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7 ways to help the bottom third

It’s the time of year when we farewell Year 11 students, with a mixture of relief, anticipation, and sometimes a tinge of regret. For some, the promise of what they will do with their lives is so beautiful it almost intoxicating. For others, not so much: those students who strove, who struggled, who despaired, and sometimes gave up; the ones whom we instinctively feel should have done better, but we know are likely to end up with grades at 3 or even below. And it‘s at this time that we most wonder – could we have done something different?

There are many potential reasons why students struggle. The learning that is being assessed at GCSE has accumulated over the years of the education, both inside and outside school walls. Skills that bear a single name – like ‘essay writing’ – are in fact are a composite of many different skills, which are themselves likewise a combination of more basic skills. Achievement comes from acquiring knowledge, then practising its application to mastery, then combining it with other knowledge, ad infinitum.

Often the reasons for failure or slow progress are hidden below the surface. It is not the presenting weakness that is the problem, but fractures in the layers of learning that lie beneath – layers that we assume students have, but in reality are incomplete or even absent. And beneath all this lies the murky stratum of how well they can actually read.

Here are seven things that get in the way of effective help for students in the bottom third. Fortunately, they are all things that we can change:

1 Assumptions rather than objective data

We assume that the student has problems which will prevent them from learning. We sometimes call this making a professional judgement, but it is more accurately speaking pre-judgement.

2 Misattribution

We ‘diagnose’ students as having problems or disabilities which prevent them learning. We do this through the use of inadequate data, preconceptions about what low test scores actually mean, or a disability mindset where we are looking for a label to apply to the child.

3 Misunderstanding the role of motivation

We attempt to build motivation in order to promote achievement, instead of ensuring success in order to build motivation.

4 Ineffective intervention

The two main problems here are either weak programmes, whose design can only ever have limited impact, or weak execution. In both cases student achievement and motivation can actually decline rather than improve.

5 Over-intervention

Sometimes students deemed to be ‘at risk’ have their subject choices and/or time in class reduced so that they can attend more intervention. Although this might appeal to frustrated classroom teachers, heads of subject and the senior managers responsible for GCSE grades, it is rarely profitable – and the students themselves miss out on vital learning.

6 Low expectations

Students who arrived at secondary school with low baseline scores – for example, for KS2 SATS or CATS testing, are usually allocated a place in the ‘bottom sets’. Setting can have a major effect, not just on students’ self-perceptions, but on what their teachers expect of them, and therefore what they attempt to teach. Add to this the problems caused when poor behaviour is a criterion for allocation to the bottom set, and we have an invisible but very firm ceiling through which students are unlikely to rise.

7 Insufficiently detailed assessment.

Almost always overlooked, and yet it is the first step to actually solving students’ learning difficulties.

To see how these apply, let’s take an example. Suppose I note that a student only makes superficial references to a character. Inferences – even fairly obvious ones – are overlooked. The student may repeat some phrases we have discussed in class, either orally or in writing, but on probing they show little or no understanding. I might decide that the student has a disability that means that they cannot learn this material, but I choose to look instead at what they know and how I’m teaching it.

What to do? I could do some inference training, or work on comprehension strategies. But could the problem be deeper? What is the student’s vocabulary like? I may be explaining in terms that other students understand, but what if this student doesn’t know some of those terms? What if the student seemed to acquire them in class, but didn’t remember later? Was there enough practice for every student?

And of course limited comprehension could be related to gaps in background knowledge. This is often apparent in students who have arrived from a different culture, even if their language skills are good. But it can also be an issue for students who have not had the opportunities to develop such knowledge. One reason for this can be limited life experience. Another possibility is that they have limited reading experience: they simply haven’t encountered enough print to grow their repertoire of more formal, precise vocabulary.

So we need to drill deeper still into these layers of learning. Just how well can the student read? The school may have some reading data, but in many cases this data is only taken on arrival in Year 7 and not followed up thereafter. There may be other tracking data – most commonly, schools seem to rely on the STAR test associated with Accelerated Reader. While AR may provide pages of reports to show Ousted, practising teachers often find that the scores tend to bounce around and are unhelpful for analysing individual progress.

Even if we take a good standardised test, like the New Group Reading Test, this one score cannot be relied upon as definitive. Not only are there confidence intervals, but with low motivation it is possible for quite able students to appear as if they are in need of help. Running a second standardised test on students who score in the bottom third nearly always yields a number of students – sometimes up to half – whose scores significantly improve. Standardised tests can help to weed out those whose low performance is due to motivation, not a reading problem. (Which is still very useful information.)

While standardised tests may help us to sort students into groups, they do not tell us what we need to actually teach those students. Two students might get an identical score but have quite different gaps in vocabulary, background knowledge and decoding skills. To identify these gaps, we need to engage in ‘fine-grain’ assessment – a level of analysis that is not common in the secondary school curriculum.

