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Speed Wobbles

Teachers of any subject will be familiar with the student who struggles to work their way through a text. These students find difficulty completing classwork, because they often have trouble extracting information from reading material. It’s difficult to help such students with their reading when trying to teach subject content to the whole class. As David Didau pointed out in his recent webinar Five Things Every Teacher Needs to Know About Reading earlier this month, dysfluent reading limits comprehension because of the extra load it imposes on working memory.

Slow and laborious reading impacts comprehension, as Jan Hasbrouck explains in the short video clip below. Without fluency, it takes enormous effort to slog through to the end of the paragraph, and by the time the student finally gets there, they can’t remember what they read at the beginning.  In this scenario, any hope of good comprehension is lost.

The obvious answer is to develop fluency. If children are fluent readers, they will understand the material better, have more working memory available to think about it, and cover the curriculum more quickly. It seems obvious – but there is a snag.  In the same way that we need to be able to walk before we can run, we need to be accurate before we can become fluent.  Many children who lack fluency are not yet accurate readers. In fact, for many children, their slowness is because they’re painstakingly trying to decipher the text. Why is reading accuracy so difficult to achieve for so many, and what can be done about it?

It’s interesting to note from the findings of the research by Seymour, Aro & Erskine (2003) on the errors in word reading at the end of first grade across Europe, that these range from 2% in Finland to a whopping 67% in Great Britain.

Errors in word reading at the end of first grade

 

Is this discrepancy due to excellence in the Finnish education system and abysmal failure of teaching in the UK? Rest assured that this is not the case. As the authors show in the table below, there are critical features in each of the languages to account for this discrepancy.

What does this mean? Orthography is the way in which the spoken form of a language is represented in written form i.e. the writing system:

The orthographic depth dimension contrasts alphabetic European orthographies 145 writing systems which approximate a consistent 1:1 mapping between letters and phonemes (e.g. Finnish) with those which contain orthographic inconsistencies and complexities, including multi-letter graphemes, context dependent rules, irregularities, and morphological effects (e.g. French, Danish).  (Seymour et al)

Unfortunately, not only does English have the deepest orthographic complexity, it also has the deepest syllabic structure:

The syllabic structure refers mainly to the difference between the Romance languages, which have a predominance of open CV syllables with few initial or final consonant clusters (e.g. Italian, Spanish), and the Germanic languages, which have numerous closed CVC syllables and complex consonant clusters in both onset and coda position (e.g. German, Danish, English). (ibid.)

The implication of all this for teaching is that these factors make learning to read English a more difficult challenge for native speakers than, for example, learning Finnish or Spanish. For some children, the complexity of English orthography can be extremely difficult to master. Consider the fact that we have an alphabet of 26 letters to represent all the sounds of English, but 44 – 46 different phonemes, depending on accent. These phonemes can have different representations, such as the different spellings for /ʃ/ in words such as shrew, chef, passion, social, tension, action, issue, machine, conscience, fashion, liquorice, fascism and sure as a few examples. And the reverse is also true, in English: one spelling can have different sounds. For example, the spelling ‘ea’ represents different sounds in words such as break, bread and bead.

Worldwide, English-speaking countries see about 20% of children arriving at secondary school reading well behind their same age peers. [Addicted to Denial] For those children lucky enough to be taught with a quality systematic synthetic phonics programme, tricky orthographic features will be made explicit, from simple to complex code, with plenty of practice to consolidate learning. Unfortunately, many children who are learning to read through a ‘whole language’ (or ‘balanced literacy’) approach are taught to try to decipher words by looking at the beginning and ending of a word, seeing what would make sense, and using context to check if their prediction (guess) is likely to be correct. The results are sometimes highly damaging, even in the longer term, as the author of this short post explains: Thank You Whole Language

Under these conditions, building fluency is problematic. If we haven’t corrected the bad guessing habits that students have been taught, all we achieve is speeding up the guessing process, and rendering it less accurate still.

So, what can be done? Fortunately, quite a lot – but, for that to happen, there is quite a lot for us to do as educators.

First, a school needs to have a thorough screening and assessment system. This system should identify which children have decoding problems, which ones have difficulty with comprehension and also which children performed poorly, simply because they lacked the test motivation.

Secondly, we need to put appropriate types of support in place, depending on the kinds of reading difficulties students have, and how far behind they are compared with their same-age peers. Comprehension needs can be addressed in small groups, as can children who are reading within 2-3 years of their chronological age. However, children who are reading more than three years behind, will have their own individual set of gaps that need to be targeted, and will require intensive one-to-one intervention if they are to catch up fully before the end of their schooling.

The classroom is an excellent environment for practice activities to build reading fluency. Short paired sprints, longer tasks to build stamina, regular reading activities across subjects, guidance and matching with high-interest reading materials – all of these can help to build speed, smoothness and automaticity of reading within the student’s regular curriculum.  But without first achieving accuracy, struggling adolescent readers will benefit very little from all of this activity.

To teach a student to read accurately, with all the knowledge that this requires, and to provide the coaching that they need to help them overcome poor reading habits, is likely to require targeted, individual intervention from a well-trained reading teacher. School leaders need to be clear how they are going to achieve both strategic goals – fluent reading and accurate reading.

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Six Reasons Not to Work With Us (yet)

You may be surprised to find that we don’t always work with every school that asks us. Or, to put it another way, we work with schools to find out how we can help – and if we don’t think you need us, we’ll tell you. We follow a collaborative process that is designed to save time and money, while putting in place sound, cost-effective practice.

Here are six reasons why we’ll recommend that you don’t set up Thinking Reading in your school – or at least, not yet:

  1. You don’t have enough children reading more than three years behind.

Before schools set up Thinking Reading, we work with them to put assessment systems in place that will allow them to match students with the right kinds of interventions. If you have very few students reading three or more years behind, you don’t need the Thinking Reading intervention. Students up to three years behind can be taught successfully in pairs or groups, and we’ll recommend strategies and programmes that you can use to support them.

  1. Your poor readers are poor comprehenders.

If the assessment process shows that you do have poor readers, but their needs are in comprehension rather than decoding, we’ll recommend classroom strategies and other interventions to meet their needs. Thinking Reading is a comprehensive programme that encompasses decoding (phonics), morphology, syntax, vocabulary, spelling, written expression, handwriting, and comprehension. If students only need the comprehension element, this can be delivered through a small group, comprehension-only programme.

  1. You need to develop a more coherent whole-school literacy strategy.

The first step of our process is a consultation with school leaders triangulating policy, practices and culture. The aim of this exercise is to pull together all the work that is going on into an efficient, comprehensive approach so that every student’s literacy needs are identified and supported.  We provide the school with a detailed written report with specific, practical recommendations. We sometimes pause the process at this point, until the school is ready for the next step.

  1. You don’t have the data to know what sort of intervention you need.

Sometimes schools have no system for assessing the literacy profile of their cohorts; in other schools, there is a lot of assessment, but it doesn’t go very deep. Until such systems are in place, there is no point in setting up the Thinking Reading intervention, so we work with schools to provide them with the assessment training and advice that they need.

  1. You don’t have the staffing available.

Sometimes schools are not in a position to staff Thinking Reading, and if this is the case we will recommend that the school waits until they have more hours available. The consultation process often exposes areas from which staffing might be usefully redirected to achieve higher impact, and schools are sometimes surprised by how much time is being invested in activities that can demonstrate little, if any, impact. This alone can make the consultation a worthwhile exercise – and can free up the staffing that you need.

