their students’ literacy backgrounds along  entrenched socio-economic lines of advantage and deficit however, remains problematic.


The research reported in this paper indicates that teacher trainees on the whole come from families in which reading children’s books to children is a usual activity.  The small sample of teachers interviewed come from similar home literacy practices. The type of children’s text and the nature of parent-child interaction is, for most of those surveyed, too blurred by time to be able to be reported.  However, not all trainee teachers fit the usual pattern for home literacy practices.


Teachers as a group are themselves subject to the same range of variation in home literacy  practices as their students.  This commonsense notion is borne out in the research currently underway and reported in this paper.  One of the fundamental assumptions underlying the notion of partnerships between the young student/teacher, teacher trainee/teacher and parent/teacher is that teachers-as-experts are able to provide leadership in literacy practices whilst exhibiting good literacy practices in the classroom themselves.


This assumption, perhaps  reasonably expected, is not from our experience necessarily borne out in practice.  Not all  teachers  see reading to their students as a valuable part of the educational day except as it relates to the content of other Key Learning Areas or to other areas of the English curriculum. In an increasingly crowded school day, perhaps this pragmatic approach to curriculum content selection is understandable and even unavoidable. However, we have proposed that teachers’ family literacies shape their behaviours and expectations about literacy practices as teachers and as adults and that this is also an influence on their teaching practice, as it is on their personal reading habits.


Family literacy practices make lasting impressions

When children enter school, their home literacy experiences provide them with  a  set of beliefs and behaviours which can either match school literacy practices or oppose them (Holloway,1994)  These home experiences have an influence, most immediately, on school success (Luke,1993) and, it is argued, in the longer term on the practice of teachers in the classroom  as a result of their own childhood home experiences.(Bechervaise, Egan & Van Gorder,1995:2).


Home literacy experiences vary within families, and as Nichols (1994) reports, while mothers may be enthusiastic about the advantages of reading, more than half the men interviewed expressed negative attitudes towards reading in general and “many of them identified themselves as non-readers at some stage of their schooling.” (Nichols,1994:303)


Supporting the finding of previous research (eg. Bechervaise,1988; Wells,1986), Nichols reports examples of “Reading, along with ‘school work’ and ‘homework’, being associated with the subject position of conforming to authority”. (Nichols,1994:303)


So, for some students, school-like literacy tasks are not valued in the home.  In some classrooms, reading is only presented as a school task, not a leisure pursuit, nor a pleasurable activity engaged in for its own sake. There is no adult model of reading for enjoyment, reading aloud to the students or adults reading in such times as DEAR.  For some young students, this means there is no existing model in their lives of reading for pleasure.  Reading has a purely pragmatic focus or very little importance at all in daily life.


Several large-focus factors are at work to produce the diversity of literacy practices in the Australian population. The diversity of the Australian population, a large migrant population and the mobility of the workforce have constructed school communities which are unlikely to be homogeneous in either their socialisation processes or the construction of literacy practices (Rivalland,1994:299).


In a recent review of the research on home/school reading partnerships, Richardson(1994) reflects that the variety of such partnerships reflects "the varied and variable social contexts in which these are acquired."


Reviewing Elliott and Hewison's (1994) study on the differences in helping, Richardson identifies the importance of class and cultural origins in determining the "helping" styles of parents in their childrens' literacy development. Rivilland similarly observes this diversity, reflecting on Wells (1986) Bristol study,


Some [mothers] were constructing literacy as a pragmatic and meaningful practices (sic); some were providing demonstrations of how to deal with the mechanics of literacy; and some were teaching children to seek out further resources. (Rivalland 1994:299)


The Elliott/Hewison study reviewed by Richardson provides an underpinning for the findings of Holloway (1994), who observes that:


While some students face consistency in the values and orientations between the school and the home, others can find dissonance. For example, some children are exposed to, and encouraged to acquire, beliefs about competition, deferred gratification and symbolic rewards within the home - all values supported by the school, reflecting its institutional location - while other children can be antagonistic to these values, having been exposed to a survival and manipulation ethic (cf Nicholls, 1994), with a high value on the present rather than the future, immediate rather than deferred gratification, and concrete rather than symbolic rewards. These children face discontinuities in values and orientations when they come to school (Holloway, 1994:191).