For example, we might analyse their oral reading by tracking every error in a passage of reading; we might use word lists to look at their whole word decoding; or we might complete a detailed sound-spelling assessment that identifies exactly where their gaps in decoding are.

Once we have completed this fine-grain assessment, we are in a position to precisely identify the gaps in the student’s learning, which makes addressing them much more efficient. It’s only at this point that we can confidently begin to plan how we will help this student to catch up to where he or she should be.

This is one of the main barriers to changing the trajectories of students in the bottom third – we don’t assess them closely enough. And of course, the classroom teacher rarely has the time or opportunity for such a task – it is a role that requires training and comprehensive assessment tools. But it has to be done if we are serious about helping these students to make the progress that they should.

If you would like to read more about helping these students in lessons, see this post: Six ways to help struggling readers in the secondary classroom. For more detailed discussion on screening, assessment and intervention see our book (below).

If you’d like to talk about screening and assessment systems to help pinpoint why some students are having difficulty, we offer a one-day consultation with school leaders and a two-day workshop on fine-grain assessment of reading skills.

Visit our website.

You may also be interested in:

Why we can’t remember how we learned

What does mastery really look like?

There is Hope

Building on the Evidence

7 Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

Anything but the teaching . . .

The latest issue of Best Evidence in Brief continues a long-standing trend in the business of teaching children to read: namely, to flail about looking for anything that might shore up student reading, without having to go to the bother of actually getting teachers to teach differently.

The bulletin describes an intervention in 12 US primary schools with economically disadvantaged students. All had their vision tested and were issued free spectacles if they were found to need them – one pair for school, one for home, with broken pairs replaced for free. I was surprised to read that 69% of students tested needed glasses, so it was well worth investing in the screening process.

Providing poor children with vision testing, and supplying glasses if indicated, is a good thing in and of itself, and to be applauded. It removes a key barrier that might otherwise impinge upon students’ ability to access reading texts. What is startling, though, is the Best Evidence in Brief claim that this approach ‘points to a new strategy for improving reading performance in high-poverty schools.’

I could accept this as a possibility if there had been a marked jump in test scores as a result of the programme. However, the bulletin reports that the effect size of the study was +0.16. In other words, not much. Add to this the reported pvalue of 0.3, well above the maximum .05 that is accepted as a reasonable indicator that the results did not occur by chance, and we have nothing to talk about when it comes to spectacles improving reading.

Children who have trouble seeing the text need glasses. But let’s not confuse the business of seeing the page with the business of learning to read the symbols on the page. Improving children’s vision removes a barrier, but it does not improve reading per se – nor is there any logical reason why we should expect it to do so. What is required is explicit, systematic, well-informed teaching. But in educational research, as elsewhere in education, it seems that we will grasp at anything rather than admit that it is our teaching that needs to improve.

And until we admit that, there is no possibility of improvement, and many disadvantaged children – with or without spectacles – will not learn to read as well as they should.

Visit our website.

You may also be interested in:

Blurred Vision

Are all students screened for reading?

Are all reading interventions created equal?

Pulling the Strands Together

Does it matter if some can’t read?

Although nearly everyone would subscribe to the ideal of universal literacy, there are plenty of pragmatists in education who believe that in reality, we must accept that a certain proportion of students will leave school illiterate to some degree – that is, reading well behind the norm for their chronological age. This is the result of the bell curve, they say – and after all, the cost of addressing the problem in terms of time and money is too high. Some children just aren’t going to get there.

This certainly appears to be the way that the education system has worked to date. The National Literacy Trust estimates that there are six million functionally illiterate adults in the UK – that’s about ten per cent of the adult population. These people will have difficulty in understanding the instructions on a medicine bottle, have difficulty reading even a basic newspaper and struggle – usually unsuccessfully – to complete the theory test for a driver’s licence.

Within this group (about a third of them) there is a proportion who are completely illiterate – they cannot read signs, spell their own names, or fill in the most basic of forms. They cannot read a restaurant menu, and if the restaurant has used a quirky sign on the toilet doors, they may not be able to tell which one they should use. They rely on strangers to tell them where the next train is going, and friends or loved ones to read them letters from the council.

The experience of the child who is going through education without being able to read can be difficult to imagine for those of us who are good readers. The school day is premised on the assumption that students can already read: instructions on the whiteboard or slideshow; quotations; paragraphs in textbooks; teacher comments in books; emails from teachers; newsletters or permission slips – the list goes on and on. In this world, always stalked by the fear of humiliation or rejection, the struggling reader survives by camouflage – blending in, becoming invisible; or by distraction – through disruption, becoming the class clown, or even the class thug.