  1. You don’t have the resources (yet).

School leaders often feel limited by their current commitments, and may well need time to redeploy resources more productively. This is important, because school leaders need to take a whole-school, strategic approach – a ‘bolt-on’ approach to establishing an intervention will almost certainly fail. Rather than put additional pressure on budgets, we work with schools to consider how existing resources might be usefully redeployed in the future. A long-term view is far more productive for student outcomes than ‘quick wins’.

In short, we won’t recommend that you set up Thinking Reading unless a) you need it, and b) you are ready. Regardless of whether you do set up Thinking Reading or not, we will show you how to save money that you can invest in the most effective forms of support for your students’ needs.

We’ve been working hard over the last few months to enable schools to access our training, and deliver our programme remotely. If you are a school leader worried about the impact of school closures on your most vulnerable students, or you are just looking for a more effective plan for the coming year, get in touch – we’ll be happy to talk.

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Promoting a Reading Culture – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 7)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

A number of questions dealt with the roles of the school librarian and parents in supporting reading in secondary schools. They open up the wider question of how a school builds a reading culture. This is the final post in the series.

Promoting a Reading Culture

How can school librarians with no teaching training/responsibilities support this learning and progress? I am a new school librarian with an English Degree but no teaching training or responsibilities, how do I best support the children’s progress?

Librarians are key allies for teachers in the struggle to improve children’s reading. They tend to have an extensive knowledge of books and authors, and are well placed to make book recommendations for students. Unfortunately, in many schools, much if not all of the librarian’s time is taken up administrating programmes like Accelerated Reader. Many school leaders think that such programmes do the work of encouraging students to read and matching them to books, but the reality is that they often take away time that would otherwise be spent working with students, and diverting it into administration. Our primary suggestion would be to resist being taken away from the front line – the more work you can do face-to-face with students, the bigger your impact will be.

There is a particular concern for librarians around those students who are poor readers and are therefore not engaged with books. The librarian has an essential role in acquiring books that are high-interest, with challenging content and useful background knowledge (which is not easy!). They then need to promote these books to staff and students, and lastly, they need to counter any stigma attached to reading ‘easier’ readers. Librarians are a precious resource for schools and need to be supported and encouraged.

When it comes to matching students to books, there is also the issue of pushing competent readers to read more challenging material. In our experience, any given library session will usually have at least three students reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or one of its offspring. There is nothing wrong with an amusing book, but many secondary school readers avoid books with more challenging content, and as a result don’t maintain their earlier progress.

Lastly, given the librarian’s unique position, it makes sense to give them training in how to help students to read more accurately, so that they can be part of the school’s strategy for resolving reading problems We have often trained librarians to do this, alongside other members of a school’s intervention team.

How would you deal with parents who are not supportive of reading intervention, perhaps due to their own literacy issues?

The fact is, we don’t actually need parents to be supportive of reading interventions for us to put them in place effectively. Parents don’t dictate the curriculum for their child in any other area – why would we give them a veto over this most essential of curriculum skills? As teachers, we are (or should be!) the professionals who are trained to solve such learning problems. Effective intervention is part of the school’s provision for these students, and we, as professionals, need to take responsibility for progress. When planning, we suggest that It is best to assume parents aren’t able to help, and if it turns out that some can, that’s a bonus. And, to be fair to parents, they are usually very supportive once they have clarity about what the school is doing and why. That’s one reason why concrete, measurable initiatives (like Thinking Reading or other Direct Instruction programmes) are better than broad, vaguely defined ones (think ‘metacognition’).

We have an expectation that children read at home and have their home record signed by adults. Currently the engagement of this is minimal – do you have any suggestions on getting parents interested in supporting reading?

Bearing in mind the point above, that our plans should include parents but not rely on their support for success, here are a few suggestions:

Regular tips to parents on engaging children with books. These can include: how often they should expect their child to read, for how long, and how to discuss the reading with them. In general, nudges are more powerful than pushes, and parents need to be made aware of this.

It’s also important to give parents advice on how not to discourage children. Children can sometimes be averse because they see their parents taking on a teacher role. ‘Interested adult’ and ‘positive role model’ approaches are likely to be far more influential than ‘demanding parent.’ That said, it depends on the student!

Be careful not to be patronising with parents – we like to think of ourselves as experts, but 99.9% of parents know their children better than we ever will. Be helpful to parents, rather than seeing them as helping you, and your advice is likely to be adopted more readily.

Provide students and parents with reading lists / hot takes to promote books across a range of genres and topics. We all love to hear and read recommendations, and providing a wide range of topics, genres and perspectives is likely to resonate with more people.

Survey adults to find out about why they read. Remember that many people only read for information, or to help them get specific things done. They are not interested in ‘reading for pleasure’, which they may see as ‘sitting around’. That’s okay – our concern is not what people read, but whether they have a choice to read at all. But it may mean that to get more parental buy-in, you will need to include texts that they see as interesting, relevant and practical.

Depending on your context, you can also run adult literacy classes. A few caveats: make sure that they make significant progress – don’t just talk about books in these sessions. They need to actually get better at reading, so they feel more confident working with their children. Ideally, more children seeing their parents reading, providing powerful modelling. It goes without saying that this is an area that requires great sensitivity!

When we enable children who have been struggling for years with reading to make rapid progress, parents are likely to feel a great sense of relief. They may feel for the first time that school is making a difference. Capitalise on this response by building a sense of partnership with them – after all, you both share the same goal, to help their child succeed.

DEAR and SSR

I know many schools implement compulsory silent reading at the beginning of every KS3 English lesson, and even 1 hour library lessons once a week for silent reading, would you suggest that this is an effective approach to help improve students reading or does it instead demotivate and increase the gap for students who are already below their chronological reading age?

Perhaps this question is best answered by this this extract from 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read:

It would be fair to say that most secondary school literacy co-ordinators and English teachers have a love of books, which is wonderful. We have seen kids get hooked into reading when they find an author or a series of books that they really enjoy. Surely, that is the answer – find the right book? I love the concept of Drop Everything and Read and Sustained Silent Reading as a reader – that precious uninterrupted 20 – 30 minutes to bury one’s head in a book. But imagine for a moment, the student who can’t yet read: being forced to sit in silence, looking at some squiggles on a page. Then consider why he or she always moans or kicks off during DEAR. This article by Jan Hasbrouck argues that there are better ways to use students’ curriculum time, especially if they are weaker readers.

Yes, keep creating wonderful, magical reading spaces, inspiring and encouraging kids to read, and introducing them to great books. But please do something about the ones who can’t yet read. Don’t leave them on the outside looking in. Make sure that they are taught – it’s not too late!

And finally, never allow your school leaders the soft option of buying in a reading promotion system that doesn’t actually enable struggling readers to catch up. Ask them for the evidence of its effectiveness for those reading two or more years behind, not just an ‘average’ progress rate for all readers. Such figures can be used to hide very poor impact on students with the greatest needs. On this issue, you may find this post helpful: 8 DIY Steps to Building a Reading Culture.

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Barriers to Success – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 6)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

This post answers questions on some important issues in reading education. Some of our best efforts in the past have actually created barriers to success.

Barriers to Success

Is there any research to show that dyslexia diagnosis is not always accurate, and that such students can improve with reading intervention?

What do we mean by ‘dyslexic’?