As Heath (1983) established in her landmark study, it can be expected that adults whose childhood home literacy experiences differed from mainstream school literacy experiences might have different reading habits and perceptions as adults from those whose home and school literacy experiences were more congruent.


An all-too-common observation of University teaching practicum supervisors is that some primary teachers and many secondary English teachers do not read to their students, do not discuss reading with their students and, do not teach reading to their students because they are not, themselves, readers.


The primary teacher-in -training, like the registered teacher she seeks to become, is generally presumed to be a capable reader with a positive attitude towards reading and an interest in promoting this same attitude to her students. Tertiary students in teacher training have been successful in their educational experiences to the extent that they are now at university.  Our research to date indicates that these teachers-in-training come from a diverse range of home literacy experiences and that their attitudes to literacy are, as a consequence, similarly diverse.


In a society where 23 per cent of the population are trained as teachers, it is reasonable to presume that teachers' reading patterns are likely to reflect the reading patterns of the society at large. Observation of significant numbers of non-reading English teachers tends to confirm this presumption while on-going research into the reading background of the NESB teacher-in-training (Bechervaise, 1993) supports the view that teachers from migrant cultural backgrounds are less likely to have been read to in either their parents mother tongue or in English than teachers-in-training from English-speaking backgrounds.


The influence of practicum experiences on the literacy activities chosen by teachers-in-training is another focus of this study.  The importance of the support and collegiality of the cooperating teacher during the practicum has been well documented (Turney, et al, 1982) Trainee teachers rely almost exclusively on this person for daily feedback on their developing skills as teachers.


The influence of cooperating teachers as role models for teaching practice is strong.  Whilst trainees can and do disagree with some observed classroom practices, many feel they are in someone else’s workplace and must conform.  Decisions not to initiate alternative, university-learnt classroom activities and procedures are usually based on this reluctance to be seen to ”be different, critical or too innovative lest the cooperating teacher perceive this as usurping her authority” (Student interviewee Sarah). This feeling of powerlessness was also noted in Cameron and Wilson’s (1993) investigations into student perceptions of the practicum.  They noted that the supervisory style which received no negative student comments was a collegial one. This style “has been defined as supervision in which negotiation between supervisor and student occurs during planning and feedback sessions.  It is also  characterised by a collegial relationship and an encouragement of student experimentation.” (Cameron and Wilson,1993:161) However, as noted by these researchers, very few teachers exhibited this style.  Teachers tended to have more control than in a collegial style and tended to provide students with feed-back which was received and accepted uncritically.  If the less consultative supervisory styles are typical, and in our experience, they are, then students may be reluctant to alter what the cooperating teacher models during the school day.  That is, students may be more likely to read to their classes if this is what the cooperating teacher does.  However, the home literacy practices of the teacher-in-training can be expected to play a part.


This paper provides a preliminary report of research into the background reading experience and current reading habits of a range of tertiary students training to become school teachers. It reports the results of some preliminary interviews with teachers and teachers-in-training during the practicum.  The paper provides a report on the reading patterns we have observed, outlines the intervention/support strategies we are designing to overcome identified reading deficits, and locates the motivational effect of the initial teaching practicum in confirming the desirability of positive reading partnerships.




Using questionnaires, reading journals and case-study interviews, this longitudinal study is exploring the prevalence of non-reading teachers in training; identifying the reading background of these teachers; establishing and testing the efficacy of intervention strategies designed to change reading attitudes; and monitoring the impact of practicum experience in confirming the importance of modelling as a literacy development stategy.



The Study Sample


All 1994 primary Diploma of Education [35 students], second and third year Bachelor of Education students [99 students] and one group of secondary Diploma of Education students [22 students] at University of Sydney have been included in an initial reading background survey questionnaire [Appendix A]. Comparable data from a further 30 secondary Diploma of Education students from 1986 and1993 have been included in the preliminary statistical treatment. The sample consists therefore of 186 students, 35 male and 151 female.