Roll down the years until this student has to sit their final exams. Here there is no hiding. Whether they have been awarded ‘special conditions’ or not, the years of being unable to access the same curriculum as everyone else have created a cumulative knowledge and vocabulary deficit that can never be overcome simply by someone else reading the words off the page. And once they leave that environment – what a blessed relief that must be – they find few places of succour in the world beyond. Although they no longer have to meet the teacher’s expectations, or appease their peers, they now have to develop a different set of survival strategies to cope with a society that is routinely, implacably, ubiquitously permeated by print. Employment forms, health and safety notices, insurance contracts, letting agreements, bank documents – the stream of print continues. Job options are limited, and when you can’t even get a driver’s licence, you are pushed more and more to the margins, towards the underworld.

Most prisoners in UK jails are functionally or completely illiterate. Most of them have poor employment prospects. People with low literacy are statistically more likely to have lower earnings, poorer health, worse housing, and shorter life expectancy. They also have less knowledge of the world, less access to different points of view, narrower vocabularies and less expressive language. When they become parents, they cannot read their children stories, nor do their children see them reading, nor can they help their children with reading when they bring books home from school. And so the problem passes down the generations, and well-meaning educators scratch their heads and wonder how to close the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

Does it matter if some can’t read? It matters to the individuals, whose lives are enmeshed in a complicated web of compensating behaviours to disguise their problem. It matters to their children,  many of whose life chances are more fragile, and who go through school themselves lacking a degree of parental support that others take for granted. It matters to society, which is paying for additional places in prisons and hospitals at a social cost estimated at £23 billion per annum. It matters to the economy, which has been conservatively estimated to under-perform by over £40 billion per annum due to illiteracy.

Does it matter to you?

The research on which this post is based is discussed in our new book, Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs To Know About Reading. If you want to know why so many children leave school unable to read, and what we can do about it, this book will show you.

Visit our website

You may also be interested in:

Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

Addicted to Denial

No Excuses Left

Literacy Leadership 3: Return on Investment

What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading

We haven’t posted much for the last few months because we’ve been putting our energies into a book that we hope will be helpful to secondary teachers in understanding why many of their students are struggling, and what can be done about it.

Our book is called Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading.

The first chapter deals with why secondary teachers need to know about reading. Although it is usually perceived as a ‘niche’ area in schools, reading actually pervades almost every area of academic learning, and indeed of life beyond school. Reading problems have downstream effects on students’ background knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary and writing. Most ‘low ability’ students are not lacking in intelligence, but in reading knowledge.

Chapter Two deals with where these problems arise. How is it that so many children can complete eleven years of compulsory education and leave school functionally illiterate? You may well find the statistics in this area surprising, if not shocking. We examine common mistakes and misconceptions, and delve into the educational processes which have resulted in 20% of children leaving primary school without the minimum levels of reading necessary to access the secondary curriculum.

The third chapter deals with the decades of research on how we learn to read – a process whose complexity has been frequently underestimated, in part because so many of us acquire reading so easily. Learning to read well requires a strong knowledge of phonics, but many other kinds of knowledge as well, especially at secondary school.

This leads on to the fourth chapter, which highlights how subject teachers can apply effective classroom strategies to support students who are struggling with reading. Some of these promote additional reading practice; others provide scaffolding to help students acquire background knowledge that they might otherwise miss out on because of difficulties with accessing texts.

While classroom teachers can support students to access their subjects, Chapter Five reminds school leaders of their challenge: ensuring that reading difficulties are eliminated by the time students leave school. Traditionally, there has been an acceptance that if students aren’t able to read this is because of a disability, and so little if any progress can be expected. Instead we argue that school leaders should put in place thorough screening systems so that the school has a detailed, accurate picture of the types of reading problems students have, and how far behind they may be. Once this information is available, appropriate interventions can be put in place to address the different types of need. We then discuss how school leaders can evaluate the effectiveness of reading interventions, and cut through common but banal explanations for lack of student progress.

The last chapter deals with the extensive research on reading interventions: why we have traditionally seen such limited results, and what it takes to create a high-impact programme. It is certainly possible for us to eliminate illiteracy amongst adolescents, but it does take rigorous study, determination, and hard work, along with wisely deployed resources.

We hope that this book achieves its primary purpose – to be a bridge between the extensive research on reading, and the way that schools support students. Because this research has shown us what can be done and how to do it, there is no longer any reason for us to tolerate illiteracy. Our message is a hopeful one: every child can learn to read, and enjoy all the benefits that follow.

Visit our website.

You may also be interested in:

How to save time and money through screening

Reading is Knowledge

Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

No Excuses Left

Pulling the Strands Together

A Valentine’s Day Letter – You Have Broken My Heart . . .

Dear Education

We’ve had a long relationship and one that I, at least, was deeply committed to. We both cared deeply about helping every child to become literate – at least I thought you did too. But lately I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this relationship isn’t working. Let me explain.

The passion turned out to be superficial

I heard a lot about passion, and how important it was to changing the lives of the children who needed the most help. But your sense of urgency keeps evaporating when it comes to making a real commitment. These children are still leaving school not being able to read properly. Maybe your passion was real at the time, but the lack of follow-through troubles me.

