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Levelling Up – and Down

A few thoughts on writing texts for older struggling readers

We’ve encouraged teachers to write stories or articles for our Summer Writing Challenge, and have been delighted at the quality of the submissions so far. To support those who are taking part, and those who teach secondary students with weak reading, here are some guidelines for writing or selecting a text for older students with reading difficulties.

1. Reading ages are only ever an approximation. Don’t focus exclusively on the score from a formula – it’s just a guideline. On the other hand, it’s always worth checking your text against one or more formulas, because it’s very easy to pitch a text too high – we often incorrectly assume how much knowledge our students have.

2. Readability formulas are tools, and like all tools, they are good for some tasks and not so good for others. It’s useful professional development to be familiar with these tools, and their strengths and limitations. Some focus on word lists, some on syllable count, some on sentence length and so on. This is why results can seem so anomalous, and why readability formulas can only be part of the final decision. Decisions about how suitable a text will be for students should also consider issues such as topic, structure, imagery, allusions and register – things that readability formulas are not well placed to assess.

3. When evaluating the readability of a text, it’s generally a good idea to exclude technical terms or proper nouns from your calculation, as these are likely to push the text into a much higher level – leaving you scratching your head as to how you can write an article on endoparasites without using the term endoparasites. The practical reality is that we will teach students proper nouns and technical terms as needed, to enable them to access the passage. Just try to avoid using a lot of different technical terms in the same article. Repetition of a few technical terms is more helpful.

4. Explain unusual vocabulary in the text if you can. For example, instead of “The president’s critics claimed it was a fraudulent election,” we could say, “Some people said that the election had been fraudulent – that the president had won by cheating.” The second example is as easy to decode as the first, but much easier to understand. It also saves the teacher the task of explaining the word fraudulent, because the text does this already.

5. Shorter sentences are generally preferable for lower levels, but as the reading levels get higher, include more complex syntax so that students get to practice thinking though chunks of language – phrases, dependent clauses, independent clauses, parentheses, etc. For example, at a lower level, I might write:

Some people want to drill for oil in the Arctic. They say there is a lot of oil under the sea. This oil could be sold for a lot of money. But others say that we should leave the Arctic alone. We would cause too much damage if we drilled there for more oil.

At a higher level, I could say:

Advocates of Arctic oil exploration claim there are huge profits to be made, but opponents say that the damage to the environment would far outweigh these profits.

6. Inference is powerful – and concise. We can say a great deal, and make students think harder, by leaving some things implied or inferred. For example, “Jenae hated going into the garage. It had been her father’s favourite place to hang out. It made her think of the good times, before the accident.” The passage is not saying anything explicit about Jenae’s relationship with her father. However, the student who is reading thoughtfully knows that it used to be good, but there’s been an accident that has either ended or changed the relationship (and we don’t know which – yet). Particularly in fiction, we want students to speculate about these issues, so that the story becomes a puzzle to solve, not just a list of events. Inference is very helpful in making students think harder about texts – though they may often need teacher prompting to get into the habit of doing so.

7. Help students to navigate non-fiction texts through headings. These form prompts that enable students to locate information more quickly, and help them to work out the main idea in a paragraph or section of an article. If I’m writing an example about grizzly bears, for example, I might organise the text under headings such as: Where grizzly bears live; When grizzly bears are born; How grizzly bears grow up; What grizzly bears eat; and so on, in order to frame the information in each section for the reader.

8. Make captions informative. We haven’t asked for images as part of the Summer Writing Challenge, but if you do include them, make sure that captions support the content of the text explicitly. A photograph of a tiger with bared teeth is better supported by a caption that says “Tigers are carnivores (meat-eaters) with sharp fangs for catching and holding prey,” supports student knowledge better than “A fierce tiger.”

9. It’s helpful to structure your story or article in sections of about 250 – 300 words. This is an ideal amount for planning lessons around a portion of text each day. It allows for a limited amount of content to be taught, and for the student to concentrate on accurate reading, rather than merely trying to plough through to the end of a long passage.

10. Don’t be afraid to address big ideas in simple language. This is one of the biggest challenges for writers of texts for older struggling readers, but it is also a challenge that others, like journalists and advertisers, deal with every day. For example, the same meaning is expressed in “The fall of the Berlin Wall constituted the advent of a new chapter in the history of Germany” and in “After the Berlin wall was taken down, many changes began to take place in Germany.” However, the latter is much more accessible for the weaker reader.

Lastly, and above all, remember: these children are not lacking in intelligence. They just need explicit teaching to help them with their reading. Simplify the language, not the content.

Of course, these guidelines aren’t useful just for our Summer Writing Challenge – they are also good guidelines to employ whenever you are writing resources, or selecting texts for your students to read.

