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Reading Crisis? What Crisis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

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

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

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

Know who they are

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

Have them read aloud to you

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

Check their understanding

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

Pair them with an able buddy

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

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

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

Build up their spoken vocabulary

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

Communicate positive expectations

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

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


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

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Can’t Read, Won’t Read: The Sequel

There is Hope

New Horizons

Addressing serious reading problems creates new horizons for students – and schools.

One of the most stubborn problems for school leaders is that of students who could perform much better than they do, but for whom reading is a barrier to achievement. Such students can  be easily misunderstood, labelled as incapable, troublesome or disabled, and leave school with little if any benefit from eleven or more years of schooling. In addition to difficulties of curriculum access, poor reading also hinders the acquisition of knowledge, affects self-esteem and mental health, and undermines confidence. It is often associated with disruptive behaviour and disengagement. The effects of poor reading are pervasive and lifelong, contributing to a higher risk of unemployment, low income, ill health and shorter life expectancy. If schools exist for anything, shouldn’t they exist to eliminate illiteracy?

Conversely, successfully addressing serious reading difficulties has the potential to positively influence the factors above, such as behaviour, self-esteem, confidence, and mental health. In turn, progress in these areas contributes to a more positive school culture. Put that alongside the academic gains unlocked by improving reading, and the urgency of addressing reading problems is a no-brainer.

There is, however, the obvious problem. How can school leaders address reading problems to this extent? If traditional approaches have failed, how can this be achieved?

School leaders must invest in solutions in three ways. First, they must invest in developing staff expertise, especially amongst those who will lead literacy improvements. Secondly, they need to invest in well-prepared, high-quality programmes that will ensure that lessons are effective without creating the unmanageable burden of writing and producing resources whilst working with the most complex learning problems. Thirdly, and equally importantly, they need to provide strategic leadership, providing vision and a clearly articulated sense of mission to the whole staff. Effective reading instruction may be a specialist task, but the responsibility for support is not restricted to these members of staff. It is a shared priority for the whole school community.

Does such a model work? As you might expect, it’s the model we have been implementing with schools. Across the four schools that shared progress data from their Thinking Reading programmes with us in July 2017, we found that:

  • The average gain was over five years per student.
  • The average rate of progress was two months per lesson.
  • Students were in the programme for an average of seven months (including school holidays).
  • Overall, students progressed at a rate of nearly nine months for each month of intervention (including school holidays).*

So yes, such a model can transform students’ reading, and their view of themselves, if given the right conditions and the appropriate support from school leaders. Who wouldn’t want their students to make progress like this, with payoffs, not just for individuals, but for the whole school?

For those of us who are already fluent readers, it’s hard to imagine what it is like to move from being a teenage non-reader, or a very poor reader, to becoming a competent reader in a matter of months. It opens up horizons that didn’t exist before. I think of students who were not expected to complete Year 11, who went on to apprenticeships and careers; of students who went into sixth form and university after gaining GCSEs that no one had previously thought them capable of; of students who began to read for pleasure, because now they could. Reading changes the way we see ourselves, and the way we see the world.

There are new horizons waiting to be found. Join our mission to ensure that every student finds theirs.

*Further Thinking Reading progress data covering six years in two London schools is available in Professor Greg Brooks’ What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? (5th edition) (p.187)

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Beware the Reading Traps

Avoid the pitfalls lying in wait for school leaders seeking help for struggling readers.

If we can read, we tend to assume that reading is easy. In a large organisation like a secondary school, those who struggle to read can be overlooked, misunderstood, or not supported as they need to be. If you’re responsible for deciding on what interventions to use for reading, and how to monitor their impact, beware these traps!

Trap 1

Assume that the purpose of the intervention is to compensate for a lack of ability, or to shield the student from the consequences of a lack of ability. The vast majority of reading problems can be resolved through effective teaching.

Implication: Students should not be in reading interventions forever, or even long-term.

Trap 2

Expect slow progress from students in reading interventions. This idea is based on the faulty assumption that poor reading equates to poor intelligence. It doesn’t. Students can make dramatic gains if taught effectively. One component of such teaching is to actively counter damaging labels that have reduced students’ expectations of themselves.

Implication: Monitor reading interventions for impact and ask questions if students are making less than three months’ additional progress per month of intervention.

Trap 3

Rely on one intervention to solve reading problems. There are different types of reading problems, and different levels of need. Some students have weak word reading skills and will need an emphasis on phonics. Some will have strong word reading skills but need to develop their comprehension. Tailor the provision to meet the needs of your cohort.