You’re short-term, I’m long-term

After a while I’ve realised that, for you, just doing ‘something about literacy’ seems to be sufficient. You want ‘quick wins’, but for me the best response to such problems is hard work and a long-term commitment. I guess I’m getting tired of cleaning up the after-effects of all those ‘quick win’ parties you’ve held, that have left students – and teachers – discouraged and jaded.

You keep settling for second best

When I heard you talk about high-quality provision and evidence-based practice, I admit I was won over. You were talking my language. But when I look at what you actually do, it seems that these days you’ll call anything high-quality or evidence-based. It seems old affections die hard – even at the expense of ideals.

Who are you trying to please?

I know that you face a lot of competing demands, but it does seem to me that some issues absorb more of your attention than they should, and that others of drastic consequence are ignored. I mean, grammar schools? When ten percent of secondary students can’t read to save themselves? Really? I see a lot of effort has gone into placing higher value on the upper grades at GCSE, but not a lot on getting children off the bottom grades. Why ever not?

When things get tough, you avoid hard choices

I know that there is pressure on budgets. But I don’t see you fighting for better systems, better staff training, making sure that only really effective literacy programmes are in place. You seem to keep hoping that these decisions will go away. But they won’t, because the children who can’t read are still in your schools.

We have different priorities

I hear you say that you want excellence – but you don’t seem to think that applies to all children, just those who are already at the top. Those at the ‘lower end’ have just as much right to an excellent education as anyone else – arguably more so. After all, to date, they’ve been short-changed by the system, and this is our last chance to do something effective to fix that.

You don’t keep your promises

Your conscience pricks, I think, but at the end of the day you don’t seem to have the will to carry things through. I don’t know how many billions you showered on pupil premium funding with only the loosest constraints on how those billions could be used. Is it any wonder people don’t trust you any more?

I’m finding it hard to have a frank conversation with you

It seems that every time I ask a question you don’t like, you change the subject. I understand that there are many things to be done in education, but helping these children is pretty important. You never seem to want to talk about this topic, except to run through all the labels you’ve given out to excuse the fact that they haven’t made progress.

I expect by now you understand why I’ve lost faith in you. But I, and others, will go on working to ensure the children I’ve been talking about have a better chance at life because they can read well. It doesn’t seem such a daunting goal, but I believe that it’s been a step too far for you.

Who knows? Perhaps, one day, you will change your mind. I’ll still be here.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our mailing list to receive a copy of our free e-book ‘From Good to Great: How to get the very best literacy provision for every secondary school student.

Visit our website.

You may also be interested in:

A Heart for School Improvement

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One

A Question of Progress

Are grammar schools the best way to address social mobility?

Doors to Opportunity

January is named after Janus, the god of doors, who looks both backwards and forwards.

As always at this time of year, it is a time to reflect on the previous year as we revise and make plans for the year to come. Here are this blog’s most popular posts of 2017 :

  1. Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?
  2. Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension
  3. Reading is Knowledge
  4. Recommended Reading for Adolescent Struggling Readers: Fiction Series
  5. Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom
  6. 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read
  7. Seven ways to increase a student’s chances of exclusion
  8. Beware the Reading Traps
  9. Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?
  10. Pulling the Strands Together

Now we stand on the threshold of another year. I read with interest the replies to a tweet asking, “If you could change one thing in education / schools in 2018, what would it be?” (The replies were summarised in this blog post.) Unsurprisingly, funding was at the top of the list. People were also concerned with political interference, accountability pressures, and recruitment and retention of staff. There were also a number of replies focused on greater inclusivity, building a more caring climate, and seeing the child as a whole person.

What intrigued me was that there was no specific mention of how we might help the 20% of children at secondary school with reading difficulties. It is as if this problem doesn’t exist, or is insoluble; it is simply part of the wallpaper of our teaching lives, and to be accepted. Literacy intervention is usually managed from SEN, with the underlying assumption that support for struggling readers will always be needed. This would make sense, perhaps, if these students couldn’t be helped.  But, as we try to make clear through so many of our blog posts, that simply isn’t true. The problem exists only because we allow it to. What could be more important in education than ensuring that all students leave secondary school with a competent level of reading? If that is the case, then perhaps we need to adjust our priorities, and, as one tweeter suggested, give our students “what is right, not what is left”.

Looking forward, here’s my wish list for 2018:

  1. That schools would place the same value on children who are struggling with reading as they do on those who are successful. Students at ‘the lower end’ are capable of massive progress if they are taught the skills they need to access the curriculum. I hope that school leaders will understand the importance of intervening now to ensure that these students get the best Progress 8 grades possible in one or two years’ time.
  2. That students with low reading would cease to be seen as ‘low ability’ but rather as ‘low attainers’ – in the sense that they haven’t attained because they haven’t been taught as they needed to be, not because they lack potential.
  3. That schools would take the time to evaluate what is working and what is not, and to abandon the notion that doing ‘something’ is sufficient. It isn’t. We should only be investing students’ time in activities that will be of real benefit to them. I’d like students’ time to be seen as the most valued resource in schools.
  4. That we would see literacy interventions being managed as an extension of the English curriculum, where the staff have a real incentive to see results.