The Stubborn Gap

The fight to close the disadvantage gap is far from over – but we mustn’t give up.

This week sees the release of a report by the Fair Education Alliance in partnership with the Education Policy Institute. It is a ‘report card’ that gives a snapshot of the current state of UK education across early years, primary, secondary and further education, on a range of measures.

The education sector can seem awash with such reports at times, but there are a number of headlines in this one to start alarm bells ringing. Here are a few of the key points raised:

  • Poorer pupils in England are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs.
  • Disadvantage gaps are larger, and are growing, in parts of the North.
  • The most persistently disadvantaged pupils are almost 2 years (22.6 months) behind at the end of GCSEs – and that gap has increased since 2011.
  • Post-16 education is becoming even more segregated, driven by an over-representation of disadvantaged students in further education.
  • Over recent years there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap. Given this and the rise in the gap in 2018, there is a real risk that we could be at a turning point, and that the progress made over recent years could be undone.

What to make of this? There is no doubt that the ongoing squeeze on school budgets is playing a part here, as is the ‘non-crisis’ the government faces in recruitment and retention. Both of these forces have their biggest impact in areas of high economic disadvantage, and we know that poorer pupils are, as a generalisation, much more vulnerable to the effects of weak teaching than their wealthier peers.

There is therefore a desperate need to get both school funding and teacher numbers back on track. Even if we start now, it will take years to recover from the ‘austerity’ doctrine that, after stripping away the social services in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, is now eroding the core provisions in our schools.

The report on vulnerable pupils makes three recommendations:

  1. We need an education system that develops the whole child: a system which values and incentivises skills and social and emotional competencies alongside academic attainment.
  2. We need to support and empower great teachers and leaders particularly those serving disadvantaged areas.
  3. We need better support for young people on what their options are post 16. All young people need access to clear, timely, easy to understand information about the opportunities available to them after school, as well as experience of and exposure to different routes. They need this so that they can make the right choices for their future.

It would be hard for anyone to disagree with these very broad recommendations. But we would go further. If the government is really serious about levelling the educational playing field, then we should ensure that basic skills, including reading, spelling, and maths facts, are fluent for all children by the time that they reach secondary school. This is particularly so for the most vulnerable – that is, SEN students and the persistently disadvantaged. There is every reason to think that this relatively low-cost strategy will have much more leverage than the many pots of funding that have been frittered away, with limited or no impact, over the last decade.

The other key finding from the report is that we are out of time. If we want to see the gaps continue to close at a reasonable rate, we need to act now. Otherwise, as the report suggests, ‘progress made over recent years could be undone’.

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Summer Writing Challenge

Calling all closet writers to the challenge of creating materials suitable for the struggling adolescent reader!

It’s summer. The brief few weeks in which teachers uncoil, relax and (when they have had a chance to recover from the preceding year) become creative. I’ve met plenty of colleagues who love a good writing challenge, and I’m hoping that there will be some on Edu-Twitter who are up for this one.

Our reading programmes are for the lowest 10% of readers at secondary school. They are used to teach children from 11 to 16 years old, so content needs to be age-appropriate. Lessons are built around texts that are interesting to these students in terms of subject matter, themes and relationships, and typically range from 700 – 1250 words. We are hoping to increase the number of texts we have available for publication, especially in the lower reading levels, so that we can provide more choice to schools, along with a reliable of supply of books.

This challenge is for anyone from any background – English, science, history, sport. You don’t have to write about what you teach, though sometimes it helps. We are looking for fiction or non-fiction pieces – stories about adventure, hard choices or dreams lost and found; fascinating articles on volcanoes, wildlife, the mysteries of plant communication, amazing people or events in history . . . the scope is vast! DM us on Twitter @thinkingreadin1 if you have any questions about style or content.

Illustrations aren’t necessary, but welcome if you are so inclined! Otherwise, we will arrange for these as needed. All the normal rules for good writing apply, with just one addition: because we carefully calibrate text difficulty with student’s reading levels, it’s important to assess the text’s readability rating. The most reliable common formula appears to be the Dale-Chall. You can copy and paste your text into this free readability calculator and work out the appropriate age level from there. (NB this calculator reports in US grades so you will need to translate into UK grades and then year levels). Note that the Dale-Chall is designed for texts readable for Fourth Grade (nine years) and up. If you want to check that your text is readable for students below this age range, you can use the Spache Readability calculator. You may find writing for readability an interesting challenge – especially as the different formulas can produce very different results. Don’t be put off by anomalous results – the most important part is that the writing is gripping and makes the reader think!

We will process your text against our own readability software, compare those results with the readability formula you have used, and allocate a ‘best fit’ reading level. We are interested in stories at all levels, but we are particularly keen to build up the range of texts available at 6 – 7, 6.5 – 7.5 and 7 – 8 years.

