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The Practitioners: Alison Clarke

This is the first in an occasional series highlighting the work of people doing good things in the world of reading, language development, and research.


Alison Clarke, Melbourne, Australia

Alison has been a Speech Pathologist since 1988, has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and an ESL teaching certificate. She has been in private practice since 2000, addressing school-aged children’s reading/spelling and speech, language and/or social interaction difficulties.


Website and blog: Spelfabet

I am a great fan of Alison’s blog and always look forward to receiving email notifications of her new posts. Her posts bridge the gap between research and practice in clear, accessible language. She writes succinctly and with compassion, demonstrating her thorough grasp of the knowledge and methodology around language, reading and writing using well-chosen examples. Alison is a strong supporter of evidence-based practice, but I also appreciate the respectful and positive approach she takes to debate.

Alison has a wide range of useful resources available on her website, some of them for free.

Here is a selection of her blogposts – I could have chosen many others. Do take a look:

Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills. The title of this talk makes it sound like teacher knowledge and skills are like a neat jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces missing. All we have to do is find the missing bits, put them in to create a Beautiful Picture in which everyone learns to read and spell to the best of their ability, and the average age of diagnosis of dyslexia is five or six, not nine. Read more . . .

Dr Louisa Moats: We need to be outraged about the remarkable persistence of bad ideas, like the ‘three-cueing system’, in education. Read more . . . 

DIY Disorders such as optilexia, which I prefer to call dyspedagogia. Read more …

Helping children hear sound differences. Children starting school often have immature articulation, and still can’t get their little mouths around sounds like “z”, “r”, “v” and “th”. Many children still can’t produce the difference between “fin” and “thin” or “vat” and “that” at age eight or even later. Read more . . .

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling? A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge. Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling? Read more . . .

A Time To Think, A Time To Act

Time out for planning can have a big impact on good decision-making. 


For secondary school leaders, it can be hard to know where to start when addressing literacy problems. Should we focus on what will give small gains to as many students as possible? Should we use one-to-one tuition or small groups? Will a focus on quality-first teaching in the classroom be enough? How do we intervene with the most stubborn learning problems, and how can we equip our staff with the skills they need to resolve the complexities of reading difficulties at this level?

We encounter these questions often. In response, we have designed a one-day workshop aimed at senior leaders with a whole-school role in improving literacy and, by implication, student outcomes. We will be focusing on what works in the classroom, when and how to run small group instruction, and how to decide on an effective strategy for the poorest readers. We know that one of the most valuable aspects of such events is to spend time comparing notes with leaders from other schools; another is to have some space to think, reflect and plan so that what emerges is a coherent action plan rather than a lot of possibly good ideas. Both of these opportunities are built in to the programme.

Teenage male on chair with pile of books (Shutterstock)

If this sounds like something you are interested in, you can find a registration form here. You can also send us your questions via the website and we will aim to reply within 24 hours.

We hope to see you there!

You may also be interested in:

A Towering Issue

Literacy Leadership Part 1: Clear Vision

The Graduates

What happens when we teach explicitly, systematically and optimistically.

We heard this week that Meols Cop High School had held their first Literacy Centre graduation ceremony. Lisa, the Literacy Lead, tweeted a photo of eight Year 11 students and their tutors. What they have achieved is amazing.

To ‘graduate’ means that the student can read graded unseen material at their chronological age – that is, they have caught up completely, and are now reading within the average range for their age group. Given that all students started out reading at least three years behind, this is impressive – especially when it has happened in a matter of months.


Making rapid progress also improved the students’ confidence, self-esteem, and motivation. Lisa has been struck by the development of  a ‘growth mindset’ – not through focusing on growth mindset, but by teaching in a systematic, explicit way so that students gain success every step of the way. This success begins to make them believe in themselves and their power to learn.  The impact is evident to teachers around the school, who regularly comment on changes in students’ attitudes and motivation. Crucially, they also comment on improved reading and comprehension across subjects. “All of our students have enjoyed it,” she added,  “even a couple of ‘cool’ ones.” Now that all Year 10 students with reading problems have been identified and are being helped, Year 9 are being tested to ensure that none of them is left behind either.

Not all Year 10s have graduated yet. One student, who began reading at a six-year-old level, is now reading at twelve years – with three times the fluency she had, and with 100% accuracy. She is likely to catch up to her age completely in the next month or so.