Let’s open the doors of opportunity for these students. There is so much that can be done, for relatively minor expense, that will be of enormous benefit to schools, communities and the children themselves. Here’s to an ambitious and successful year for education in 2018.

If you are thinking about literacy in secondary school, then you may wish to read this blog’s most popular posts of all time:

  1. Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?
  2. 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read
  3. Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension
  4. Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?
  5. Pulling the Strands Together
  6. 10 Point Checklist: Literacy at Secondary School
  7. No Excuses Left
  8. Reading is Knowledge
  9. Recommended Reading for Adolescent Struggling Readers: Fiction Series
  10. 15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions

Visit our website.

Recommended Reading for Adolescent Struggling Readers: Fiction Series

There are 41 series listed below (377 books)  – hopefully something to appeal to a wide range of struggling readers!

One of the great pleasures of teaching is to connect students with books, and a sound strategy for keeping them reading is to turn them on to a good series. If they like one book by an author, they’ll almost certainly want to read more in the same series. In this way we can hugely increase reading mileage without having to constantly foist books on our students. Not only that, but as their enthusiasm builds, so does their willingness to share. If they are hooked on a series, they will tell others about it. Hooked readers are the best advertising.

With that in mind, we have compiled a list of authors and series – some more recent, some from a few decades back, and others from the mists of the early twentieth century – for students who need an accessible story, surprises, interesting characters and connections to other books in the same series.

Lloyd Alexander

Publisher’s author page

 1   The Chronicles of Prydain (5)

This collection traces the adventures of a motley group of adventurers in the mythical land of Prydain, a loving homage to Welsh literature and history, dressed in humour and darkened by the battle with evil. Young Taran traces a journey to adulthood through a tangle of adventures, with the most difficult puzzle – to solve his own identity and calling – the focus of the final book.


Robert Arthur (and others . . .)

Series website

2   The Three Investigators (43)

This series of 43 books was published from the mid-1960s until the early 2000s.

Three teenagers, Jupiter ‘Jupe’ Jones, Peter ‘Pete’ Crenshaw, and Robert ‘Bob’ Andrews, untangle peculiar mysteries using reason, logic and ingenuity. Easy to access and appealing to older children and younger teenagers, the puzzle-solving nature of each plot will hold readers of a logical or mathematical bent, but they are also simply entertaining.


Eoin Colfer

Author website

3   Artemis Fowl (8)

Artemis Fowl is a boy genius with a penchant for crime. In his quest to find his missing father, he is drawn ever more deeply into the world of fairies who, unexpectedly, are masters of technology so far advanced that humans would think it magical. The uneasy alliance behind the criminal mastermind and the Lower Elements Police is full of humour, puns and derring-do. The books are quick reads but action-packed.


Suzanne Collins

Author website

4   The Hunger Games (3)

Suzanne Collins writes up a storm in The Hunger Games with a female protagonist who is kind, passionate and tough. Katniss begins her journey from wild mountain girl to revolutionary by taking her little sister’s place in a televised duel, a lethal version of I’m A Celebrity where only one person gets out alive. The series has been successfully filmed and is well known.

5   The Underland Chronicles (5)

In The Underland Chronicles, Gregor Bane discovers another world that lies beneath New York City, full of creatures that above would seem banal, but down here are terrifying and dangerous – not to mention big. Gregor has a sister to rescue, a mystery to solve and really needs to get back home. But of course, none of that will be easy. Fast, accessible and gripping reading: some reviewers said they read all five books in a few hours.


Susan Cooper

Author website

6   The Dark is Rising (5)

This classic series about Will, a teenager coming to grips with his true identity while battling against ancient evil, drapes everyday England in shadows of its mythical past. Susan Cooper creates a compelling narrative by only loosely defining the enemy, and ensuring that much of the hero’s struggle is with his own doubts.


 Joe Craig

Author website

7  Jimmy Coates (8)

Jimmy Coates discovers that he is capable of extraordinary feats – and that some sinister people are after him. Set in a dystopian UK dictatorship, there are nods to Orwell, Huxley and Shelley – but the focus is soundly on the action.


David Eddings

Website about the author

 8   The Belgariad (5)

Garion (later Belgarion) lives a quiet pastoral life on a farm with his aunt Pol, until Mr Wolf announces that something important has been stolen. The resulting adventures of the trio are interwoven with a wide-ranging cast of characters as the quest to recover the magical Orb begins. Despite the sometimes familiar genre stereotyping, the tales are told in a lively and humorous manner. Eddings is good at pace and plotting, and the resulting storyline holds attention and makes prediction difficult. There are later, related series for those who become serious addicts.