Are you interested in creating a work that will catch a struggling reader’s interest, and inspire them to read more? There is a £250 award for the winner, plus a class set of your book in print, with your name on it as author. Even if you don’t win, don’t worry – we will also award £150 for any piece that we select for publishing. You will retain copyright, including attribution as author, and grant us the publishing rights.

Entries close on 23 August 2019. So, flex your knuckles, pick up your pen, and start drafting!

Here are the submission guidelines:

  1. Please present submissions in Word format, size 12 point, in Arial font. All work should be presented double-spaced. Each page should be numbered and show clearly the title of the story and the author’s name.
  2. Submissions should be between 700 – 1250 words, may be fiction or non-fiction, and should deal with themes or topics of interest to adolescent/young adult readers.
  3. Please provide a cover page with the title, the readability rating by age (according to the Dale-Chall formula and/or the Spache), the total word count, and the author’s name, telephone number, and contact email address.
  4. The author of the submission we deem most suitable for publication will receive payment of £250, plus one class set of 30 copies of the book (once it is published).
  5. We will offer payment of £150 for any other story we choose for publication as part of our reading programmes, plus one set of ten copies of the book.
  6. Authors of successful submissions will retain copyright of their work, but will grant exclusive publication rights to Thinking Reading Ltd.
  7. Authors may submit as many pieces as they wish.
  8. Our decision as to which texts are accepted for publication will be final and no correspondence will be entered into regarding our decision.
  9. We will endeavour to give brief feedback to every submission, but we do not guarantee that we will be able to do this (for example, if there are a large number of submissions).
  10. Stories should be submitted by email to <kquirk at thinking reading dot net> by 5 pm on Friday 23 August 2019.

Help Us Make Change Happen

Things are getting busy around here.

We need some help as the number of schools we are working with across the UK has doubled in the last year.

Our aim is to reach every secondary school that has students who still can’t read, so we have a lot of work to do.

We are looking for people to help us with training schools in the use of our programme and the principles that underpin it. It’s transformative work, inspiring and challenging. It requires a mind that can quickly see the big picture, and one that can pay attention to small but significant details. It requires quiet confidence, steely determination, kindness and discernment.

If you’re interested in working with us, you need to have experience working in middle or senior leadership at secondary school, excellent communication skills, and be very organised. It goes without saying that your reading and writing skills will be superb.

If this sounds like you, get in touch! We have opportunities for flexible working, with negotiable starting dates, across the UK. We’d love to hear from you. For an application pack, please email an expression of interest to <kquirk at thinking reading dot net> Applications close at 5pm on Friday 30 August 2019.

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You have to make faces at it!


It was a hot, noisy, dusty building site. I was working on a construction project in Wellington during the university summer holidays. There was more concrete pouring due soon, and the carpenters and labourers were all busy. I was tasked with removing some long planks of boxing that had remained stuck fast when the last pour of concrete had dried. The foreman handed me a steel bar and left me to it.

I tried prising the wood away, but there was no gap to gain leverage. I tried jabbing at one end a few times to see if I could get some movement. When that didn’t work I tried the same at the other end, and then the middle. After half an hour, I was sweating, my arms were aching, I was increasingly frustrated, and the wood still hadn’t moved. Clearly something was wrong here. Why had I been left to do this by myself?  This was a job for a team, surely? But there was just me, my steel bar, and the wood that wasn’t budging.

One of the more experienced construction workers passed by on an errand, as I tapped away. He returned a few moments later and paused to watch, making no secret of his exasperation. “Give me that,” he ordered, pointing to the steel bar. I handed it over. My new helper lifted the bar high, half-turned away from the target, then whirled back and drove down savagely. There was a crack and the wood broke away from the concrete. Without pausing, he took a step forward and repeated the action. Then again, and again. After five blows, the immovable length of boxing broke away completely, and tumbled into space.

My helper handed me back the steel bar. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to make faces at it.”

I’m reminded of this experience often when I am talking to school leaders about getting the most impact from interventions. Sometimes we are faced with a problem that seems intractable. We feel disappointed when our efforts don’t pay off, and we wonder whether we have the right tool for the job.  It is absolutely essential to have the right tool for the job; but it’s also important to wield that tool to maximum effect.

Poor reading is an intractable problem in secondary schools. One of the critical errors is to imagine that it can be solved easily. If a student in Year 10 is reading at a six- or seven-year-old level, the problem is longstanding and has not yielded to normal practices. Multiply this across the year group, and then do the same for every other year group, and you have a body of students with severe, longstanding difficulties.

Consider this comment from Calhoon and Prescher (2013):

“Older struggling readers fall into a wide range of developmental levels, presenting a unique set of circumstances not found in younger more homogeneous beginning readers . . . older struggling readers are extremely heterogeneous and complex in their remediation needs.”