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that there are some people who find it much more difficult to acquire reading than others. There is very real pain involved in this, of which we are acutely aware – and we consistently advocate for effective reading instruction for these students, on the basis of the misery that poor reading brings. But advocating for effective instruction necessarily requires challenging beliefs and practices that are ineffective.

The consensus of research to date strongly suggests that the most persistent reading difficulties arise from problems with phonemic awareness – the ability to discriminate between phonemes, and to manipulate them in words. Where this set of skills is addressed systematically and ‘aggressively’, as David Kilpatrick puts it, strong gains in reading can be found. (See Chapters 6 and 11 of his excellent book).

There are, however, many children labelled as dyslexic for a variety of other reasons, often as a result of a private ‘dyslexia assessment’, which have little or no basis in scientific evidence. There are many different definitions of dyslexia in circulation, some in academic literature and some in popular parlance. So-called symptoms can include clumsiness, left-right confusion, short-term memory problems, slow language processing, reversal of letters (both shape and sequence), concentration difficulties, and even an alleged sensitivity to certain wavelengths of light. A long-standing, and scientifically discredited, view of dyslexia is a discrepancy between a high IQ score and poor reading ability. Some proponents of the term argue that ‘dyslexia’ is a ‘gift’, which endows the fortunate with greater creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills. This proliferation of terms and definitions effectively makes ‘dyslexia’ unverifiable, and has led to many academics (for example Keith Stanovich, as far back as 1994 in Does Dyslexia Exist?, and Julian Elliot in 2014), questioning whether the term has any utility.

It is also worth noting that the tendency to attribute students’ reading difficulties to an innate condition called ‘dyslexia’ is a very useful social narrative that excuses schools for providing poor instruction. As a consequence, it is also highly destructive, as it not only allows the profession to avoid confronting its own lack of expertise, but it also limits students’ beliefs in their own capability, and lowers teacher expectations. In such circumstances, responses to reading problems are then based upon a premise that the reading difficulty must be accommodated rather than resolved. In this scenario, everyone is excused, and no one is helped.

There is widespread agreement that there is no scientific evidence to warrant the creation of two separate groups of ‘poor readers’ and ‘dyslexics’. See, for example, Elliot and Grigorenko The Dyslexia Debate (2013), or Chapter 3 by Wheldall, Wheldall and Buckingham in The researchED Guide to Literacy (2019) for an introduction to the literature on this. There is, however, clear-cut scientific evidence on how to help children with reading difficulties. Regardless of diagnosis or labels, the same methods are required. Where systematic and explicit instruction is given, with high standards of fidelity to best teaching protocols, we can expect good progress. This implies a knowledge of how to conduct detailed assessment, not only to identify gaps in the student’s knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, but also in their underlying phonemic awareness. For older students, such instruction must also be explicitly connected with teaching of comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and language structure (Boardman 2008). ‘Dyslexia’ can indeed be addressed through reading intervention, but successful interventions must be very systematic, and very thorough, in identifying and rectifying students’ underlying difficulties. Many so-called ‘dyslexia-friendly’ responses such as multi-sensory activities, coloured lenses, overlays and paper, or memory games do not achieve this; as a result, the impression that dyslexia is an incurable, innate condition is perpetuated.

The illustration of the power of instruction in our presentation was a well-known paper by Vellutino, Fletcher and Snowling (2004). All the Year 1 children in a US school district were assessed for reading, and 9% were found to fit a dyslexic profile. These children were taught with an explicit, systematic approach, with high attention to fidelity of delivery. After one semester, 95% were no longer deemed ‘dyslexic’.

So, to answer the question: yes, there is ample research to show that we can teach dyslexic students to read well. When this happens, have we ‘cured’ an innate condition – or have we simply taught them what they needed? And if so, how much sooner could they have been taught?

Often students with attention deficit tend to be weaker readers. Would you have ideas on how to help them overcome this?

Every student is an individual. Within any group covered by a label, such as ‘attention deficit’, ‘dyspraxia’ or dyslexia’, there will be a very wide variation. What matters most for effective reading instruction is detailed assessment, so that we know exactly what that individual student’s gaps are.

There are many features of Englemann’s Direct Instruction that make learning more accessible for students with difficulties. Here are three that are important in every setting:

  • Ensure that the lesson is delivered at a brisk pace. A common misconception in education is that students who are further behind need to work at a slower pace. The opposite is true. They need to work at a faster pace to close the gaps. A faster pace also assists attention and concentration. A slower pace creates more opportunities for the student to become distracted.
  • Make your communications logically faultless. This means anticipating misunderstandings and misconceptions and designing explanations and instructions to pre-empt their occurrence. Carefully sequenced sets of examples and non-examples make definitions clearer without having to teach abstract concepts.
  • Ensure that students do not just become accurate, but also fluent. This implies plenty of opportunities for practice such as low-stakes quizzing, retrieval practice, and fluency drills.

Morningside Academy in Seattle is a fascinating school set up specifically to cater for students struggling in mainstream schools. Many of their students are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. Founded in 1980, the school has a very brisk, demanding curriculum which uses both Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and (American) Precision Teaching. The results are impressive. Morningside gives parents a guarantee that their children will make two years’ progress on standardised state tests for a year at the school in their area of greatest deficit – or give their money back. In 2012, the founder, Kent Johnson, noted in this article that the refund clause had been used ‘rarely’ in 32 years.

What about with older adults who have SEND and learning difficulties?

 Age is not a barrier to learning to read. For students with significant learning difficulties, explicit, systematic instruction is required. High levels of repetition and extensive work on creating secure foundations are important, but the processes that we acquire in learning to read are the same, and follow the same sequence, in both younger and older learners. The issue is not age per se (although materials and interaction style should obviously be adjusted to take account of age) but the clarity and thoroughness of explicit instruction.

Phonics

Can you clarify the difference between phonics and decoding?

 Phonics is a method of teaching reading based on the relationship between phonemes (the sounds of speech) and graphemes (the writing system).

Decoding is the act of rendering the written language into speech. In other words, teachers teach using phonics; readers use their knowledge of phonics to decipher text. While successful decoding is a pre-requisite to independent reading comprehension, it’s not sufficient in itself; there are a range of skills that must be taught alongside phonics, especially for older readers, where higher levels of vocabulary, background knowledge and reasoning skills are expected.

If a child has not engaged with phonics throughout primary school would you argue diminishing returns in continuing to revisit it at the secondary school level?

We have to be cautious when assuming that a child has not ‘engaged’ with phonics. The first question to ask is whether the phonics teaching provided was of good quality. Was there rigorous assessment? A systematic analysis of the content to be taught? Frequent monitoring? Anticipation and elimination of misconceptions? Adequate practice opportunities? It is unlikely that a child simply disengages from effective instruction, especially for the whole of primary school. It is much more likely that reading has become aversive for the student after a pattern of failure is established early. That is why effective instruction in the early years is so critically important – failure at this stage creates layers of difficulty in curriculum, cognition, behaviour and motivation.

There is a myth that ‘phonics is not for every child’ and that ‘good teachers match the teaching to the student’, which sounds truthy, but ignores the logical reality that to read English accurately, the reader must have a knowledge of the relationship between sounds and the written symbols that represent them. There is simply no way around this. Given that English is an alphabetic language, it is imperative that once the student reaches secondary school, they are given targeted reading provision (not phonics in isolation) to identify and close any gaps that they have.

Reading Recovery

Why don’t you recommend Reading Recovery as an intervention for primary schools?