Implication: Ensure that you have catered for those up to two years behind with small group interventions, and more intensive, one-to-one lessons for those more than two years behind.

Trap 4

Expect untrained support staff to solve reading problems that have not been solved in seven or more years of education. Implementing any reading intervention without ensuring that thorough staff preparation has taken place sets it up to fail.

Implication: Set aside time and budget to ensure that staff can deliver what you have asked them do, and so that students derive maximum benefit from lessons.

Trap 5

Rely on an intervention because it is a familiar brand. It’s essential to know the evidence base for the intervention itself and also for the practices it employs. If it claims to be a phonics programme, does it employ a systematic phonics approach? If not, ‘phonics’ could mean a number of practices that have little support in the research literature.

Implication: Do your research on what practices are employed and what evidence there is to support their use.

Trap 6

Be persuaded by claims of reading gains without knowing who made these reading gains. An intervention might claim a 27-month gain on average, but if the bulk of this gain was made by students who weren’t actually behind in their reading, while those who were behind made much smaller gains, the intervention is not going to benefit those who really need help.

Implication: Always check that it is the students reading well behind who will benefit before buying in to a programme.

Trap 7

Assume reading mileage is equivalent to reading progress. Students should be able to read more difficult text over time. Some interventions claim to boost reading mileage, but do not contain any provision for those who cannot yet read independently. For these students, the levels of reading prescribed for them by the intervention may well provide a punishing schedule of uninteresting, babyish texts.

Implication: Don’t expect a reading promotion programme to solve deep-seated reading problems. Struggling readers will need different support if they are to make genuine progress.

If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is! There are many options, but being sure of the right ones takes some investigation. A good place to start is ‘What Works for Children and Young People With Literacy Difficulties?’ by Professor Greg Brooks.

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A Heart for School Improvement

What one issue lies at the heart of school improvement?

You are reviewing your school improvement plan, weighing up what to prioritise, what to focus on, thinking about whole staff vision, professional development, and of course how to prioritise resources.

Tick off the list. Behaviour. Mental health. Wellbeing. New, harder GCSE specifications. A more knowledge-based curriculum. The ‘long tail of underachievement’.

What theme runs through all of these? Better reading.

Is there a link between poor reading and poor behaviour? We know that poor reading leads to poorer behaviour outcomes. Hempenstall (2013) summarises relevant research :

A few studies have evaluated whether poor reading performance negatively impacts ‘distal’ feelings and behaviours that are not specific to reading activities. In these studies, poor readers have been reported to be more likely to act out or be aggressive (e.g., Morgan, Farkas, & Wu, 2009; Trzesniewski, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor, & Maughan, 2006), distractible and inattentive (Goldston et al., 2007; Morgan, Farkas, Tufis, & Sperling, 2008), and anxious and depressed (Arnold et al., 2005; Carroll, Maughan, Goodman, & Meltzer, 2005). Older poor readers have been reported to be more likely to consider or attempt suicide (Daniel et al., 2006).

So there is evidence to indicate that reading problems affect mental health. Morgan, Farkas, and Qiong (2012) report that their analyses “indicated that poor readers are at substantially greater risk of socioemotional maladjustment. This was the case across multiple self-report measures as well as after extensive statistical control of possible confounding factors.” (Cited in Hempenstall, 2013).

While teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to ensure that students develop the ability to acquire knowledge independently, we then run into the problem of Matthew Effects.

There is evidence (Stanovich, 1988) that vocabulary development from about Year 3 is largely a function of volume of reading. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year.” (ibid)

The increasing difficulty of the new GCSEs, which will continue to come on stream over the next two years, is already seen as a source of mental health pressure for students (and staff). Key to these new GCSEs is the ability to decipher and digest large chunks of information quickly. As noted above, those whose reading is slow and laborious will struggle to develop vocabulary and by implication, subject knowledge. The earlier these students are able to improve the depth and speed of their reading, the better.

And, of course, all this matters most when we think about improving the outcomes of those at the ‘lower end’. These students tend to suffer from feelings of alienation at school, disruptive and truculent behaviour, anxiety, and low progress in curriculum areas as they cannot access the knowledge they need from texts.

Addressing reading is not a magic bullet. It requires a systematic, determined and well-informed approach to ensure that every effort we make leads to the kind of improvement we want to see. But the potential transformations to students’ outcomes are remarkable.