Summary composition of the sample is shown in Table 1 below


COURSE                     LEVEL            YEAR       TOTAL

B Ed (4 years)            Primary            [1994]           

                                 2nd year                              44

                                 3rd year                              55

                                 4th year                             35

Dip Ed (1 year)            Primary            [1994]            22

Dip Ed (1 year)            Secondary            [1993]            15

                                                  [1986]            15

Male                                    35

Female                     151

             N =            186


Table 1 Composition of the Sample




The study has been developed for implementation in five stages:

Stage 1 - initial questionnaire

Stage 2 - Case study interview of selected students

Stage 3 - Development and Implementation of intervention reading program

Stage 4 - Practicum journal assessment

Stage 5 - final questionnaire


Measuring Instruments


Stage 1 Questionnaire - The initial three part questionnaire has been developed from earlier work by Bechervaise (1982) and refined in collaboration with Egan and Van Gorder to explore the reading background and literary discriminatory ability of tertiary teachers-in-training. The questionnaire is divided into three parts where

            part 1 seeks to identify whether subjects read by asking for the names of ten preferred books and films/videotapes;

            part 2 identifies early childhood reading experiences and formative reading influences through five open ended questions;

            part 3 lists twenty discriminatory criteria identified as being used by readers and non-readers in a previous (Bechervaise, 1992) study and seeks selection and rank ordering of the preferred ten of these criteria.


Completion of the questionnaire is designed to occupy not more than twenty minutes.


Stage 2 Interviews - The interview protocol of ten generic questions, developed from stage 1 questionnaire results and based on a pilot study undertaken with a selected group of second year Bachelor of Education students in 1993, seeks to clarify and expand responses provided in the questionnaire while developing a broad profile of the subjects interests and attitudes as a reader or non-reader. Interviews are scheduled to last not longer than thirty minutes and are tape-recorded with the permission of the interview subject.


Stage 3 Intervention - The intervention reading program is being developed on the basis of a reading list of books considered by the identified readers in the study sample (and agreed by the research team) to be fundamental to an enjoyment of reading.


The program will be introduced to selected students (identified as non-readers) as an alternative, structured course assignment and will involve: reading specified books and viewing specified films, recording impressions and reflections in a written or audiotaped reading journal and discussing the reading with one of the three lecturers involved in the study.


Stage 4 - Practicum journal assessment. The practicum journal operates as a teaching log for students and, as such provides descriptive data on classroom planning and practice together with reflective discussion on the practicum experience. Practicum journals for subjects involved in the reading intervention program will be examined for specific reference to both personal and classroom reading practices during the practicum period. Where these demonstrate apparently incomplete records of reading modelling for students, follow-up interviews will be initiated to confirm journal recordings and to counsel subjects towards greater reading involvement in the classroom.


Stage 5 - The final questionnaire - part 1 consists of twenty closed questions seeking information about exit attitudes toward personal and classroom use of and modelling of reading; part 2 consists of five open-ended questions exploring attitudinal changes towards reading across the pre-service training period; part 3 repeats the discriminatory criteria exercise of the stage 1 questionnaire.


The Results to Date

A. Observations on students and lecturers in university coursework and on practicum

1. Recognition of the problems implicit in and derivative from a dearth of reading experience and enjoyment have led lecturers involved in the research project to increased emphasis in introductory courses on the enjoyment of reading for its own sake and the need to foreground reading modelling with students through the use of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) and USSR (Uninterrupted Silent Sustained Reading) or Shared Book types of programs.


2. Modelling reading to early primary students with secondary Dip Ed students generates a wide range of initial response - from vocal rejection "This is a waste of time, we're not going to be sitting secondary kids on the floor and reading to them. We'd be murdered" to unreflective acceptance, "When you sat us on the floor and read to us that first time, it was returning to childhood. I just closed my eyes and leant against the table leg and went totally with the story. Arnold is still my favorite story since you read it to us. I think its just so great."


Feedback following the major practicum in June/July produced a more circumspect but more critically positive range of responses. The student who had suggested he'd be murdered was now able to place his experience in a more realistic context. "I had this year 9 class and I'd tried everything with them and they wouldn't do anything. Even the supervising teacher couldn't control them. And so I decided, 'Well, Neil says you can do it' - and I've got nothing to lose. So I came in and I sat them down and I read to them and it was incredible. And after that, they were just terrific and we had a fantastic time".