There are many committed teachers around the world working to help students with their reading, and some of them deliver Reading Recovery, and those efforts and good intentions should be acknowledged. That said, there is a great deal of concern about Reading Recovery in the reading science community. Here are some of the concerns that have been raised:

  • The selection criteria for intervention tend to be relative, e.g. ‘the lowest performing children in the lowest performing class in the most needy schools’ (see Brooks 2016). The success criteria are that students should be reading ‘at the average level of their class’, which, in the case of the lowest performing class in the neediest school, may not be very high.
  • Progress in the intervention is measured against the use of levelled books, which are levelled by ‘professional judgement’ based on meaning rather than decodability.
  • Children who do not make progress in the intervention are ‘discontinued’ and data reported is usually only for those who completed the programme. About 15% – 20% of children are discontinued during the programme (Brooks 2016, Tunmer et al 2013).
  • The intervention is based on a series of ‘whole language’ assumptions about reading. Of particular note is the primacy of ‘cueing’ from context (which can include picture cues). As far back as the 1980s, Stanovich and others showed that good readers do not rely on context to work out words, but poor readers do. There is no point in placing children in an intervention where they are trained to read like poor readers.
  • It is routine for Reading Recovery studies to make very positive pronouncements about impact in the headlines, only for the detail of the study to reveal much less impressive results, and often serious questions about study design.
  • Despite the appearance of rapid initial progress, there is little or no evidence of impact on students later in their schooling. Add to this the number of children who are discontinued during the intervention, who make even less progress, and it is not surprising that government funding has been removed in England, New South Wales and New Zealand.

This study charts the lack of impact made by Reading Recovery in its home, New Zealand. This post explores the continual re-invention of Reading Recovery’s image, as opposed to the realities. While Reading Recovery is certainly better than nothing, that is not a very high bar.

Primary School

 How can I minimise these gaps from a Primary school perspective?

Your focus was mainly on secondary school pupils so what would you recommend that primary schools do now to help their struggling readers that will soon be starting secondary?

How can we translate this to Primary School where we are already implementing interventions for the children and teaching phonics? What else can we do for the children that aren’t progressing as they should?

 How can primary schools reduce the number of children transitioning to secondary school with poor reading skills? First of all, we are not primary experts, and what follows are opinions informed by research we have read and primary teachers we have talked to. Secondly, let’s be clear, there have been major improvements in the teaching of early reading in England, to the point where it has had a positive effect on the country’s standing in international reading tables.

The Phonics Screening Check (PSC) provides schools with good information on how well children are acquiring decoding skills by the end of Year 1. Students who struggled in Year 1 are checked again in Year 2. This data can be used to evaluate impact and to prompt discussion and professional learning on how to help more children master these essential skills at an early stage. Key questions to consider are:

  • Is the phonics programme thorough, well-planned and effective?
  • Are teachers delivering the programme with fidelity?
  • Is there ongoing CPD to build teachers’ expertise further?

Perhaps the most important area to address is after Key Stage 1. In Key Stage 2, curriculum pressures can reduce the focus on reading. Where students are left to read independently before they are ready, or ‘cueing’ approaches to reading are taught (which undermines the decoding skills previously taught), children can practice errors and become inaccurate readers. This lack of accuracy has a cumulative effect in reducing comprehension, making accessing meaning more difficult, increasing cognitive load and reducing motivation. The resulting cycle means that the students who need more practice get less of it, and they fall further behind.

Alongside decoding skills, though, there needs to be a focus on the explicit teaching of vocabulary, background knowledge, and language structure. Children need regular daily practice at reading for meaning, and explicit teaching of comprehensions skills such as logical deduction, various types of inference, analogy, verbal associations and allusions. Ensuring that systems are in place to teach all these elements of reading systematically and explicitly in upper primary school is probably the single most important thing that we can do to close the reading gap before secondary school.

At a system-wide level, the Key Stage 2 SATs reading test is entirely focused on comprehension. It does not include an explicit decoding element. If it did, primary schools would not only have good information about how well all their students are reading, but would also have an incentive to address such problems earlier – rather than simply allow the students to move on to secondary school without the skills required to access the curriculum.

Phonics training for secondary teachers

Do you recommend any courses/books/CPD on phonics, as a secondary English teacher I don’t feel prepared to use it during intervention?

What training would you advise on phonic teaching?

I am not familiar with teaching phonics, are there any places where I would be able to find resources for Secondary-level phonics?

 It’s worth re-iterating that phonics should be taught alongside other aspects of reading. This is especially so for struggling adolescent readers, who are likely to have significant gaps across a range of skills due to years of limited progress.

It is also important to recognise that there is a significant body of knowledge to be acquired if teachers are to have an impact on struggling adolescent readers. You can find out a great deal about phonics through our colleague Debbie Hepplewhite, whose Phonics International is a well-established, effective programme.

John Walker and his colleagues at Sounds-Write use a linguistic phonics approach, teaching children that letters represent the sounds of speech. We use this approach in Thinking Reading: the underlying logic of this approach significantly simplifies and clarifies the nature of teaching communications, leading to faster learning and building confidence.

You can also find out more about effective reading instruction through the forum at the International Foundation for Effective Instruction in Reading (IFERI).

Tip: When students have difficulty reading a word, always teach them to decode through the word using letter-sound knowledge. Do not undermine students reading by teaching them to use ‘cueing’ from context, first letter or pictures.

Next up: Reading promotion

Visit our website

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Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

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Reading Intervention That Gets Striking Results

MFL – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 5)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

The focus of this post is how we work with students who have reading difficulties when we are teaching modern foreign languages (MFL).

What strategies would you suggest regarding teaching MFL?

The principles of explicit teaching are as applicable in MFL as they are anywhere else. Much time is wasted, and much student motivation and curiosity is eroded, when our teaching communications are unclear or ambiguous.

Although we have both studied and speak other languages, we do not teach in this field. Here are some tips via our friend and colleague Barry Smith (@BarryNSmith79), whose use of explicit instruction in MFL is sans pareil.

In general terms, students need to read a lot in a foreign language. This is because they need to spend time working with words, and making links between the spoken and written forms of the language. Many weaker readers tend to rely on context and picture clues, rather than decoding – so reduce pictorial content and require them to find meaning through language.

When teaching students to become proficient in working with written text, Barry suggests the mnemonic CUDDLES:

C – Count the number of letters in the word. This forces them to pay close attention, as they have to focus on every letter.

U – Underline vowel combinations, so that students begin to recognise common patterns.

D – Double underline double letters, so that these potential spelling errors are highlighted immediately.

D – Dot under the ‘silent letters’, to remind students of the sound sequence in the word and how this relates to its spelling.

L – Links between words should be emphasised by drawing a link between them, for example for liaisons in French.

E – Emphasise accent marks by making them extra big. These small marks are otherwise easy to miss but can have a profound impact on accuracy and understanding.

S – Story – stories are powerful and natural ways for students to remember learning. Embed new vocabulary within stories, and use stories to make details of spelling, grammar or usage memorable. Where stories aren’t practical, make use of mnemonics. These approaches create or augment schema to integrate new knowledge into existing knowledge.

This process may seem overly prescriptive and heavily focused on the mechanics of written language, but it is actually pre-empting the most common errors that students are likely to make. Increasing the success of students builds confidence and motivation, while at the same time they are learning to be increasingly careful readers. One of the most important roles of the teacher is to anticipate and pre-empt likely errors, misconceptions and confusions.