Cornelia Funke

Author website

9   Inkheart (3)

Meg discovers that the reason her mother disappeared is linked to her father’s ability to read characters out of books into existence in real life. This is a book about books and book lovers, with a complex plot, a story-within-a-story, and carefully drawn characters, so may be more suitable for readers who have found their feet rather than those just getting into books.


 Anthony Horowitz

Author website

10   Alex Rider (10)

Alex Rider is fourteen years old when he discovers that without knowing it, he has been trained since early childhood to become a spy. Equipped with martial arts, a keen intelligence and a determined courage that guarantees lots of trouble, this series abounds with nods to James Bond motifs – and yet somehow retains a youthful innocence. Horowitz is a master of engagement and pace, and these books really are very difficult to put down.

11   The Diamond Brothers (8)

The Diamond Brothers, Tim and Nick, are detectives. Tim happens to be a particularly bad detective, whereas younger brother Nick is by far the more intelligent. These short, lively books which are accessible to younger teenage readers are full of jokes, puns, and references to classic spy and crime literature. Titles like The Falcon’s Malteser, The Blurred Man and South by South East give you the flavour. Originally published in the late 80s and 90s, the entire series was republished in 2007.

12  The Power of Five (aka The Gatekeepers) (5)

This is a souped-up, wild ride that injects Alex Rider action into the battle with ancient evil explored in Susan Cooper’s Darkness Rising series. A miscreant who pushes the limits, Matt is sent to the country where he encounters a very strange village and some very strange goings-on, starting with a murder. The horror keeps building, but the narrative is strengthened by Matt’s alliance with four other ‘Gatekeepers’ who must stand with him against the Old Ones. The emphasis is very much on breathless action and a strong dose of fear.


 Brian Jacques

Author website

13  Redwall (22)

Set in the forest of Mossflower, Redwall Abbey and the surrounding lands, various animals pursue epic quests and fight battles with their enemies. Appealing more to younger readers, the series is nevertheless enjoyable for adults, though perhaps for different reasons. The sheer variety of characters and the individuality of their personalities make the stories engrossing. Favourite review:  “This book is about a war between mice and rats. Moderate amount of violence. I mean we all kill them when we see them in our home, right?”


 Paul Jennings

Author website

Paul Jennings is a prolific British-born writer based in Australia. He is famous for writing unorthodox collections of short stories with high interest and clever twists, that appeal specifically to teens who don’t usually like books. He should be in every English teacher’s arsenal. Here are just three of his many series:

14  Uncollected (11)

This is the collection that many of us know and love. There are 11 books in this series, which are simply linked by their titles and subject matter rather than a narrative. From truth-telling machines that backfire spectacularly, to competitions that are not all that they seem, readers will keep on reading until the surprising and funny endings.

15  Cabbage Patch (5)

Chris’ father tells him how babies are born, and Chris (naturally) explores the cabbage patch. He instantly becomes a father when he finds a green baby that holds its breath and turns purple if he puts it down. And that is just the beginning . . . Easy to read, but amusing for adults as well as children, the Cabbage Patch stories can be very helpful in convincing late readers that there is fun to be had with books.

16  Gizmo (4)

Stephen is pressured into stealing something, and it turns out to be a Gizmo. A Gizmo from outer space, no less. This particular Gizmo seems to bring Stephen very bad luck and simply refuses to be disposed of. In a series of disasters, Stephen has to deal with his guilt and find a way out of his predicament.


 Jeff Kinney

Author website

17  Diary of a Wimpy Kid (9)

Jeff Kinney’s blockbuster is simply told but marvellously concise in conveying the preoccupations, successes and failures (mostly failures) of a student embarking on the trial by fire that is modern secondary education. Kinney strikes a neat balance between empathy for the hapless narrator and making him a source of sometimes well-deserved ridicule. Most students have already come across this, but those new to books and reading should devour it quickly.


Ursula Le Guin

Author website

18  Earthsea (6)

This haunting and poetic trilogy evokes a world that exists as a psychological rather than physical landscape. With elemental imagery and a lyrical tone, Le Guin creates the culture that gives birth to the character of Ged, moving from undisciplined talent, through perilous journeys and finally to the deep choices of life. Though perhaps less well known than some of Le Guin’s other work, the distilled power of the Earthsea trilogy remains long after the reading is done.

 19  Hainish (6)

The Hainish series explores what happens to the human race when long-distance space travel becomes a reality. Marooned by vast distances, but connected through the wonder of simultaneous communication, human evolution diverges in response to vastly different environments, but ever seeks home. The True Name of the Sun is perhaps the most readable and plot-twisting, while The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction classic (but too complex and explicit for younger readers).


C S Lewis

Author website

20  The Chronicles of Narnia (7)

The series is familiar to many children now through the films – but the books are something else, woven with charm, the astonishing lucidity of Lewis’s imagination and his gift for allegory. Lessons about faithfulness, grace and human nature abound, along with medieval romanticism and a good dose of mid-20th century Englishness. Everyone has a different favourite novel in this series.