Nevertheless, not all of the secondary students were willing or even permitted by their supervising teachers to try reading to their classes. Indeed, not all were involved in activities which lent themselves to reading aloud to their students.


3. Primary teaching practicum responses suggest that a number of students have been, in effect, trained out of the reading experience by their secondary and tertiary education. As one student recorded, "I'd forgotten what fun it was being read to in class until I saw my supervising teacher reading to these grade threes. And they were just wrapt. And I thought, 'Well, I'll just have to read to them won't I. So I'll have to do some fast reading to find out what's good for my kids".


4. Second year Bachelor of Education students have undertaken a workshop focused on Libby Hawthorn's picture story book, Way Home, in which the responsibility of society for the safety of its children is foregrounded. Teachers-in training are asked to work in groups to establish the responsibilities of various groups within society - teachers, parents, police, social agencies, adults - in guaranteeing the safety of a child at risk. Through conscious and deliberate modelling of Shared Reading and related intervention/support strategies, these teachers-in-training are introduced to positive classroom literacy development while, at the same time, being subjected to the experience of the strategy themselves.  Initial reports suggest that many of the subjects of this experience have repeated it in their practicum classrooms with substantial success.



Assigned work for this group includes developing a selection of fiction, poetry and non-fiction texts centred on a theme and focused at a nominated primary year.  This collection of texts is annotated by the tertiary student and becomes a teaching resource for the following practicum.  Texts used by lecturers in the course itself feature highly in some students’  annotated theme lists, reflecting the power of modelled use of texts for teachers-in-training.


B. Some generalisations from the surveys


1. Whilst these results are still being assessed, it seems clear that there is a body of teachers-in-training in both the secondary and primary programs who are not readers of literature as adults.


2. There is a range of home literacy experiences amongst our trainees.  The majority come from childhoods where reading to children was a feature.  How our students were read to seems to be spread along similar lines to those described by Shirley Brice-Heath (1983).


3. It would seem that mothers in our students' families are significant to the types of readers their children become. This correlates with Rivalland's (1994) finding in her family survey of reading practices that " ...it was mostly the mothers who took an active role in shaping, supporting and monitoring their childrens' literacy practices" (Ravilland, 1994:289). While fathers were more significant in shaping literacy practices for some groups in our survey than for others, there is an issue here of notions of masculine and feminine identity which influence fathers' and mothers' attitudes to reading and to reading practices. Sue Nichols (1994) found a negative association between masculinity and literacy in both males and females in some of the families she surveyed. The high proportion of female school teachers, which is reflected in the composition of our sample at all levels, combined with school students perceptions of masculine and feminine literacy practices may be reinforcing these negative associations.


4.  A minority of our trainees cannot remember being read to at home

and of these, many nominate school as the most formative influence in their reading.


5.  Many of our students indicate that the pressure of  the later years of high school and of university has meant that they rarely read for their own pleasure and interest, or do not read at all outside of their set texts.  Some express great regret at this turn of events while others appear to use it as a justification of their continued non-readership.  However,light reading in the form of newspapers and magazines still figures highly.


C. Initial interviews undertaken with a small sample of primary teachers and teachers-in-training has shown the following:


Interviews with cooperating teachers as to their habits of reading to their students revealed some commonly held views on the reasons for reading aloud to students. Amongst the teacher interviewees, reading aloud was unanimously agreed to be “a good thing to do”. Reasons given  usually mentioned  the students’ enjoyment of the experience. One teacher cited her class as asking her for ”one more chapter... one more line” when she stopped reading to them because they found it so enjoyable. 


Some teachers mentioned that reading aloud to the students was something they thought might not be happening at home.  Others believed that they were building on a rich literature base from the home.Young students’ exposure to children’s literature correlated highly with the child’s level of thematic awareness in a study undertaken by Susan Lehr (1988).  She found that students’ interpretations of character and plot differed from those of adults but were soundly grounded in the text.  Those students with much exposure to children’s literature were more able to generate thematic statements about text than those with low exposure whose  responses were more vague and more concrete.   Although it is not mentioned in Lehr’s study, the type of interaction with reader and text is obviously important, not mere exposure to text types. Perhaps those with more exposure to literature had more varied and meaningful experiences with that literature.