It’s absolutely the right thing to do to recognise and celebrate such success. Each one of these students has a story, and that story now has a new chapter – a chapter that couldn’t have been written before. As Lisa says, becoming a capable reader really is “life-changing”.

It hasn’t been a simple path. What has been achieved has come through systematic, explicit teaching, and communicating optimism, enthusiasm and determination to the students. It has needed clear vision and strong leadership support. It has required training, practice, and organisation. But as a result, the students have exceeded all prior expectations of their ability. That is the lesson that these graduates can teach us.


If the estimate of Henry Levin at Columbia University is correct, and preventing one high school dropout is worth a net saving to society of $209,000 (£166,782 according to today’s exchange rate) then there is reason to believe that this school has just contributed over £1.3 million to the community, with much more to come. Now that really is a community school!


Levin, H.M., and Belfield, C.R. (2007). Educational Interventions to Raise High School Graduation Rates. In C.R. Belfield and H.M. Levin (Eds.), The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education (pp. 177–199). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

You may also be interested in:

Literacy Leadership Part 1: Clear Vision

Literacy Leadership Part 2: Building With Care

Literacy Leadership Part 3: Return on Investment

Looking for Impact? Structure Matters

Addicted to Denial


Looking Past the Masks

It’s easy to mistake symptoms for causes.

I have been thinking recently about how reading problems become more and more disguised as children get older. Instead of seeing a reading problem, we see all sorts of other problems.


At first, Richard is excited to be attending Tree Tops School. He is looking forward to learning about maths and science, and he enjoys stories. He is a bit slow to pick up reading in the way many others are, so the teacher talks to his mother about making sure he reads the books at home that he struggled with during the school day. Mum does her best, but with three other children it’s not easy to help Richard, who is already trying to avoid books as they cause him frustration. Besides, if the teacher can’t sort it, she reasons, how can I? At this stage, Richard’s reading problem is acknowledged, but it is not seen as urgent; he will read when he is ready.

After a couple of years, Richard’s problems are more pronounced and much more obvious. He has decided that reading is not for him. He doesn’t take reading activities seriously, is restless and sometimes disruptive, and won’t go near a book at home. He is disengaged from most academic learning, even in science and maths. Mum has asked the school for extra help but they say that Richard is just not developmentally ready and it will all come together in a year or so. Reading is still acknowledged as an issue, but it has been overshadowed by a developmental explanation.


In a year so it has not all come together, at least not in the way the school predicted. The developmental explanation has failed. Richard is now struggling in lots of areas because he can’t keep up with the work. He is clearly at the lower end of the class in nearly every subject, and his motivation is low across the range of subjects. His mother asks for help again and the school says that they will have him assessed.

An assessment is carried out and concludes that Richard is a little below average intelligence and that he may have a specific learning difficulty. His restlessness and fidgeting mean that ADHD is a possible reason for his learning difficulties. Further testing is recommended, but the school is out of funding, and time, and so he goes into the next year. Because of the compounding effects of reading failure, his problem is now seen as a cognitive one. Various deficits within Richard are now being offered as the explanation for why he is struggling. No one questions the teaching.


By the time he reaches secondary school Richard is labelled as SEN, with moderate learning difficulties and emotional / mental health needs including possible ADHD. The SENDCO allocates him to a literacy intervention and the teacher explains to Richard that he has dyslexia, dyspraxia, and a hyperactivity disorder. This means that Richard is always going to have difficulty with learning but that the school will give him every support to cope with his education.

Richard now has a number of clear messages:

  • The problems he has had with reading and other schoolwork are caused by something that is wrong with him.
  • There is nothing anyone can do to fix what is wrong with him.
  • There is no hope of real success: his time at school is now to be endured rather than enjoyed.

At this stage of his education, Richard is one of those students who seem to take up a lot of teacher time with very little result. There are after-school detentions for poor behaviour, catch-up detentions for missed homework, long talks with his form tutor about taking school more seriously, phone calls home to his weary mother. Richard’s behaviour, low motivation and low scores in specific subjects are the areas of greatest concern. No one would deny he is a poor reader, but then he has SEN, so this is to be expected.


By the time Richard leaves school, he has joined the ranks of 17% of the school population with a clutch of sub-C GCSEs (DfE 2015 citing PISA, 2012), a patchy behaviour record and a highly developed set of skills for masking the fact that he can’t read or write at a functional level. How will he cope now?