Hugh Lofting

Website about the author

21  Dr Dolittle (14)

Doctor Dolittle’s fame is somewhat dimmed, and perhaps distorted by the 60s Disney film. But this charming evocation of an England now lost, populated by talking animals with personalities as lively and eccentric as their human counterparts, can still warm hearts. The fact that the stories began as letters from the trenches of World War One to Lofting’s young son makes the series particularly poignant.


 Sheila K McCullagh

Website author tribute

 22  Buccaneers (8)

First published in the 1980s, this lively illustrated series chronicles the adventures of young Nick, who finds himself transported through the pages of a book into the realm of pirates, adventurers and, of course, buccaneers.

23  The New Buccaneers (8)

Following the first series of adventures in the land of Ramir, the second series is just as compelling and enjoyable. Any young readers who are interested in pirates and treasure will be likely to find much pleasure in these fast-paced stories.


L M Montgomery

Website about the author

24  Anne of Green Gables (8)

Anne Shirley is an exuberant, vivacious character who has beguiled the hearts of readers since the first book was published in 1908. When a couple on Canada’s Prince Edward Island send for an orphan boy to help work their farm, their plans are thrown awry by the arrival of a spontaneous, talkative Anne. The affirmation of human nature, the themes of kindness, friendship and loyalty, and the appreciation of beauty in all things give this series enduring appeal. The sometimes lengthy descriptions of the natural beauties of the island setting may, however, be off-putting for slower or more action-oriented readers.


André Alice Norton

Author website

25  The Witch World (27)

One of the earliest fantasy series by a woman author, this ground-breaking epic is seen as one of the key influences on the fantasy / science fiction genres in the 1960s. Not only was the author a female, but many of the protagonists, and wielders of power in the stories, were women as well. Norton was a prolific writer who produced many works for young adult readers. Witch World is the best known of her many collections. The first book tells the story of an ex-colonel who is being hunted by hitmen and is offered the chance of escape to the world to which he truly belongs. He finds himself in Estcarp, a society ruled by women and preserved by magic, under threat from an aggressive culture with advanced technology.


Gary Paulsen

Publisher website

26  Hatchet (5)

Gary Paulsen was a wandering maverick who had had a go at everything before tackling writing. His terse, energetic prose reflects the pioneer, do-or-die spirit that underlies great Westerns and survival stories everywhere. At its heart, Hatchet puts the question: would you do everything you have to in order to survive – or would you give up? While the protagonist Brian must overcome many challenges to survive alone in the Canadian North-West wilderness, his greatest enemy is himself. The books in this series are short, gripping and thought-provoking.


Michelle Paver

Author website

27  Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (6)

Set in the late Stone Age, Wolf Brother commences this series with the violent death of Torak’s father. In a world where humans are far from dominant, where the natural and supernatural mingle, Torak and his wolf brother must pursue a lonely journey to avenge his father and to save the land from evil. Some of the story is written from the wolf’s point of view, and Paver has given him his own wolvish vocabulary. Enjoyable, pacy and at times menacing, with interesting characters and a solid backstory.


Terry Pratchett

Author website

28  Discworld (41)

Sir Terry Pratchett has been described as the best literary comic since P G Wodehouse, and there are good grounds for the claim. Originally something of a satire on fantasy stereotypes, this series developed in many different directions as the madcap Discworld grew and grew. Each book tends to focus on a particular character, from hapless non-magical wizards and tourists accompanied by sentient luggage, to dull-witted police officers fighting dragons. The plots are detailed, gripping and full of action as well as suspense. Characters are concisely drawn with a dry comic wit, and Pratchett is a master of the simile as unexpected one-liner. Readers who enjoy assassins, thieves, murder, myth, and magic will almost certainly find these books addictive.

29  The Bromeliad Trilogy (aka The Nome Trilogy) (3)

These books are about very small people who are not to be messed with. It traces the struggle of a group of nomes to survive in a world (our world) where there is no place for them, where cats are a major menace and rodents a useful source of protein. But there is more to these little people than meets the eye, and all of their adventures are leading to something Very Big Indeed.

 30  The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy (3)

Johnny is a typical teenager, just trying to fit in, but that doesn’t stop him being drawn through a computer game to help negotiate a peace treaty with aliens. These stories take as their settings computer video games (it was written mid-90s), communicating with dead people who prefer not to be called ghosts, and time travel – while the characters deal with teen problems and learn important life lessons.


 Arthur Ransome

Author society website

31  Swallows and Amazons (12)

Published in 1930, this classic series tells the story of two families of children who meet while sailing and camping in the Lake District. The themes of independence, escape, rivalry and adventure still resonate with young readers today. There is an idyll to the stories which makes them memorable in the manner of a happy dream; a nostalgia to which we cannot return, but whose presence can still brighten our lives.