Use multiple examples of sound-spelling patterns in words, so that students become fluent at recognising them. In French, for example lapin, jardin, sapin, etc follow a distinct pattern of spelling and pronunciation. By placing a dot under ‘n’ at the end of each example word above, students are repeatedly reminded of the written form and the pronunciation.

Accents and apostrophes are your friends – consider the phrase je m’appelle’. This actually a contracted form of ‘je me appelle’. Have students say the uncontracted form quickly and repeatedly until it becomes apparent that the words elide in normal speech.

Studying the etymology of words wherever possible is also helpful. Each word has its own history and that becomes a story in itself. Stories are one of the principal ways that we remember and organise knowledge.

Teaching explanations of new vocabulary should be both precise and concise. Have your explanations prepared: remember the EMU mnemonic – etymology, morphology, and usage.

Give students frequent the opportunities to read out loud often but be sensitive to the needs of weaker readers: have them read in pairs, small groups or individually to you as a teacher rather than to the whole class (unless they want to).

Barry recommends that when given a new text to read, students should number every line, and place a ruler under the line as they read. This forces them to pay close attention and makes it easier for them to follow the teacher’s directions as they read.

You may find this blog post by Jessica Lund at Michaela Community School useful as it demonstrates many of these principles in action.

Tip: Be very precise with students about correct pronunciation as this will also aid their reading and spelling.

Next up: Barriers to Success

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Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (Part 1)

Effective Intervention – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 4)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

By far the most questions we received were on effective reading interventions, and what constitutes an acceptable rate of progress in such interventions.

Effective intervention

Where can my school access training for specific staff to teach reading, and which reading programme should we use? where do we get it?

 As a Y6 teacher, I want to implement an intervention for our struggling readers before transition to secondary school. Any tips or recommendations? Any programme or approach you would specifically recommend?

 What intervention programmes have you used which you would recommend for the quickest progress?

 Is it worth using IT based programmes such as immersive reader? The Dyslexia Association like it.

 Can you recommend any relevant interventions that target raising attainment in the Government National Tests for Literacy?

 I am a Literacy Coordinator in a post primary all boys school and every year I struggle to decide on what content to use in intervention. We assess through GL assessment but as secondary teachers, we are not specialists in phonics and would not be confident teaching that. What would you recommend is the most effective method of intervention apart from phonics?

 At my previous school, I set up corrective reading programmes. These were very expensive.  Are there any less expensive ways of doing this.

 We do Thinking Reading and love it! Could you tell us more about the pair/small group programs you recommend?

There are some key principles to clarify in order to answer these types of questions. First, it’s important to remember that different reading interventions emphasise different domains or skills. This is because, by their nature, interventions must target a specific range of skills; if they don’t, they are not really interventions but ‘extra lessons’, which is not the same thing at all.

Secondly, the foundation of effective intervention is that students must be matched to interventions based on their domains of difficulty and how far behind they are.  Gough and Tunmer’s (1986) Simple View of Reading framework, while extended and developed over the years, has been consistently confirmed reading researchers. The SVR splits the skills needed for reading into two main areas: language comprehension and decoding. School assessments must not only verify that the student has a genuine reading need (and is not merely disengaged from the test) but also assess in fine detail to know which areas of difficulty they are experiencing and to identify the gaps that need to be addressed by carefully targeted teaching.

It’s also important to know how far behind the student has fallen. Group interventions, for example, will be effective with students reading up to three years behind, as their teaching needs will be broadly similar. Beyond this, effective interventions in decoding skills should be delivered, on the basis of detailed close assessment, in a one-to-one format for rapid progress. Students with good decoding but poor comprehension can be taught generic comprehension skills in small groups. We often recommend Direct Instruction Corrective Reading: Comprehension for this purpose. However, some who have significant delays in language development are likely to need individual support from a speech language therapist.

Given all the points above, at Thinking Reading we work with schools to develop an intervention plan. Once thorough assessment tells us how many students there are with different types of need, and how far behind they are reading, we can then allocate them to the appropriate interventions.

Students with decoding difficulties who are reading up to two years behind (at Years 7 and 8) or three years behind (at Years 9 – 11) can be helped very successfully in paired reading with a trained buddy or teaching assistant. It’s important that this training enables the tutor to provide concise, effective feedback on decoding errors. Most paired reading programmes concentrate on comprehension skills, which is unhelpful for these students. It can mean that decoding errors become more embedded, as the student is deemed to have succeeded because they derived meaning from the text, despite reading parts of it inaccurately.

It is also possible to use Corrective Reading: Decoding with groups in this category; however, you will need to ensure that they have been assessed as having very similar gaps in their learning. Students with very different needs in the same group means that at least some are unlikely to make strong progress.

Students whose decoding skills are three or more years behind need a comprehensive, individualised programme, or they are unlikely to catch up (see the next section of this post for more detail). Thinking Reading is designed for exactly this group, because it is the most challenging to teach and often the least effectively supported. You can find out more about Thinking Reading, the programme that Dianne developed based on published, empirical research, here and here.

As always, some schools resist such interventions because of cost. It cannot be overstated that the cost to the students throughout their lifetimes, and the cost to society as a whole, far outweighs (by a factor of about 1000) the cost of teaching them to read. In practice, the decision is not about whether the funds exist, but how school leaders choose their priorities.

Rates of progress

Agreed that ‘effective intervention should have a fast rate of progress’ however in the studies you showed there seemed a bit of a slow start before a huge increase in pace. The slow start seemed to be about 2 months. Is this ‘normal’ or extreme (either shorter or longer than normal).

In the first graph we showed, this child had big gaps in advanced phonemic awareness skills which are foundational to reading.  Once these were addressed, he made progress. Struggling adolescent readers come with many ineffective strategies deeply embedded – identifying these, discouraging their use and teaching replacement strategies takes time at the beginning of an intervention.

To think about acceptable rates of progress, we need to see things from the student’s point of view. The longer it takes for them to catch up, the longer they are in interventions and the longer it takes before they have the reading skills to access the curriculum. At the same time, they are out of class for longer, which makes keeping up even more problematic. Think about the arithmetic. A student who is three years behind, and who is progressing at twice the general rate, will take three years to catch up. This means that they would be in intervention for three of the five years of their secondary schooling. If they are four years behind, they would need to start in Year 7 in order to have caught up by the end of Year 10, and they would have had four of five years in intervention. If they are five years behind, they will never catch up at this rate.

If a student is to catch up quickly, and limit the amount of time that they are out of other lessons, we really need them to catch up by at least four or five times the usual rate. Not only that, the gains have to be sustained. If they fall back after completing the intervention, it is questionable whether it was worth the effort and the student’s time out of class. You can find further thoughts on this topic in this post.

How realistic is it to expect such a rate of progress? The answer is that it can be achieved – but not without a great deal of assessment and sophisticated teaching design. The highest levels of need require the highest levels of teaching skills. Here are some of the elements that need to be in place:

  • Detailed assessment before starting the programme.
  • Daily tracking of each skill targeted within the lesson.
  • Highly efficient, research-validated teaching techniques.
  • Strong fidelity to the programme protocols.
  • Problem-solving skills to identify why a student’s progress has stalled, and work out how to get them back on track.
  • Subtle motivation and behaviour management to maximise engagement and effort, especially in the earlier stages when the student is plagued by self-doubt after years of failure.

