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How to find out what works in ‘What Works?’

Choosing an effective intervention may not be as difficult as you think.

For school leaders looking for evidence on the effectiveness of literacy interventions, the go-to source is Professor Greg Brooks’ What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? Published by the SpLD-Dyslexia Trust, this work compiles the available evidence on currently available interventions in reading, spelling and writing. Greg Brooks invites submissions, evaluates the data and collates the information into a form that enables reasonable comparisons to be made. Pre-dating the EEF’s “Toolkit”, and much more precisely described, What Works is now in its fifth edition.

This blog post is prompted, however, by conversations with pressed senior leaders and SENDCOs who find that the sheer wealth of information seems too much to wade through. This is a step-by-step guide for secondary school leaders to simplify what may seem like a daunting process.

Step 1: Identify the relevant age group

The report is split up into sections covering primary, Key Stage 3 and above, and young adults.

Step 2: Identify the relevant learning domain

There are three domains covered in the compilation: reading, spelling and writing.

Step 3: Compare the ratings

Greg Brooks has classified the results under three broad headings: useful, substantial, and remarkable. If you are looking for serious impact, you only want to be dealing with an intervention with ‘remarkable’ impact. (After all, if a gain of a few months meets your students’ needs, they probably don’t need intervention at all.)

Step 4: Compare the Ratio Gains and the total gains

Look at the number of months gained for each month in the programme. Greg Brooks has calculated this as the Ratio Gain (RG) for each intervention. This means that the impact of interventions is roughly comparable. However, you should also note the total months gained. A Ratio Gain of three months for every month on the programme might seem like a good result, but if the programme can only offer two months’ worth of lessons, you can only expect a six-month gain. Is that enough? If your aim is for struggling readers to catch up quickly, you will need a programme that can deliver a total gain of at least three years, preferably more, and do so within an academic year.

Step 5: Analyse how much impact the intervention had on the weakest students

For each set of results, Greg Brooks has identified the average level at pre-intervention and the average level at post-intervention. This helps to show us how far behind the students were to begin with. A data set may show a significant gain, but if this gain occurs mainly with students who are already performing at the average for their age or above, is this a catch-up intervention? An intervention that produces significant gains for students who are well behind their peers is a much more worthwhile investment.

The five steps above should help you to draw your own conclusions very quickly.

Spoiler alert

If you want to do your own research, please don’t read any further! However, if you’d like to take a preview, I’ve summarised the results on reading at secondary school for you below.

Cheat sheet

In summary, there are five interventions in the secondary school section for reading considered to show ‘remarkable’ results. Of these, four showed average gains of 10 – 27 months. In these interventions, better results were shown for students who were already reading close to their chronological age. In the one remaining intervention, students were reading on average five years behind when starting the programme, and gained more than five years (60+ months) in their reading by the time they had completed it. These gains were maintained at follow-up testing.

You should, of course, do your own checking!

What about the EEF’s toolkit?

Greg Brooks has included some of the Education Endowment Foundation’s randomised controlled trials, but ruled out 14 of the 24 EEF literacy studies: “The reasons for not mentioning 14 of the RCT evaluations in this report varied: non-significant findings, implementation or sampling problems, small samples, high drop-out . . .” . Others, like Greg Ashman, have expressed their reservations about the lack of clarity in the way the Toolkit presents information. For clear descriptions of the interventions and specific, accessible data, (including the results of RCTs) we would recommend What Works every time.







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Choosing an Intervention: Who Does It Help?

To know if an intervention is effective, we need to know who it helps most. 

Schools are rightly making more of an effort to evaluate the evidence for interventions before investing in them. This is a good thing, not least because poor interventions waste students’ time, the most finite but least appreciated commodity in the education system.

However, such evaluation requires looking past the headline averages. Let’s say an intervention is reported as enabling students to make 24 months’ progress in a few weeks. Unless we know the characteristics of these students, we really can’t tell if this intervention is likely to be of benefit to the pupils about whom we are concerned. There are two main questions to address: how were students selected for the intervention, and how far behind expectations were they to begin with?

Question 1: How were students selected for the intervention?