Rick Riordan

Author website

32  Percy Jackson (5)

You know the student – always in trouble, too much to say and too impulsive. Percy Jackson is such a student, and has to move schools quite a lot as a result. We find out why when it turns out that Percy is really the son of an Olympic god, and now he has been given a mission. Riordan cranks out a cracking good story with action, drama and not a little emotional angst, as Percy fights against his father’s enemies. The realignment of Olympian anthropomorphic gods with the modern world also opens up the realm of the classical age to students who may have previously known nothing of it.

33  The Kane Chronicles (3)

The Kane children, Sadie and Carter, have lived rather different lives for a number of years when their father attempts to reunite them. His method for doing so, however, is rather unusual: he attempts to summon an Egyptian god via the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. As you might expect, his plan goes horribly wrong, and it is the children who have to discover their unusual heritage, and the solutions to the dangers that have entered the world. Again, Riordan packs his stories full of crossover references, blending myth, history and popular culture.


J K Rowling

Author website

34  Harry Potter (7)

J K Rowling achieved the most coveted of authorial accolades –  writing stories that made children want to read books. She treats her young readers as intelligent and informed, while creating a fantasy world that parallels our own. The battles that children fight in this fantasy world are, of course, metaphors for our own struggles in the ‘real’ world. For older students new to reading, the Harry Potter series is very good place to start.


Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)

Author website

35  A Series of Unfortunate Events (13)

This rather black comedy plays with elements of the gothic as it traces the continuing misfortunes of the three Beaudelaire orphans who are sent to live with their evil uncle, Count Olaf. The central tone of the books is, as the tile implies, a rather wicked sense of humour. Children enjoy the series, and it will be an accessible, fast read for less confident teenagers.


Rosemary Sutcliff

Author website

36  The Eagle of the Ninth / The Dolphin Ring (8)

The prolific Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote lovingly detailed historical fiction, and sought to represent life in Roman and medieval Britain as it was, without the gaudy romanticism that became popular in the nineteenth century. Well crafted and understated, her characters often have a disability (as she herself had) and struggle to act in line with their sense of duty. While the characters’ supposed achievements may have been lost in time, Sutcliffe is able to link genuine archaeological evidence to the plots she has devised. In The Eagle of the Ninth, for example, a crippled army officer goes in search of the lost standard of his legion, travelling north of Hadrian’s Wall in his quest to restore honour. (The Ninth Legion did in fact mysteriously disappear, and the reasons for this are much debated.)

37  The Arthurian Cycle (7)

The King Arthur Trilogy (3) & Legends of King Arthur (4)

This cycle of tales around the decline of Roman Britain in the face of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, moving on from the last two books in the Dolphin Ring series above, draws a picture of Arthur as a historical figure trying to unite the Britons to preserve their culture. The trilogy is based on Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.


J R R Tolkien

Tolkien Society website

38  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (4)

Tolkien’s masterpiece begins rather mundanely but that is part of the long climb towards heroism of the hobbit protagonists. Tolkien declared that he hated the ‘smell of allegory’ but did believe that his books had ‘applicability’. In addition to the entrancing level of detail, the linguistic achievements and the cultures Tolkien developed around the language he invented, the theme of heroism in the face of one’s own weakness against overwhelming evil is a message which still resonates today. Just get them to read The Hobbit first, and remind them that Lord of the Rings picks up pace in Volume Two.


Eleanor Updale

Author website

39  Montmorency (5)

Montmorency is named after the bag of tools that were found beside him after he fell through a skylight while being pursued by the Victorian police constabulary. He is restored to life by an ambitious young surgeon who exploits him for fame, allowing Montmorency access to a world he would never have dreamt of in his former life in the lower echelons of London’s crime world. With meticulous preparation and great daring, Montmorency embarks upon a crime wave that leads him, unexpectedly, to friendship, kindness and the chance to serve his country. Through the series we trace the rise and fall of many of the characters in the original story, most centrally the frailties and heroism of Montmorency himself.


Cynthia Voigt

Author website

40  Tillerman series (7)

Cynthia Voigt created a series of tales around the Tillerman family, each focusing on a different character. The narration is sparse and poetic, the dialogue terse and unerringly true to life. As in the best literature, the themes are universal: family, death, loneliness, love. Voigt’s characters are notable for their sense of self and their trueness to purpose, despite the costs. Theses novels leave the reader thinking long after the reading has finished.


Laura Ingalls Wilder

Website biography

41 Little House on the Prairie (8)

Despite the saccharine connotations of the television adaption, these books are directly told, evoking the pioneering world of the American mid-west through the eyes of a child. In her later life, Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicled her family’s joys and tribulations as pioneer settlers. The resulting books have sold millions of copies around the world, conveying hardship and beauty with great simplicity and truth.

If you have other suggestions, including for interesting non-fiction series, we’d love to hear of them in the comments!

A PDF of this post (without illustrations) can be downloaded here: Recommended Reading for Struggling Adolescent Readers – Fiction Series

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