According to the National Literacy Trust, there are over six million adults in the UK who are functionally illiterate. If we had six million people with any other problem it would be regarded as a massive epidemic. But we are so well-trained to conceal illiteracy, to dismiss it, to ascribe it to various syndromes, disorders and social problems, that this epidemic rages in silence around us. And when someone does raise a voice to say there’s a problem, there is a great deal of frowning and tut-tutting, because this shows that the person is not ‘kind’ and they do not ‘understand about disabilities’.


‘Kindness’ in the sense of well-meaning sympathy is a key reason for this epidemic. Richard, no doubt, received a great deal of sympathy throughout his unhappy education. Unfortunately, this didn’t do him any good, because what he needed was practical help: a teaching approach that would break down what he needed to know and ensure that he learned it, even if this took time and considerable effort. Instead, the focus was on home circumstances, development, specific learning difficulties, behaviour, motivation – none of which changed his situation.

We become distracted by these issues, which effectively mask the real problem. Our students will wear the masks we give them, because they are children, and incredibly susceptible to the narratives we create for them. Tell a boy he is naughty, and he will wear that mask. Tell a girl she is so sweet, but that she has a learning condition, and she will wear that mask.  We don’t even have to tell them – we signal our expectations in all kinds of subtle ways, from the behaviours we tolerate as “his ADHD”  to surprise when a student does well.


I’m not suggesting that poor reading is the only problem students face, or that it’s the only one that schools need to worry about. I am suggesting it is the single most powerful issue that schools can address, with the biggest return for the investment of time and money it would take to fix. Obviously, best scenario is to get it right in the early years, but even in later secondary, it can still be fixed.

So instead of teaching Richard and his peers a dozen ways to mask the problem, how about we cast aside the camouflage, roll our sleeves up, teach reading explicitly, systematically and ambitiously, and solve the real problem?


For practical insights into ways of helping your struggling readers at secondary school, consider joining our upcoming SLT workshop.

You may also be interested in:

No Excuses Left

Addicted to Denial?

The Natural Home for Reading Interventions

Te Wero – The Challenge

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?


Reading is Knowledge

We shouldn’t confuse skills with knowledge 

One of the most discussed topics in education today is that of the so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’. Its most famous proponent is E D Hirsch, who has written extensively on the subject. Hirsch argues that depriving students – especially poorer students – of the ‘cultural capital’ that middle and upper class children have access to perpetuates inequality and injustice. Instead, he believes that the curriculum should reflect ‘powerful knowledge’ that enables students to gain the same access to higher education and working opportunities that those in better-off circumstances tend to have.


Hirsch, and many others, recognise that reading is an essential tool in this approach. The amount of knowledge that students need to consume in order to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable. Developing independence in learning is surely one of the major goals of education, and while we may debate how we achieve this, it is obvious that those with access to reading have a much greater chance of success. Conversely, students’ ability to access knowledge is greatly reduced by weak reading.

One of the seminal papers in this field is by Cunningham and Stanovich (2003) entitled “What Reading Does For the Mind”. Amongst the authors’ findings are that students encounter vastly more rare and subject-specific vocabulary in print than they do in speech, and that better readers develop better domain-specific knowledge which further helps their comprehension.


What is perhaps less obvious is that learning to read is itself an exercise in acquiring knowledge. We tend to think of reading as a skill, or a set of skills, when in fact it is the application of knowledge. The fact that this knowledge is usually applied (by educated adults like teachers) at lightning speed, so that it seems effortless, the words almost disappearing while we contemplate their meaning, is on the one hand a remarkable tribute to the ability of the human mind, and on the other quite deceptive. In fact, Stanovich (and others) argue that what is really happening is that every letter-sound combination is being quickly and effortlessly decoded by the reader. In fluent readers, it is the auditory part of the brain that shows activity in scans. How can this be? Surely reading is a visual process?

The answer is to do with the fact that writing is, not language per se, but a representation of spoken language. As a result, any gaps in our understanding of spoken language will have an impact on our reading. This is why children who are very good readers will sometimes mispronounce an unusual word – they have come across the term in reading and often have worked out a sense of the meaning from context, but because it’s not part of their spoken vocabulary they aren’t sure which way to sound it out.