Was it just a one-shot test? The fact that a standardised test has been used does not automatically mean that the student’s score is a true indication of their performance. Apart from the standard error of measurement implicit in all standardised tests, low test motivation can play a much larger role within a specific school’s population that it does in the general population.  In one of my previous schools, when we re-tested the Year 10s with a different test (having been unimpressed by some of their apparently low scores), we halved the number of students who appeared to be in need of reading support. When we then tested the remaining students one-to-one (with a third test), we halved the numbers again. In other words, 75% of the students with low scores in the first standardised test turned out to be reading at levels that did not require intervention after all. This may not be the case in all schools, but if there is only one test used, we can’t be sure.

You can see how relying on a single score at pre-test could make progress appear more positive than it is, because the students were not starting as far behind as their score suggested. (For example, one of the students in the school above improved between tests by four and a half years). In theory, larger numbers in a sample will compensate for individual variations in motivation. In a real setting, many of the students scoring poorly because of low motivation would end up in the intervention group. Not only does this waste resources on students who don’t need them, it can also make the intervention look more effective than it really is. Higher scores at post-test for these students look like progress, when in fact they may simply reflect a more representative performance than the pre-test scores.

In summary, beware of a single test score being used to identify students in need of intervention.

Question 2: How far behind were the students in the sample?

For example, in one study I read recently, the scores of a group of students had a mean starting level of 12 years and 3 months – hardly behind at all, since the average age for the group was estimated at 12.5. Of course if 12.3 was the mean, then some were above that level, some below. Leaving aside the question of why you would intervene with students who are hardly (or perhaps not at all) behind, the important question for schools is: how much growth was achieved by students who were reading significantly behind, e.g. three years or more? In the case above, based on information on the intervention’s website, it turns out that greater progress was made by those who started out as average or above average readers. Much less progress was made by those who were well behind to begin with. How useful is this if we are looking to support the weakest readers?

In summary, check the starting points for pupils in the intervention under investigation to compare these with the students who are of concern in your school.

Anything that improves reading is good news – but if we are investing in staffing and resources, we should look past the headlines and slogans to ensure that we give our students the outcomes they need.

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I tried that and it didn’t work . . . 

Allies and Friends

It takes a movement to conquer illiteracy.

It was a tough decision.  Would I stay in my school, with my programme and my team, and enjoy seeing students succeed where they had previously failed? Or would I take the leap, strike out on my own to develop the programme and so enable many more children to leave school reading well?

When I did make the leap, it proved to be even harder than I expected. First of all it required building an organisation from scratch, which is no mean feat.  Secondly, I quickly found that while many people sympathise with the cause of improving reading, few are willing to be its champions. I can say with some confidence that if it wasn’t for the support of allies and friends, I wouldn’t have made it this far. This post is about how important they are, and why they  too are worthy of support.

We had our first breakthrough with Teach First: we applied for the 2015 Innovation Award and were one of the five winners. There are some things that we know we don’t know – and others that we don’t know we don’t know! The Teach First Innovation Unit gave us access to people who had the kind of expertise we lacked. It also put us in touch with people with the same determination to change outcomes for the most disadvantaged, across a range of organisations and industries. That sense of connection has been very important to keeping on going – knowing that there are other voices and other shoulders pushing that same (very big) wheel.

Teach First is dedicated to changing the outcomes for disadvantaged children. Their current campaign is ‘Challenge the Impossible’, with the aim that ‘no child’s dream should ever be written off because of their background.’ Illiteracy and poverty are inextricably linked, and so recently achieving partnership status with Teach First is a natural fit for us. If we can help them to deliver a knockout blow on low literacy outcomes for disadvantaged students, we will have taken a major step towards a more just society.


We’ve been involved with the researchED community since its early days, although we weren’t fast enough to get tickets for the first conference! Working with this loosely aligned community has been liberating precisely because of its spontaneity, its willingness to challenge and question, and its curiosity. Interacting on social media, at conferences and the occasional curry night has introduced us to people and ideas we might never have encountered – and to share from the well of our own experience with people who are open-minded and optimistic about what can be achieved in education.

One (there are six) of the aims of researchED is to raise the research literacy of educators, in order for them to possess the critical skills necessary to challenge and understand the quality of research they encounter. Another is to promote, where possible, research of any discipline that has been shown to have significant evidence of impact in education, and to challenge research that lacks integrity, or has been shown to be based on doubtful methodologies.

