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Calling secondary English teachers – work with us to make a real difference!

We are looking for teachers who want to have impact – and flexibility

Looking for a change of direction? Or a change of pace?

It’s a time of year for looking ahead, for planning how to move forward, for finding new opportunities. For some, there is a sense that we need a change, but the nature and extent of that change are not always easy to define.

If you are in a position where you want more satisfaction, more flexibility and, for whatever reason, need to spend more time out of the classroom, then we have a proposal that may interest you.

We are building up a team to help us to reach more secondary schools and more students who need the right kind of instruction to catch up in their reading, quickly and completely. Our mission is to eradicate adolescent illiteracy completely.

We are particularly interested in developing a group of trainers who would work with secondary schools to equip them to deliver the Thinking Reading programme. These trainers would be licensed so that, if they wish, they can deliver Thinking Reading to individual students outside of schools.

We are looking for people with excellent interpersonal communication skills, academic aptitude, have an eye for detail and who are very well organised. Our trainers will need to have experience of middle or senior management in secondary school, and should also have experience in delivering English as a subject. You will also be able to travel within your region in order to deliver training (full days in two or three-day blocks during the week).

What you don’t need is experience in helping children with reading problems. We will give you that training, and show you how to deliver the Thinking Reading lesson, which results in average gains of two months in student reading per half hour lesson. We will also give you training in theory and research around the teaching of reading. To qualify for licensing, you would need to be clear on the relevant theory and research, and serve a short internship in a school to demonstrate proficiency in programme delivery.

The training you receive will benefit you in a number of ways:

  1. It will help you to support students with reading problems in your own school more effectively.
  2. It will enable you to tutor individual students who are not yet getting the help that they need at school.
  3. It will provide you with excellent experience in delivering high quality CPD.
  4. It will provide an additional source of income as you will be able to tutor your own students as well as deliver training to staff in secondary schools.

We know that people have different circumstances and priorities. For that reason, we would like to form a focus group to help us work out the details of the package and how it can best meet the needs of trainers and our needs as an organisation.

On our part, we know that it’s important to get the very best people in order to ensure the very best outcomes for students. If you’d like to know more, and perhaps be part of our focus group conversation, please complete this short expression of interest.

Visit our website

You may also be interested in:

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

Looking Past the Masks

Pulling the Strands Together

Literacy Leadership Part 2: Building with Care

Reading is Knowledge

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

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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.

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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.