How can this potential be realised? Here are seven suggestions:

  1. Build a culture of reading in the school.
  2. Communicate the expectation that every student can become better at reading. Do not give in to the temptation to accept that a ‘certain proportion’  will never pick it up. They can if we teach them.
  3. Collect comprehensive data on students’ reading levels.
  4. Focus on quality classroom use of language, including modelling and eliciting more extensive spoken language,  by all staff.
  5. Offer constant opportunities to write for ‘real world’ audiences – governors, head teacher, parents, school newspaper, poetry anthologies, short story collections, etc.
  6. Build staff expertise to resolve more difficult reading problems.
  7. Set up robust systems to intervene and track the progress of targeted  students – some interventions with small groups, and more intensive interventions for those further behind in a one-to-one format.

I will be exploring this material in more detail at researchED 2017 national conference on 9 September. Join us if you are interested in developing a whole-school literacy strategy to address these issues in more detail.

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Hempenstall, K. (2013) Older Students’ Literacy Problems. Retrieved from:

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Can We Do More With Less?

Effective use of resources depends on how well we know our students’ needs

More than ever, head teachers are having to consider how to cut the limited cloth of school budgets and resourcing. Sometimes we find that, for historical reasons, a great deal of staffing (especially TA staffing) is spread across a range of ‘interventions’. We have library staffing and English teacher time going into Accelerated Reader; a phonics intervention here, a catch-up programme there; in-class support, literacy support, academic mentoring, behaviour mentoring. . . . the list can grow very long.

There are several traps to watch out for in the complexity of a large school organisation.

  1. Are the same students being targeted for more than one intervention at a time? For a few students with a wide range of needs, this may be necessary. But children shouldn’t be receiving more than one literacy intervention at time, if this increases their time out of class.
  2. How much time are interventions costing the students, and how is this impacting on their curriculum progress? Interventions should not require a great deal of time out of the classroom, and there have to be systems in place to ensure that students do not fall behind. After all, interventions are ‘as well as’, not ‘instead of’.
  3. How much impact are the interventions having? Is there clear, objective evidence? And is the amount of progress acceptable? Another pitfall is the assumption that students considered in need of intervention are expected to make little progress. If we don’t expect an intervention to have an impact, and change the student’s outcomes for the better, why would we invest time and money in it?
  4. How much time and training do staff have to ensure that they deliver the interventions effectively?

The danger is that if we become too busy, trying to tick a lot of boxes, the true purpose of the interventions – catching students up to where they need to be – is obscured in the whirl of activity. John Thomsett wrote this post some time back arguing that the focus of our efforts should be on having more impact in the classroom. After-school interventions for revision, for example, can have the opposite effect to that which we intended; students feel that class work doesn’t matter, because it will be done again in the catch-up programme anyway. In such cases, it could be argued that intervention actually de-motivates students and makes them less independent – while adding significantly to staff stress and workload.

We should have no more students than really necessary in interventions, and we should expect these interventions to have a significant benefit in helping students to catch up.  It is essential to have clearly defined criteria for including students in interventions, and very clear criteria to indicate that the intervention’s purpose has been achieved. And, of course, the range of interventions on offer should be based on a careful assessment of what our students’ specific needs are.

The problem here is that the standardised tests schools run to assist with setting or ‘fair banding’ are not designed to inform teaching decisions (though some test publishers might argue that they do). They are, however, excellent tools for sorting students into a rough hierarchy of achievement, and therefore a good first level of screening for learning needs. However, in order to direct staffing and resourcing into the most productive areas, we have to conduct much more thorough and detailed assessment (see How to Save Time and Money Through Screening for more details).

In short, it is much more effective to have a few quality interventions than a rash of activities with mediocre outcomes.

We encourage schools to take a three-tiered approach to their literacy intervention strategy:

Tier 1: High quality classroom teaching that supports all students. This is addressed through curriculum leadership, CPD, curriculum planning, resourcing and careful assessment.

Tier 2: Small group interventions for students reading a couple of years behind, or whose writing is not yet secure enough for the classroom demands of secondary school. This tier requires specifically targeted, well-planned programmes with a clear assessment for learning design and evidence of impact. Staff training and effective timetabling are important to success.

Tier 3: Intensive one-to-one interventions. This tier should be reserved for those students who are well behind their peers because their needs will be more complex and will require more precisely targeted assessment and teaching. Staff need thorough training and the intervention will require strong leadership to ensure that standards are rigorous and students make significant progress. A detailed teaching programme that enables close tracking of students is required, along with quality resources to ensure that staff do not have to spend hours preparing materials or lesson plans.

The aim should be to have as few students at Tier 3 as possible, and to ensure that the staffing in Tiers 2 and 3 is allocated according to student needs (e.g. don’t give them phonics if they need help with comprehension). A great deal can be accomplished in small groups, but if a student has to spend a long time in a Tier 2 intervention, they might be better off at Tier 3, where they should make more rapid individualised progress.