One of the greatest frustrations in my career has been the gap between educational research  – especially around reading and language – and practice in schools. It’s absolutely the case that there has been some very poor practice around the teaching of reading – there is no other explanation for the high proportion of students still struggling to read at the end of their education. ResearchED’s agenda, to eliminate poor practice derived from pseudo-research (or none at all) is of enormous potential benefit to education.

We’ve been supporters of the The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) for some time and recently joined its advisory board. IFERI has support from some of the foremost reading researchers, and being part of this network is hugely informative.  Bringing some of the best minds in the world on reading and literacy to bear on government policy and professional practice, IFERI has the potential to make a huge difference to how we deal with reading problems in education systems across the English-speaking world.

It’s also been hugely helpful to be able to connect with the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy (DDOLL) network. Established through Macquarie University in Sydney, and with a membership of scientists, clinicians, teachers and parents, the network shares information and discusses issues linked to the investigation and treatment of developmental disorders of language and literacy through sound scientific methodology and evidence-based research.

And where would we be without #TeamReading? Like researchED, this is a loosely aligned group of practitioners, professionals, and academics. Although there is no formal organisation binding us together, the support and interaction through social media has been empowering both in exploring new knowledge and confronting destructive myths.

Sometimes I am asked, why set up a new organisation when you could just keep working within the existing system? Based on hard experience, I concluded it wasn’t possible to effect the kind of change we need to see while still under the control of the very system that needs changing. So here I am – but fortunately, so are a lot of other people.  There is commitment, ability and determination. I do believe that, as we continue to work together, the job can be done.

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12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

Good systems need good people to deliver them.

To have real impact, an intervention must have two things: an effective programme, and an effective teacher. No matter how good the programme is, its power to effect positive change will be aided or hindered by the person who is delivering it. Having trained numerous teams to deliver Thinking Reading, I have distilled a list of key qualities that teaching staff need to become ‘highly effective’ practitioners. I thought it might make interesting reading for others – it’s not a job description, just my observations on what makes the biggest difference. Here is my list:

1. Teachable

As fluent readers, we can be blasé about the difficulty of teaching reading to older struggling readers because it is something that we learnt to do (often very easily) so many years ago, that it is a skill that we now perform with automaticity (fluently). We need to have a thorough knowledge-base so that we can teach systematically and not create any confusion. Thankfully, there is so much sound research that has been done on the science of reading – but good teachers will actively seek to learn from this research and to apply it.

2. Academically critical

It’s always a delight when teachers really engage with the research. Precisely because there is so much research, it’s very important to become skilled at questioning and evaluating what is presented in training and in articles or books. If ‘research’ becomes just another fad, the profession has gained nothing. But teachers who are critical in their approach and willing to engage academically find a whole trove of treasure that isn’t open to us when we only engage in a superficial way. It’s how we understand ‘why’ we use a certain procedure instead of just looking for ‘what’ to do.

3. Skeptical

Smart teachers don’t rely on ‘intuition’ or ‘professional judgement’.  They use clear cut, objective and observable criteria for both formative and summative assessment, and apply that criteria for student selection, and advancement during the intervention. If we rely on anything else, students could be advanced before they are ready, which sets them up to fail later on – or they may be held back unnecessarily. A commitment to empirical evidence enables us to be objective, not subjective, when making these important decisions.

4. Optimistic

When secondary school students come into a reading intervention programme, they have had a history of failure. It is our job to have high expectations and communicate to them our belief in what they can achieve. We must not be swayed by the observations of others that “they can’t”, “they have a processing disorder”, “everything goes in one ear and out the other” and such proclamations of doom.  We need to believe in them and be ambitious for their progress before they start to believe in themselves. If we teach them what they need to know, in small steps to mastery, they will make progress in every lesson, and over time can make substantial gains. It is not unkind or unreasonable to have high expectations, as long as we have a plan to get the student there in small, achievable steps.

5. Challenging

Good teachers know the behaviours that their students need to succeed. We teach these behaviours as required – we do not just assume that students have them in their repertoire. We also give them reasons for doing the right thing, that is, we deliberately build their motivation. This implies that we have high expectations and won’t let them get away with doing less than their best.  This comes as a surprise to some students, but it is absolutely necessary for them to achieve their potential.