Likewise, gaps in students’ appreciation of different sounds – their ability to distinguish between phonemes, or ‘phonemic awareness’ – will lead to complications in them learning to decode the relationship between printed and spoken language. This process in English is already complex because of the history of the language, but it is much more difficult if a student cannot, for example, hear the difference between /n/ and /ng/. So gaps in knowledge at the phoneme level, grapheme level, and word level can all make a major difference to how well readers are able to apply the code. Often we focus on the application level – how students use the knowledge – when the problem is that students simply don’t know enough, or know it well enough. For example, we worry about their comprehension strategies, when the issue is vocabulary, background knowledge or perhaps even decoding some of the text. They may be able to decode, but so laboriously and slowly that there is no room left in working memory for them to remember or analyse what they are reading. (This is sometimes used to argue against phonics, in the same way that being unfit is an argument against exercise.) The way to respond is not to try to get the student to superficially emulate a good reader (‘predicting’, ‘using context clues’, ‘using visual cues’) but to teach them what they don’t know, or to practice that knowledge until they can recall it effortlessly and fluently.

Understanding the problem in this way is liberating for teachers. Once we conceptualise reading problems as a matter of how clearly we have communicated knowledge, we are free to set to work to find a solution. We can stop looking for reasons within the child as to why they were ‘unteachable’ and instead, work out the missing knowledge and the most effective ways to teach it.

That is why, when it comes to reading, knowledge really is power.

You may also be interested in:

Why We Can’t Remember How We Learned

No Excuses Left

Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read

Looking Back – old problems, new challenges


2016 has been a very challenging, but rewarding, year. Establishing a rigorous, powerful approach to reading intervention in secondary schools takes time to embed: There is a great deal for teaching staff to take on board, school systems need to be adjusted, and school culture must also begin to change. It has been very satisfying to work in schools across England, and to see the early evidence of impact.

One of the major needs in education is for schools to accept the scale of the illiteracy problem, and to persuade them that it is necessary and possible for them to take responsibility for addressing this situation. These posts raised questions for school leaders:

measuring tapes

Accountability? A Scandal for Schools

In what has been called the age of managerialism and accountability, schools seem to be measured for everything: not just GCSE grades, but levels of progress, Progress 8, EBacc results, value-added, attendance, exclusions, all within a wide range of ‘context’ measures.

Ostrich head in sand (Shutterstock)

Addicted to Denial?

When it comes to the reading problem there appear to be two forms of denialism: the claim that there is no problem, and the claim that there is no solution.


No Excuses Left

“So what if they can’t read? And whose fault is it anyway?” This post examines the evidence for the scale of the reading problem, and considers what can be done about it.

As we marshal evidence from the literature and from the schools in which we are working, we are always trying to encourage educators to realise what amazing gains students are capable of given systematic, explicit teaching. The following posts highlight key evidence:

Sunbeam forest road (Pixabay)

There is Hope

This post tells the stories of students whose futures have been altered because they were taught to read and made remarkable progress.

What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties?

What Works?

The latest edition of Professor Greg Brooks’ work provides important insights – and raises questions for schools.

An old two pan balance on white background

Building on the Evidence

This post describes the research literature base on which Thinking Reading has been developed. In particular, approaches such as systematic synthetic phonics, Direct Instruction, Precision Teaching, and Applied Behaviour Analysis are discussed.

We have found in working with schools that senior leaders often benefit from the opportunity to gain an overview of a wide-ranging and complex area (both in terms of student needs and school provision). These posts look at how leaders can develop effective and efficient literacy strategies:

Desert iris (Shutterstock)

Leveraging Literacy at Secondary School

This post covers the importance of a sound screening system as the basis for making informed decisions with reliable data.

Arriving at More 4

A Towering Issue

A short account of the workshop series that we began to offer in 2016. It has been fascinating to work with senior leaders from such a variety of schools. The similarity of students’ needs, however, is also remarkable.


Looking for Impact? Structure Matters

The findings from our recent implementations suggest that the leadership and management structure around the new intervention are critical to its impact.

Late in the year, we published three posts on the theme of literacy leadership:


Part One – Clear Vision

Part one discusses the need for senior leaders to have a clear view of the problem, a thorough plan and, most importantly, a sense of mission which they communicate to the whole staff.