There is much more that could be said, but that would require a textbook! When comparing reading interventions, you may find this post useful as it provides 15 tests for effective secondary reading interventions.

We know that schools implementing the Thinking Reading programme effectively have seen average gains of five years in six months per student. This post explains in more detail how such progress is possible.

Another useful document for comparing literacy interventions is Greg Brooks’ ‘What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties?’ This post outlines how to use the document to quickly find out what you need to know.

Time and staffing

To begin with, how much time do you suggest students are taken off the curriculum for per week in order to apply an appropriate reading intervention?

 How often would you suggest students be taken out of lessons to improve their reading in lower secondary school?

As above, much depends on the student’s needs: how far behind is s/he? What are the areas of difficulty? For students in small groups for comprehension, or in paired reading, we have seen good progress for students with two thirty-minute lessons a week. For students who are further behind, and who need Thinking Reading, three thirty-minute lessons a week is optimum. These should come out of different subjects, preferably on a two-week cycle, so that no subject is affected by more than half an hour per fortnight. It’s also possible to reduce curriculum impact further by timetabling one or more lessons before or after school.

Logistically, how do you suggest secondaries staff the intervention?

We’ll focus this answer on our experience with implementing Thinking Reading. Staffing will be influenced by the amount of staffing made available, which staff members they are, and the number of students with significant reading needs. If we try to allocate hours across a number of people so that they all have a few hours each, this increases timetabling constraints. If we have one dedicated staff member delivering the intervention, this gives us maximum timetabling flexibility. However, training only one staff member means that there is no resilience in the organisation if that staff member becomes unavailable for any reason. The best arrangement is therefore in the middle – one or more staff members with a significant number of hours, supported by at least one other, so that the school has a backup if necessary.

Who can be helped?

I teach A level students at an FE college. When is it too late to intervene with students with reading difficulties?

It is never too late. Studies have shown that the cognitive processes in learning to read are essentially the same regardless of age, from five years old to over eighty-year-olds. Do bear in mind that older students will have more complex needs, though, after years of educational frustration and often quite unpleasant social consequences of poor reading. Thinking Reading is specifically designed to help older students including adults.

What is the youngest age you would suggest starting any intervention?

The question is not really age but need. Students who have fallen behind in Year 1 should have additional support to enable them to catch up, targeted at their gaps. In general, the earlier that students with reading difficulties receive help, the better – as long as that help actually makes a difference. Across educational settings we encounter an assumption that if hours of support have been allocated, the student has been helped. Frequently, this is not the case and as a result the child learns that despite extra help, they still can’t learn. It can’t be said enough that the greater the learning difficulties, the higher the levels of teaching skills required.

Is there any difference in approaches and achievements with different genders?

No. The most important thing is to be able to assess the individual student so closely that we know exactly what their gaps are. Then the teaching needs to follow processes that make each teaching point explicit and unambiguous, checking constantly that new material has been learned correctly. Students then have short, daily, time and carefully sequenced practice on this material. Gender doesn’t matter – teaching skills do.

How deep do the correlations between reading and writing go? Can teaching writing explicitly help with reading?

The answer appears to be mostly affirmative. An excellent article by Louisa Moats, How Spelling Supports Reading, explains the reciprocal nature of reading (decoding) and writing (encoding) skills.

Once students are adept at decoding and encoding, it is important that they are given many opportunities to read widely and deeply, and to experiment creating different types of text for different purposes.

Given the complexities involved in crafting an extended piece of writing, we recommend that the most productive level of focus, in classrooms or in reading interventions, is at the sentence level. Have them create and edit one sentence. Doug Lemov’s The Art of the Sentence is a good place to start.

Tip: Give your students three minutes to write the most sophisticated statement they can on a given topic or question. Then give them another three minutes to express the same ideas in just half the words. Concision is 90% of clarity!

Next up: MFL

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Building on the Evidence

15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions

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

Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (Part 1)

In-class support – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (Part 2)

Comprehension and Fluency – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (Part 3)

Fluency and Comprehension – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 3)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

Fluency and Comprehension

What are your best tips for helping pupils with their fluency of reading?

There are important distinctions to be made in the way that the term ‘fluency’ is used. Commonly, especially in the US, fluency refers to smooth, expressive reading aloud, showing a clear understanding of the text.

Fluency is also used as a measure of sheer speed, whether of single words or connected prose. And finally, fluency can be used to describe automatic word recognition which allows written language to be processed at about the same speed as spoken language. This short video clip by Jan Hasbrouck outlines why this last issue is so important – namely, fluency aids comprehension.

If the goal of reading is comprehension (and it is), then fluency has an important part to play. Many reading interventions do not address this issue, or do so with insufficient rigour. For an indication of the levels of fluency required to guarantee automatic word recognition, this list by Precision Teacher exponent Rick Kubina is revealing. For example, Year 10 students should be able to read connected prose aloud at 180-200 words per minute. For silent reading, neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has found that fluent readers can process 300 words per minute.

If fluency is so important, how do we foster it?

The first step is to make sure that all students read a lot. As teachers we don’t have a lot of control over what students do at home, so it makes sense to ensure that a substantial amount of reading happens when we have them at school. We encourage schools to follow the Michaela policy of reading 800 words per lesson in every lesson. This post outlines some different ways that teachers can approach such reading that make it less daunting for struggling readers. Building the quantity of reading experience that students have will accumulate significant gains over time, including how freely and fluently they read.

The second point is that fluency building exercises do not need to be time consuming. Research on fluency teaching shows that practice should be short, daily, timed and carefully sequenced. For example, students can time each other reading lists of known words for one minute each. They can then chart their own progress and the teacher can check their charts later. The entire exercise can become a five-minute routine within the regular lesson.

It is important that teachers are familiar with every student’s reading, and to ensure that weaker readers have the opportunity to read individually to the teacher at least once per week. This will enable the teacher to know which students are likely to need more support, and to allocate them either a reading buddy who can work with them on short exercises like those above, or a trained staff member who can work in the same way.

NB: We cannot expect students to read a word fluently until they can read it accurately and reliably. Don’t put the cart before the horse!

 How do you deal with students who can read fluently (in English) but cannot explain what they read due to lack of comprehension skills (referring to higher order thinking skills)?

When students can decode words fluently, but have difficulty working out the meaning of what they have read, they fall into a group known as ‘hyperlexics’. Such students are likely to have difficulties with processing language, and this may be evident in a narrow vocabulary, difficulty in understanding and following instructions, limited expressive language and difficulty in following reasoning and argument. The extent of the difficulty should guide whether the student can helped by general classroom instruction, small group instruction or one-to-one support, for example with a speech language therapist. (Note: if you have access to a speech language therapist, foster that relationship. SLTs are the reading teacher’s best friend.)

In the general classroom, attention to explicit teaching of vocabulary (as in the previous post) and to teaching reasoning and inference are likely to be of most benefit for time cost. This post has a number of recommendations for teaching comprehensions skills in the classroom.

For small group instruction, we recommend Direct Instruction Corrective Reading: Comprehension. There is a free placement test which you can download to work out which resources to use with your target students. The programme is carefully designed to expose faulty reasoning strategies and to correct them. The teaching is designed to foster auditory memory, which is essential for language processing.

The comments above apply to proficient speakers of English. We will deal with comprehension problems in students who have English as an additional language in a separate post.

Tip: Check to ensure that your students can infer logical implications. For example, what does the statement ‘I got up at 7 o’clock’ imply about where I was before 7 o’clock?