6. Liberating expectations

It is important to be aware of the myths surrounding older struggling readers. Be research-literate: become familiar with the research on the myths around dyslexia and intelligence. Being behind in reading does not equate to low intelligence, nor is it helped by using coloured lenses or overlays. In fact, learning to read well can improve IQ results. Assigning ‘ability’ levels to students creates artificial – and unnecessary – ceilings for how well they can do.

7. Pragmatic perfectionist

To be a very effective teacher, we need to maintain a balance between the perfectionism that ensures that everything operates at the highest standard possible, and a pragmatism that remembers that we, our students, and our colleagues are only human. There is always a tension here, but in my experience it is only when we lean more towards the perfectionist side that we really see results for those with the most serious reading problems.

8. Strong work ethic

There can be no cutting corners. There is only efficient management of the work that has to be done. We should never waste time doing things that don’t need doing – this only keeps us away from doing what should be done. But all essential tasks should be done thoroughly and completely. It is always obvious in training when people really care about doing a job well, and when they don’t.

9. Eye for detail

When working with students who have made limited progress, we have to be diligent and spot every little detail that may be holding them back. Does the student drop the endings of words? Do they fail to read the punctuation? Did they mispronounce a word when reading aloud? Perhaps teachers thinking  an error was ‘too trivial’ is why the student has ended up where they are. The same eye for detail applies to delivering lessons. Every detail counts – otherwise, why were we planning to do something that didn’t matter? We need to use every opportunity to best effect – and eliminate every problem.

10. Determined

The kind of patience that we need when working with students who are struggling is not so much about calmly tolerating mistakes: it is about a stubborn determination to work through every issue until they have cracked the problems that they faced and have caught up completely.

11. Emotionally secure

Successful teachers are focused on their students’ success, not their students’ approval or need for them. There is a dangerous co-dependency that we can unwittingly foster when we need to be needed. This is never helpful. The focus is on the student and what they can achieve. Our goal is to make ourselves dispensable.

12. Warm but not sentimental

Strong teachers have warmth but still create a focused, no-nonsense atmosphere. In some contexts, I have seen a tendency for sympathy or pity to overshadow what students really need – a consistent, forensic drive for progress. It doesn’t actually matter why their learning problems arose – the most compassionate response I can give is to enable them to learn what they need in order to become independent learners.

Those are some thoughts about what makes transformational reading teachers – I suspect that many of the same traits apply to classroom teachers. And let’s not forget that underpinning all this has to be an effective, research-validated programme otherwise, all that talent is going to waste.







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Seven ways to increase a student’s chances of exclusion

Our actions can have serious, if unintended, consequences for students. 

No doubt we would all be appalled by the suggestion that we might be contributing to a student’s chances of being excluded. But the reality is that there are many practices, culturally and systematically embedded in schools, that ensure some students are at much higher risk than they need to be.

For the purposes of illustration, here is a short ‘guide’ on how to make a student much more likely to be excluded.

Get them off to a bad start in reading.

Nothing has more impact on a student’s education than reading, so make sure that those who come to school disadvantaged stay that way. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have a significantly smaller oral vocabulary than their more well-off peers. Unless this is addressed systematically, such students will fall further and further behind. Not only that, but their more limited exposure to language means that they have less opportunity to intuit the written code. To make them feel like reading isn’t for them, focus on visual and context clues, give them predictable books that make it look like they can read, and only address the phonic code as a last resort. Even then, you can keep this knowledge mixed up with other strategies so that the child never has the chance to learn systematically. These simple steps alone will help to increase your student’s chances of exclusion massively. In all likelihood, they will never recover from this bad start.

Excuse delays as ‘developmental’.

Sometimes parents will press us to explain why a child is not making progress. At such times it is important to avoid introspection and indeed any suggestion that the teaching we have or haven’t done is responsible. Instead, reassure parents that any apparent delays are merely developmental, and that eventually the child will grasp the knowledge they currently lack. The phrase ‘click and fly’ is useful here as it suggests a magical quality to knowledge, and high expectations of what the student will achieve. Under no circumstances yield to the temptation to talk about knowledge as the product of patient, steady work by the teacher and the student. Sometimes parents will believe the developmental excuse explanation until Year 5 – by which time the child will almost certainly be someone else’s problem. Developmental explanations are virtually a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Dispense freely.