Teachers also mentioned the useful links to other KLA’s provided by   reading aloud to children.  Books were chosen because they linked well to topics being studied in HSIE, Science, English and Personal Development.


Other reasons for reading aloud included the fact that it made a quiet time after lunch, it exposed the children to a reading model, it allowed for reading skills to be demonstrated deliberately, it presented a model of good writing and exposed the children to different text types (though only one teacher said she read factual texts as well as fiction to her students).  Two teachers mentioned the value of introducing students to text types and authors they might otherwise miss.  The teachers’ purposes were to broaden the range of reading from which their students could themselves eventually choose.  


In choosing books to read to their classes, teachers relied on the school librarian, the children’s interests and books from home and their own ideas of what would interest the children and on what had been successful in the past.


Given this range of positive reasons for reading to their students, it is no surprise that eight of the nine teachers interviewed were reading to their students during the practicum period when interviews were conducted. 


The unlikely case of Kathy


The one teacher who was not reading to her class classified herself as an avid reader from a childhood home where everyone read.  However, she was not reading to her class during the practicum because there was not time to fit in all that Kathy, her teacher-in-training, had planned for the practicum.


Interestingly, the teacher-in-training reported herself as coming from a non-reading family and classified herself as a non-reader. Reading to the class was not something she had planned for and there was no model currently in use of reading to them from the classroom teacher.  During the three week practice session, Kathy read her year four class two poems and a factual text which provided input for a unit in HSIE. Her highly successful lessons were largely based around creative problem solving in cooperative groups and practical construction of tangible products such as 3D houses designed with the environment in mind.


Kathy came from an educated, middle-class immigrant family, had learned English as an eight year old at school and had factual and religious text readers as adult models.  She could not remember being read to as a child at home. 


In contrast, the only other teacher-in-training who described herself as a non-reader, read to her kindergarten class daily, as did her cooperating teacher. She is the same teacher-in-training mentioned earlier  as feeling powerless in the practicum setting.


While the role model provided by the cooperating teacher is clearly a powerful one, the teacher-in-training can also exert an influence on the cooperating teacher’s classroom activity.


A collaboration of readers


Angela and Carmen developed a partnership from the first day of Angela’s practicum.  They both enjoyed children’s literature and Angela arrived at the school with a literature unit she had written for the class following her one day pre-practice teaching visit. Both women used similar management techniques in the classroom with the rather difficult six children out of a class of sixteen in year 5.


Angela read to the class every day for the literature unit. She also linked excerpts describing a bush fire from Libby Gleeson’s ‘Eleanor Elizabeth’, with the concepts of  ‘earth, wind, fire and water being dealt with in religious studies.


Carmel ‘ read to her students about twice a day.  She chose picture books and read a chapter from one of the novels she was reading for the term.


It was a routine part of the school day to be read to for the students and so Angela’s literature unit fitted  smoothly into the week’s lessons.


Both Angela and Carmen described themselves as readers.  They came from reading households and were read to as children at home.


This fortuitous similarity in home literacy practices and adult reading behaviour, plus similar teaching styles and a mutually collegial approach to managing the practicum meant that, despite the difficult management issues in the class, Angela’s practicum was very harmonious and successful for both adults and children.




These results of work in progress have been presented to support the view that the practicum is a powerful influence in shaping student teacher attitudes toward reading but that it is not, alone, sufficient to generate changed attitudes towards the value of reading in the classroom. In consequence, an identification and support program to assist students whose early family reading experience is incongruent with mainstream school literacy practices is proposed to reinforce the practicum experience.


The importance of literacy partnerships between teachers, school students and their families has been long recognised by both teachers and researchers (eg Cairney, 1994). Such partnerships need also to be developed between tertiary teachers and their students. To date, these partnerships have been easily and informally established between tertiary teachers and students who are confident in their mainstream readership practices. Our findings to date strongly suggest that tertiary teachers need to seek consciously for similar partnerships with students whose family literacies are different from the school and university literacies they have so far survived if their classroom practice is to support its stated intentions in literacy education.



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