Next up: Effective intervention

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Assessment – Bridging the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

In-class Support – Bridging the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

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In-class Support – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

In-class support

I am a secondary English Teacher and I feel in no way trained to teach phonics, decoding etc and wouldn’t know where to start with creating these effective lessons you talked about.

It’s important to draw a distinction between effective intervention lessons, which target precise skills and knowledge, and general classroom lessons, which are not appropriate for anything more than incidental phonics instruction. This means drawing students’ attention to the sound sequence and letter combinations which represent them.

For example: The teacher writes on the board and says: this word is ‘coup’. As we write, we underline each letter group to show which sound is represented, as in: c + oup /ku:/ and we sound this out to make it explicit. We would normally do this in conjunction with introducing the word to students’ vocabularies:

“The word ‘coup’ follows this spelling pattern because the word has come into English through French. In French it means a strike or a blow, and in English it has a more specific meaning – a sudden power grab. So, a coup in English is usually used to refer to the sudden removal of the government by another group, often the military.”

In this way, in the space of about a minute, I have covered the word’s sound, its etymology, and its English usage. However, it would not be appropriate to attempt to teach phonics systematically in the general classroom, since that requires a much larger amount of time that would reduce coverage of the regular curriculum.

Image: Minna Sundberg

 How do you support weak readers in a lesson without making them stand out to their peers or slowing down the lesson too much for others?

This blog post sets out some suggestions for setting ground rules and effective scaffolding practice that make reading safer and more social. Once trained, peers who are better at reading generally become extremely supportive of those with more difficulty.

What is the most effective classroom strategy to support weaker readers?

What strategies can classroom teachers use to improve reading?

How would you suggest we best support the students (in the classroom, in addition to the interventions they receive) who are considered well behind in their reading when reading complex novels with complex vocabulary, particularly something like Shakespeare?

Do you have any tips on how to teach the etymology or morphology or words successfully?

In the general classroom, explicit teaching of vocabulary probably has the greatest impact on the largest number of students for the time required. However, such instruction needs to be explicit, highly efficient and the items taught must recur frequently in classroom discourse, in reading and in writing for them to be successfully embedded in students’ working vocabularies.

The comments above regarding the word ‘coup’ are an example of how a word can be introduced thoroughly and efficiently. A useful mnemonic for teachers introducing vocabulary is EMU: etymology, morphology and usage.

There are whole books written about etymology. Perhaps the most useful perspective from a teacher’s point of view is to consider etymology as the biography of a word. This presents words as living, changing things – an essential for students at secondary school to grasp as they develop a more sophisticated understanding of how language works. Words only exist because people create them, so etymology is also a window into the worlds that have now vanished, leaving traces in the words we use every day. Perhaps, most importantly, for teaching students who struggle with reading, etymology explains and highlights why words look and sound as they do.

Here’s an example of introducing a new word to students:

Teacher: This word is ‘decimate’. De – ci – mate (underlining each part of the word).

Say it with me. (Teacher and students say decimate).

On your own: (Students all say decimate).

Teacher: You’ll notice the word looks a lot like decimal. That’s because both words come from a Latin word, decem, which means ten. Latin was the language spoken by the Romans. When they wanted to punish soldiers who had rebelled, they would decimate the army by lining up the soldiers and executing every tenth one. In English, we now use the term to mean a significant loss of people or resources, such as the plague decimated the population of London, or the budget cuts decimated social services in the region. But I wouldn’t say, the sugary drinks decimated my teeth, because that’s about my health, not people or services or resources.

The teacher draws students’ attention to the sound of the word, its parts, and focuses on its etymology and particularly its usage, as decimate is often overused or used incorrectly. The emphasis between these elements will vary depending on the word. Notice that in addition to the examples, we have also used a non-example to clarify how the word should and should not be employed. This explanation is perhaps a little longer than most, which is fine as long as the introduction of new words averages less than a minute each.

Such a presentation will not be enough on its own – it will need review and exemplification in the texts that are being studied, in classroom discussion, and eventually in students’ writing.

Is there somewhere I can find a comprehensive list of tier 2 words? I’m trying to incorporate into my teaching but can’t find anything.

One useful exercise is to have the subject staff to work as a team to highlight Tier 2 words in Grade 9 GCSE papers. This will generate staff buy-in and creates a subject-specific list of high utility words.

This blog post by David Didau provides a useful overview of teaching Tier 2 vocabulary and has a list that will form a good foundation.

When completing reading in each lesson, do you suggest that we should have students read out loud? Would you go through how to pronounce more challenging words before starting or as they are reading?

This blog post highlights the ground rules for getting students to read aloud. The two key principles to bear in mind are 1) that students should have subject-related reading in every lesson and 2) use a variety of reading activities that enable access. See also Chapter 4 of our book (link below).

 Following along with a ruler under the text or just listening? What is your recommendation for supporting weaker reading in whole class reading?

If you are doing close reading and analysis of a particular passage, using a ruler, and/or numbering the lines in the text, is very helpful. If you want to promote comprehension of the plot or focus on drawing useful inferences, including making tentative predictions about how the story might develop, reading aloud to the students can be very helpful. Taking turns around the classroom to read can be a chance for some to opt-out of following, and difficult for others to keep up. If using this approach, keep the amount read by each student very short, and make it unpredictable as to who will read next. However, bear in mind the ground rules above: you need to have a ‘pass’ option so that students who are anxious about reading aloud have a safety valve. Of course, some students who should read may use this as a way out, but you can always target them another way – and protecting your struggling readers from embarrassment, humiliation or bullying is much more important.

 What evidence is the best to use to motivate subject teachers outside of the English Department to embed reading in their lesson?

The GL assessment study cited in the presentation, showing a significant correlation between GCSE success and reading achievement is a good start. The strategy we discussed in the presentation, asking subject teachers to identify key Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary in Grade 9 GCSE scripts also helps to highlight the importance of teaching these terms. This post by Daniel Willingham also explains the importance of teaching background knowledge (and by implication, vocabulary) in order to build comprehension in different subjects. Ultimately, clear leadership has to be given by senior management on this issue over a sustained period of time. The reality is that people aren’t going to change their practice because a middle manager or literacy co-ordinator asked them to – they need to understand that improving literacy is a fundamental part of the school’s mission. Otherwise literacy initiatives are seen as window-dressing.

If intervention isn’t available for those at the beginning of school for reading, how can we better support children in class who are struggling to become secure with their phonemic awareness?

It’s not practical or appropriate to attempt to address such issues in the general classroom. If you have data that shows that you have students who need help to improve their phonemic awareness, use this data to make a case to your SLT. If they don’t care enough to address the problem by allocating the required resources (which are not massive) then you might want to consider moving schools. We need ethical leaders who recognise the fundamental right to literacy of every child in their care.

If reading should be embedded in all subjects, why then do some lesson observers/educationalists tend to criticise Maths lessons in which many words are used?

We need to teach vocabulary. In maths, Tier 3 vocabulary is extensive and important. This vocabulary needs to be regularly used and reviewed so that it is embedded into students’ working vocabularies.

Such teaching should be efficient. Avoid complicated, ambiguous or repetitive explanations. Explain once, clearly, then check students have understood. Clarify and move on.

Long teacher explanations are difficult to concentrate on and the longer they last the more confusing they are. Brevity is an art that needs to be rehearsed and practised.