Ignore gaps in learning

If a child is missing knowledge that they need to access other learning, you might be tempted to alter your teaching to ensure that they cover what is needed, or to call in specialist support. But if you want to increase their chances of exclusion, just press on with the programme and keep telling yourself that they will ‘click and fly’ one day. The accumulating learning deficits will have a catastrophic effect on their motivation and they’ll become prime candidates for ejection from school.



Categorise them as SEN when they just need teaching

This at once relieves the teacher and the school of responsibility, at the same time encouraging the student to believe their problems are irremediable. The SEN label can be used as freely as the developmental explanation, and with more power since it can be dressed up in all kinds of jargon. Talk about ‘visual processing deficits’, ‘short-term working memory deficits’, ‘attention deficit’, ‘behavioural impulse control deficits’ . . . you get the picture. The phrases may vary, but the central idea is that the child is the problem. SLT will be very happy to have an explanation for the student’s lack of progress. Meantime, the student will fall further behind, become alienated from peers and teachers, and develop a gnawing despair that eats away at their self-esteem.

Apply ineffective remedies

To really cement this sense of permanence in their learning difficulties, segregate them into groups, or one-to-one lessons if you have money to burn, and give them more intensive doses of the teaching methods that have already failed them. Explain that they will never catch up, treat slow progress as a miracle, and give them substitutes for teaching like coloured overlays, simplified vocabulary and the kind of cartoon pictures they remember from early primary school. This is almost guaranteed to produce not only ongoing failure, but a deep and seething resentment. You have now almost perfected the student’s candidacy for exclusion.

Punish them for hating school

Now that they have lost hope, this one is easy. Always ensure that when they break the rules, you talk about how disappointed you are in them, remind them that they have disability x or problem y, and remind them that they won’t get far in life with such a poor attitude. Also, talk a lot. Nothing drives them to distraction like the teacher wittering on. This will intensify their feelings of frustration and, hopefully, injustice. They will now have strong motivations to reject authority, and aggressive emotions that they can inflict on peers, disrupting lessons and wearing teachers out. The early investment in reading failure is now manifesting as persistent misbehavior. You are almost there!


Claim it’s too late

We have now reached the end game. Remember to convey sympathy and compassion at this point. Also, shrug. After all, we did our best, but sometimes even with the best will in the world, it’s just too late. Explain to the parents how many chances the child has had and all the support that the school has given them. Show your disappointment that things didn’t work out better. Make sure to warn them that they must now make the best use of the alternative provision centre they will be consigned to. Then press the ejector button.




Of course, no teacher would really try to ensure students are excluded, would they? No, of course not* – yet all these practices do commonly occur in schools, albeit from different motives. From the student’s point of view, however, it is not the reasons for our actions, but how these actions impact them, that matters. So, despite our aspiration to higher motives, ultimately the effect on students is to increase the risk of exclusion.

If you are a head teacher or a senior leader, you have the power to shape your school’s systems and culture to avoid the discriminatory practices outlined above. I hope you use it wisely.

*I am deliberately overlooking a few former colleagues who did boast about “getting pupils excluded”. I am sure they were aberrations from the vast bulk of the profession.

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Reading Crisis? What Crisis?

The reading problem in our secondary schools is serious but solvable.

I have long been pleased that the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, is a fan of the knowledge curriculum and a promoter of effective early reading instruction through systematic synthetic phonics, informed by the use of the Phonics Check – so I was looking forward to hearing him speak yesterday at researchED 2017 in Stratford.

The introduction of the Phonics Check is important: not as it is often wilfully mis-described, but as a check on the impact of our ‘teaching’ (not the teacher, and certainly not the child). The Check enables us to change the teaching, should we need to.

However, until we have uniformity in the effective teaching of early reading, we will continue to see children arrive at secondary school reading well behind. While some schools have adopted effective early reading practices, there is evidence that some schools still use a ‘mixed methods’ approach (with a sprinkling of phonics), or teach using multi-cueing, with phonics as a strategy of last resort.