Can less activity result in more progress? If we target our efforts wisely, the answer is yes.

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Climbing Mountains in Small Steps

Learning moves faster in small steps.

‘Bottom set.’

Two words that can make the colour drain from our faces, our eyes roll, or provoke a deep sigh.

‘Bottom set.’ The ‘low ability’ group. The ‘difficult’ and the ‘troubled’ students. Yes, they occur in other sets, too, but you know that if you have this class on your timetable, odds are there will be a lot of them – and you are in for a tough year.

It doesn’t have to be like that, of course, but it often is. And I have certainly worked in schools where such groups – and their teachers – were treated with a mixture of pity and disdain. Of course, that may not be true in your school – but, realistically, how many heads of department timetable themselves to teach bottom sets? What does that tell us about the priority that these students are given? ‘Bottom set’ classes are often given the least experienced, or the least skilled, teachers – often supported by an LSA, who may or may not have some training. Wouldn’t we normally expect the most skilled practitioners in say, medicine, or engineering, to work with the most difficult problems? And again, let’s be honest – in many schools, teaching this group  means containing behaviour, with learning firmly in second place.

To work with students who have had difficulty learning to date is a challenge – not because the students can’t learn (they can) but because I have to command a wide repertoire of skills and apply them in a very disciplined way. To do anything else is to surrender them to the self-fulfilling label of low ability – when in fact, there is much that can be done to lift such students’ progress. What follows is a summary of the points I made at a ResearchED presentation. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not new, and it’s all been in the research literature for years – though unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will find it in many schools.

I will split the topic into two more posts. This first post is about the fundamental strategy that underlies all the others:

Strategy 1: Assess closely, move in small steps through mastery

Students who have fallen behind have a lot of ground to make up. The trap is to think we can get them to make a big leap to catch up. They couldn’t first time round, and now the gap is wider – why would they manage it this time? Then, when they fail, we conclude that ‘they just can’t do it’.

Instead, we should bridge the gap in small, carefully sequenced steps. It’s much easier to walk up a set of twenty shallow steps than four big steps. For instance, instead of explaining how we can combine simple sentences into compound sentences, I might first need to establish their knowledge of sentence parts and how these work. The basic steps I would follow are:

  • Teach them what verbs are, and how to identify them.
  • Ensure that they can match verb and subject.
  • Teach them to identify the subject of a sentence.
  • Teach them to modify the subject.
  • Teach them to discriminate between subject and object.
  • When they have mastered these skills, they have effectively mastered the simple sentence.
  • Teach them to identify conjunctions.
  • They learn to use conjunctions to join sentences, and to remove conjunctions to separate a compound sentence into two simple sentences.
  • Then students learn to use pronouns consistently to make sentences sharper.
  • We also practise how to truncate some sentence stems to avoid duplication of words or phrases.
  • Now that students have (to the practical extent required for curriculum access) mastered simple and compound sentences, we can move on to dependent and independent clauses. And so on.

Here is an example of a short practice exercise from the beginning of a lesson, early in this sequence, intended to remind students that verbs can have more than one word, and can be in the passive form.

The point is, there are many steps in each ‘chunk’ of knowledge that need to be made explicit, if students who have struggled in the past are now to acquire the knowledge they need. When they are made explicit, students find that they can learn them.

It’s my job as the teacher to ensure that these steps are:

  1. Just outside the student’s current competency, but achievable;
  2. Clearly sequenced;
  3. Supported by sufficient practice materials so that students can revisit these skills repeatedly until they become fluent.

Note how all of this is predicated on the teacher being able to pitch these small steps at just the right levels. This requires careful assessment of students’ competencies at each step. Below is a screenshot of (part of) a spreadsheet showing which students have currently achieved which competencies. I have no problem sharing this information with individual students so they know exactly what we are working on together.

The key point about moving through mastery of each small step is that students know that they are ‘getting it’. They realise they are better at this than they were before, and they have the objective evidence (from their own work) to prove it. That makes them feel good about themselves, and about learning. English may never be their favourite subject, but that’s not a problem for me. I want them to feel that it’s worth making an effort, because you learn stuff when you do.

Another benefit of moving to mastery through small steps is the speed of progress. Each lesson may have a number of small steps, but these will proceed at a brisk pace. Because students are only focusing on one specific bit of knowledge a time, they can master it more quickly. There are few things more satisfying than being able to point out to a student that they are now better at something than they were. It’s even better when this change happens in a short space of time. It changes motivation, and it changes expectations.

Next post: how we can develop specific areas of language so that students access learning more readily and independently.

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