What advice would you give, to an NQT Secondary English Teacher, going into a school in a disadvantaged area where the reading age of pupils is known for being much lower than the average?

First of all, never allow the circumstances of our students, their ethnicity, their socio-economic status, or where they live to shape your preconceptions. Some schools have cultures where low expectations of the students are deeply embedded. As a result, thecurriculum is dumbed down, poor behaviour is tolerated, and the school culture leans too much towards nurture and not enough towards challenge. We need to see every child as an individual. Our job as a teacher is to know what they need to learn, and then help them to learn it. ‘Typical’ reading scores are irrelevant to teaching actual students.

Secondly, large-scale low reading scores may be the result of other factors in addition to weak reading, including the aforementioned low expectations, disaffection, disengagement, poor test administration and poor previous teaching. Reading is not a reflection of ‘ability’; it is a reflection of how effectively they have been taught.

Third, get them to read as much as you can. You can’t control what they do outside of school, so in your lessons, get them to read often – smaller amounts at first, and gradually increasing the number of words. This blog post has further suggestions about what that looks like in the classroom.

Tip: Have your weakest readers spend a few minutes every week reading to you individually.

This post was updated 09:57 6 May 2020

Next up: Fluency and comprehension

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Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

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Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

Assessment

What tests should be used to identify students with reading difficulties?

The first principle is that no one test will give us all the information that we need. We recommend at least three tiers of screening to identify students in need of intervention.

In the first tier, all students in the cohort should sit a standardised test of reading, to ensure that no one ‘falls through the cracks’. At secondary school, this test needs to be normed up to at least 16 years, be suitable for administration to groups, and contain both a comprehension and decoding element. That leaves only a few tests. We usually recommend the New Group Reading Test, because of the ease of administration and its broad statistical base. Many UK schools have a licence to access the entire GL Assessment Bank, including the NGRT.

The purpose of using a standardised test is to reliably rank students against the wider population. Students in the bottom third (35thpercentile or below) should sit another standardised test, or a parallel form of the first test. Some of these students may score significantly higher on the second test. Sometimes this higher score is due to the standard error of measurement that is present in all standardised tests. More often, it is because they were simply not trying their hardest on the first administration. It is quite common for up to half the students in the bottom third to move out of that grouping on the second standardised screening test.

Students who remain in the bottom third should be assessed individually to determine whether they have difficulties with decoding, comprehension, or both – and, in some cases, to screen out those who are reading reasonably well, but gained low scores on both previous tests due to low motivation. To do this assessment rigorously and reliably requires training and practice – for example, when we work with schools, it takes two days to train a team in close assessment skills.

If I have a student who starts in Y7, with a reading age 3 or more years behind, they are tested and have a phonics and decoding problem and comprehension issues. Where should I start?

Let’s say that you’ve gone through the process described above and have a group of students with both decoding and comprehension problems, who are well behind their peers.

First of all, if these students are three years behind in reading accuracy, group intervention will be inefficient because each student will have their own individual pattern of gaps in their learning. It will be much more efficient to teach them one-to-one, on the basis of very fine-grain assessment. Secondly, start with those furthest behind as they will need longer to catch up. Thirdly, it makes logical sense to focus on decoding issues primarily (while still addressing comprehension), as many comprehension issues are often resolved once students can decipher the words on the page. If they have successfully mastered decoding, but they still have low comprehension, then assign them to a small group working on generic comprehension skills. (For example, we recommend Corrective Reading: Comprehension.) It’s also essential to share students’ assessment and intervention data with subject teachers so that they understand the importance of building subject knowledge and vocabulary in their curriculum area (because a substantial element of reading comprehension is domain-specific).

As a trainee secondary teacher, I worry about not identifying weak readers soon enough. Do you find that some weaker readers tend to cover up their lack of reading ability or use avoidance strategies? Or is it quite conspicuous when a student has a much lower reading age?

It’s not always obvious when a child has reading difficulties. We need to be very pro-active in screening children for reading difficulties, because some become adept at masking their difficulties, or avoiding tests altogether. Some students are very good decoders but have weak comprehension. When we hear them read aloud, we can easily assume that they are proficient, when in reality they have understood almost nothing of what they have read. Equally, a student may have difficulty in ‘getting the words off the printed page’, but have an excellent understanding of the discussion – and this understanding can mask the fact that they can’t read independently. Students with more obvious reading difficulties also need close assessment, so we know what to teach them. No student should ever be prevented from receiving effective support because of inadequate assessment information.

It’s worth noting, too, that many disruptive or confrontational behaviours are motivated by avoidance and escape responses. If reading makes you angry, frustrated or anxious – and often it is all three – getting thrown out of class, or at least derailing the lesson, can seem like a more attractive option. Many students who are regarded as having significant behaviour problems also have significant reading problems.

Tip: Try correlating the list of students with high behaviour points with the list of students with high literacy needs.

Further reading:

Thinking Reading: what every secondary teacher needs to know about reading – James and Dianne Murphy

The researchED Guide to Literacy – edited by James Murphy

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties – David Kilpatrick

Next up:

In-class support – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

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Teaching reading: it’s not as ‘niche’ as you think

“Teaching reading at secondary is very niche.” I’ve heard it said, in different ways, many times. It is a very common view, and it is also a mistaken one.

Every teacher needs to know about reading because every student needs to read. In the ‘real world’, our students will need reading to deal with the mail, to follow the news, to sit their driver’s test, to decipher the instructions on a medicine bottle, to fill in employment forms, medical forms, tenancy agreements, mortgages, employment contracts . . . I don’t need to go on, do I? Reading is everywhere in our society. Despite early predictions, the growth of digital communication and social media has only increased the amount we are expected to read.

And in school? From consulting their planner in form time, through French, science, history, geography . . . is there any subject where students don’t read? Traditionally, PE was stereotyped as the no-reading, no-writing subject. That was never quite true, but now the GCSEs in this subject require as much reading and writing as many others. Maths teachers have sometimes sought to argue that literacy has nothing to do with their subject, but open any GCSE maths textbook and look at the Tier 3 vocabulary that students have to be able to decode and comprehend. The bar has risen significantly for literacy over the last few years, and students with poorer literacy skills are seriously disadvantaged without effective help. Being a teacher of a specific subject means that we have to teach students the literacy skills they need to succeed in that subject. Or, to put it another way, if we use written language to teach, then we must know quite a lot about written language in order to teach effectively.

This is a fairly standard argument for what is often referred to as ‘literacy across the curriculum’. When it comes to reading intervention at secondary school, however, we still fall into the trap of thinking that this service is ‘niche’. Real secondary teachers, the sentiment goes, are specialists in their subjects. But consider: when we teach a student to read, we make every subject more accessible to them. We change the way they feel about themselves as learners. We restore their confidence. We make them more motivated to come to school and to do well. They are proud of what they have done, and they want to show their peers that they, too, are good at reading. Reading feeds into so many areas of the mind and personality that there is no sense in which it can be regarded as ‘niche’.

Rather, reading is universal. It underlies virtually all other academic skills. It fosters knowledge, motivation, creativity, empathy, resilience and a host of other skills. It is the gateway to the background knowledge that we so readily (though often incorrectly) assume that our students have. Reading builds comprehension, vocabulary and even IQ scores. Reading is therefore foundational – and as such, is the fundamental priority for schools, outranked only by the need to keep children safe.

All of which raises the question, where does reading sit in your school’s priorities?

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No Excuses Left