So we are still not in the clear as far as early reading instruction. Then there is the assumption that two or three good years at the start is all that is needed to ensure good reading. This is what some US researchers call ‘the fallacy of inoculation’, where we expect that all the additional reading skills students need to master – for example, comprehension and reasoning strategies, vocabulary, text and genre conventions, and so on – will all fall into place if they have good early reading. That seems an unjustified level of optimism. There are lots of reasons that students might arrive at secondary school with reading difficulties. We can’t just hope it will be all right.

A key question that appears to have been largely ignored at government level is the extent of reading problems at secondary school. There is no way of knowing this, since there are no official systems for collecting this information. However, we can make inferences from Key Stage 2 data. Under the new measures used in 2016 and 2017, it’s difficult to know how far behind the children who did not meet the ‘expected standard’ have fallen. The headlines are that 34% did not meet that standard in 2016, and 29% did not meet it in 2017.

We can learn more detail from the 2015 KS2 SATs reading data, which we analysed by region and local authority. This data is still very relevant because these students are now at the start of Year 9, in the middle of their secondary schooling. We looked at students who were reading at Level 3 or below, since in curriculum terms this indicated a gap of at least two years between their actual and expected achievement.

The regions with the highest proportion of students reading at Level 3 or below were: Yorkshire and the Humber 14.3%, West Midlands 13.3%, East Midlands and East of England 12.5%.

Looking at the regions in more detail, the local authorities with the greatest level of need (15%+) were:

  • Yorkshire and the Humber – Bradford 17.5% (1= nationally), NE Lincolnshire 16.3% (3), Rotherham 16% (4=), Sheffield 15.8% (6=), Wakefield 15.3% (10=), North Lincolnshire and Kingston-Upon-Hull 15% (12=)
  • East of England – Peterborough 17.5% (1=) and Luton 15.5% (8=)
  • South East England – Medway 16% (4=)
  • East Midlands – Leicester 15.8% (6=), Nottingham 15.5% (8=) and Derby 15.3% (10=)
  • West Midlands – Coventry 15% (12=)

The total number of local authorities with 10%+ students reading at Level 3 or below:

Overall, it appears that at least 10% of the school population, on average, has serious reading problems when they arrive at secondary school. If there are 3.5 million students in English secondary schools, that means 350,000 of them ought to be getting some extra help from their schools to solve the problem. The total cost  to the UK economy of low literacy is estimated at upwards of £23 billion – per year. So there is a huge incentive for us, as a society, to address this problem at secondary schools, before it hits the workforce.

At the end of the session, questions were invited from the floor: I commended Mr Gibb on his advocacy of SSP but, as there are currently 20% of children arriving at secondary school reading well behind their age, I asked whether the government had any plans to put measures in place to ensure that these students don’t continue to fall through the cracks. His response was, perhaps understandably, focused on the policies he was most familiar with – the Phonics Check and the (now shelved) plan to have Year 7 resits for those who had ‘failed’ SATs the first time around.

Given that there are now strong research findings that enable us to target very effective instruction towards these students, I followed up with Mr Gibb afterwards and appreciated him taking the time to engage. He was no doubt somewhat on the back foot, but I must say that I was alarmed when he said that ‘incentivising’ secondary schools to address reading problems would be ‘too unpopular’. I can only imagine that he was thinking of the SATs resit policy, since most secondary school teachers I know would be delighted to see a resolution to the literacy problems that constantly confound their efforts.

A good example of appropriately incentivising schools was the original Progress 8 structure which recognised the success of schools who enabled their low attainers to make good progress. Unfortunately, alleged pressure from some headteachers is what caused the government to backtrack, making progress at lower grades worth only one-third of progress at higher grades. Reading, of course, affects all areas of academic achievement as well as having important benefits for health, employment and longevity. What I tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to convey to the minister was that the reading problem at secondary school is eminently solvable, and that students can catch up, rapidly and completely, with effective instruction.

I would prefer to see the same commitment and drive to addressing older students reading problems as has been evident in the government’s policy towards the Phonics Check. In any case, surely popularity is less important than improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of students and their families? I suppose that there may be some headteachers who would find such a policy unwelcome, but I expect that it would also be very popular with students and their parents.

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Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

How we treat reading problems in the classroom affects student outcomes – and our stress.