Part Two – Building with Care

Part two considers the importance of care and attention to detail when establishing a new set of practices. Powerful transformations can proceed in small steps.


Part Three – Return on Investment

Part three surveys recent evidence from two schools of the impact of Thinking Reading. We argue that significant progress is possible for struggling readers if leaders will make strategic investments.

Top 10 posts:

  1. Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?
  2. 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read
  3. Pulling the Strands Together
  4. 10-Point Checklist: Literacy at Secondary School
  5. No Excuses Left
  6. 15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions
  7. Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – The Matthew Effect
  8. 5 Principles to ensure that literacy improves for all students
  9. 7 Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension
  10. What Works?

Literacy Leadership Part 3: Return on Investment

Smart leaders invest wisely. Investment in reading has long-term payoffs.


Investment in turning around reading failure, especially at secondary school, is an intensive business. Consider this from G Reid Lyon, one of America’s foremost reading researchers:

“We have learned that for 90% to 95% of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs that combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, fluency development, and reading comprehension strategies, provided by well trained teachers, can increase reading skills to average reading levels. However, we have also learned that if we delay intervention until nine-years-of-age, (the time that most children with reading difficulties receive services), approximately 75% of the children will continue to have difficulties learning to read throughout high school. To be clear, while older children and adults can be taught to read, the time and expense of doing so is enormous.”

It is exactly this problem that Thinking Reading sets out to solve in secondary schools. We aim to ensure that struggling readers learn more in less time, that they catch up quickly and completely, and that intervention has minimum impact on the curriculum. We don’t pretend it isn’t difficult. After all, it is glib hand-wringing and simplistic labelling that have produced 20% of students arriving at secondary school below the required standard, and a regular 10% of students reading several years behind where they should (see this post for more details). School leaders have to make investments – in training, in resources, and of course in the time required to teach students. But counting the cost doesn’t just apply to schools. We know that we can’t deliver for schools and students unless we ourselves are also completely invested in the process – in time, in study, in preparation, in sheer hard slog at times. But no one promised it would always be fun.


So when the results begin to show in students, like those first flowers that suddenly bloom in the desert, one has to take a moment to take stock. Behind each of these pieces of data is a person, a life, and a life waiting to be lived at that. Learning to read changes lives like nothing else I’ve seen in education.

Meols Cop High School began training in Thinking Reading in November 2015. In April 2016, after a thorough assessment process, their first cohort of students began lessons with a team led by Lisa Cliffe. This term, some twenty school weeks later, the first five Year 10 students have graduated from the programme – that is, their reading has caught up to their chronological age. They have all made gains of between 2 – 3.5 years. Other students, who started further behind, have gained up to 4.5 years, and by the time they graduate will have gained over 7 years. The average rate of progress is about one month per lesson, and as staff gain more experience and confidence in the programme that will increase. It is inspiring to see students and tutors working together to solve a problem that hadn’t been solved in the previous nine years of schooling. It is no wonder they feel a cause for celebration; they, too, have made an investment – one that has paid back handsomely.


Rebecka Schaber is the Literacy Lead at Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School, and trained in Thinking Reading in 2015. She has been keeping data on her students for the past two years. In that time 18 students have graduated, with gains of between 3 and 8.5 years, with average rates of progress between 1.7 and 3.7 months per lesson. Again, this hasn’t been achieved without a remarkable level of commitment and effort – but the fact that such worthwhile outcomes can be achieved is inspiring. It is inspiring because each one of these data points is actually a person, someone who now has options that were previously closed. They are no longer marginalised by illiteracy.

Sometimes it seems that criticism and fault-finding are skills that we develop fairly easily, though ultimately they yield nothing of value. On the other hand, the long, hard road of finding solutions and testing them is arduous, sometimes back-breaking work. It may even go unrewarded for long periods. But this Christmas, as we reflect on these (and other) results, we want to celebrate what school leaders, teachers and students have achieved through their respective investments. They have broken through false expectations. They have turned around longstanding patterns of poor behaviour. They have rekindled hope, and opened up doors of opportunity.

It seems a very appropriate cause for celebration at Christmas.

Girl celebrating (Shutterstock)


Lyon, G.R. (1998). Overview of reading and literacy initiatives. Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Retrieved from

You may also be interested in:

Literacy Leadership Part 1: Clear Vision

Literacy Leadership Part 2: Building With Care

Building on the Evidence