There is often an expectation at secondary school that if students haven’t learned to read well by the time they begin Year 7, it’s probably indicative of a lack of ability.  This may be related to a hangover from the 11+ exam, or it may simply be prejudice. It’s certainly not based on anything factual. There is plenty of evidence – some of it on this blog and on our website – that students can catch up remarkably quickly when given explicit, systematic teaching.

However, this sort of teaching is closely targeted, has most impact in a one-to-one format, and doesn’t always fit into the organisation of the general secondary classroom. So what do we do about helping struggling readers to cope, and even improve, while grappling with the regular curriculum? Here are six suggestions:

Know who they are

It might sound trivial, but it’s not. This UK study found, for example, that only half the poor readers in the sample had been identified for additional support. Children can also become experts at masking their reading problems in the classroom. They have lots of motivation to do so, for to expose these problems is to invite shame, ridicule and bullying. So the careful teacher finds low-key ways to explore the problem and to see how deep it goes. You can use more than test data for this: a quiet chat, a reading aloud exercise, a comprehension activity, can also yield much information. But certainly, you should have a good idea of how your students stand in relation to national reading norms – regardless of your subject. If your school doesn’t yet provide this data as standard to every teacher, the leadership may need a not-so-subtle nudge.

Have them read aloud to you

Library lessons are a great way to do this, as is simply taking the opportunity while moving around the room. Talking in a quiet voice (while keeping an eye on the rest of the class), invite the student to read a paragraph or more and note the errors they made (are they recurring?), and how quickly they read.  Most students love reading to their teacher, even those who are not confident about reading aloud to the class. Giving them a sense of safety to do so is a gift. Always remember to praise what they do well, and give two or three very specific items of feedback. You can’t do this sort of exercise all the time, but if you have two or three students like this whom you check in with every week, it makes a big difference to them. And they will improve, because they are getting specific feedback, and they want to please you.

Check their understanding

Some students seem to decode the words on the page quite well, but on probing a little deeper we may find that they have retained or understood very little. One reason for this may be a lack of fluency: decoding is so effortful that they have little working memory left over to process meaning. Another reason may be related to vocabulary; sometimes there are too many words on the page that they don’t know, or aren’t familiar with in this context. Asking them what a particular word means, or asking them to put a sentence into their own words, can be very helpful in getting them to think more carefully. A critical element that enables students to understand texts is whether they are able to connect pronouns with their referents. Asking the student who ‘he’ or ‘it’ refers to, can reveal quite alarming gaps in their comprehension. So talk about language in a text with the class, and have specific students in mind to question most closely for understanding.

Pair them with an able buddy

This doesn’t mean sitting them next to a clever girl so they can copy the answers. Set up activities where students read to each other in pairs. Get them to take turns, and tell them that they can work out between them which parts each will read, explaining that slower readers should read less text, focusing on accuracy. Even five or ten minutes of such activities will provide not only much-needed practice, but also modelling from an able peer. Modelling is most powerful when it is provided through someone who is close to the learner in age, status, and skill level. Students will generally take more risks with a peer than they would with an adult. At the same time, it is important to teach all students the ground rules for working co-operatively in this way:

  1. Don’t tell your partner the word if they get stuck. Pause while they work it out.
  2. Read ‘through’ the word with them, don’t just tell them the word, so that the learner can see the links between spellings and sounds.
  3. Always be polite when offering feedback. Never laugh or scold.

It may sound simple, but while being explicit about courtesy never does harm, it often achieves much good.

Build up their spoken vocabulary

Reading represents spoken language. If students don’t know the word on the page, they will have trouble decoding it, and even more so understanding how the term is being used. Using robust vocabulary instruction, a la Beck, McKeown and Kucan, will benefit all learners, but especially those furthest behind. Beck and her co-authors suggest that a student needs to encounter a word ten times in different contexts to make it likely that they will integrate it into their own vocabulary. So intensify vocabulary instruction, and consciously plan which words to prioritise for study.

Communicate positive expectations

Lastly, going back to the opening point of this post: if you communicate to students that they can learn, they will. If you communicate to them that they will never learn, they will give up. And then they will do something else, which usually involves making your life more difficult! So, while using strategies like those above are helping the struggling reader, you are also making a difference for yourself and the other students in the class.

At the end of the day, children who learn to read tend to be much happier than when they couldn’t.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life. London: Guildford Press.

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