Leaders have to understand the scale of the challenge: a library period a fortnight with Accelerated Reader isn’t going to enable these children to become good readers.

Equally, though, we may invest in the right intervention, and still not see the impact we wish for, because of insufficient investment in the task. Just as I conscientiously chipped away, seeing no movement, one or two staff may be chipping away with insufficient hours, or resources, or training, and seeing little or no result. They may be pulled away to help in other areas from time to time; they may be based in a room that’s too small to be practical; they may be restricted by their timetables as to when they can see students, or delivering lessons too infrequently to matter. Chip, chip, chip.

The answer is to ensure that the resources are directed to hit the problem hard, with sufficient force to have an impact. To shatter the boulder, you need a sledgehammer, not a tack hammer. But you will need to invest considerably more energy and strength to wield that sledgehammer than you did when you were tapping away with your ineffective tack hammer.

In the same way, to get to grips with adolescent illiteracy, we need to invest in training, so that staff know how to obtain the maximum student progress. We need to allocate space and resources so that everything required for lessons is to hand as soon as the student arrives for a lesson. We need to use the time well, but also allocate sufficient staffing so that students have enough lessons to make progress. We need to set ambitious targets for how many students we will help, and how rapidly they will make gains. Which is more ambitious: seven reading graduates in a year, or 38 in six months?* It depends on how hard you swing the sledgehammer.

In short, don’t leave your staff chipping away. Poor reading is an intractable problem: you have to make faces at it.

* These are actual examples from schools we have worked with.


Calhoun, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.

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10 Reasons Why Thinking Reading Gets Striking Results

We often find ourselves answering questions about the striking results that Thinking Reading students achieve. Teachers are used to seeing modest outcomes at best from reading interventions, so responses range from surprise to scepticism. By way of explanation, here are ten reasons why Thinking Reading gets the results it does.

1. Grounded in the research

Thinking Reading is grounded in principles developed through empirical research, built on detailed theoretical work and rigorously field-tested in the real world. Lesson content and instruction is based on four key approaches: Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, Precision Teaching, Linguistic Phonics and Applied Behaviour Analysis. Read more here . . .

2. Whole school strategy

We know that secondary schools are complex organisations. We work with every school’s leadership to ensure that systems, polices and culture are aligned, so that classroom practice, screening, and intervention give all students access to reading success. Read more here . . .

3. Thorough screening

We apply three tiers of screening to ensure that only students who really need intervention get it – and that students are matched to the type of intervention they need. We intentionally screen out students with low performance due to poor motivation – leaving them in receipt of intervention would be unethical and wasteful. Read more here . . .

4. Sophisticated technology

The teaching procedures in Thinking Reading lessons are refined to ensure that every item is taught clearly and learned quickly. The procedures are very specific and vary throughout the lesson depending on what knowledge is being taught. These teaching procedures are derived from the principles of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and from Precision Teaching. Read more here . . .

5. Extensive diagnostic assessment

Effective intervention requires detailed assessment. There are no shortcuts. Without such assessment we do not know what the student needs to learn, and what they already know. To find out, we use three additional layers of assessment to identify students’ starting points in sound-spelling knowledge, word reading, and reading fluency. Read more here. . .

6. Bespoke lessons

Every struggling reader has their own unique learning history. Lessons are tailored to address each individual’s specific teaching needs. Every lesson is planned based on what the student did in the previous lesson. As a result, they make rapid progress until they catch up completely. The programme is only completed when the student is reading at a level that matches their chronological age. On average, students are on the programme for six months and in that time the average gain is five years. Read more here . . .

7. No time wasted

All teaching is based on the principle of teaching more in less time. Because we assess in depth, and individualise lessons based on each learner’s profile, students do not have their time wasted being taught material they already know. Efficiency of instruction and efficiency of content selection mean that every minute of the lesson is meaningful and contributes to progress. Read more here . . .

8. Monitoring

We collect data on student progress in every phase of every lesson. This enables a swift response when a student has a learning problem – finding out about lack of progress at the post-test for an intervention is too late! Student progress data is collated in a tracking spreadsheet, so that we know every student’s average rate of progress per half-hour lesson at any given point in time. Read more here . . .

9. High-quality training

To have impact, an intervention needs two things: an effective programme, and an effective teacher. No matter how good the programme is, its power to effect positive change will be aided or hindered by the teacher. Our training programme is intensive, detailed, challenging and very practical. Every trainee is observed and coached, and only certificated if they are meeting our teaching standards. Read more here . . .

10.  School partnership

Committing to Thinking Reading leads to a long-term partnership, which ensures that new ways of working are embedded in the school’s ethos and systems. We provide training in the event of staff movement, leadership development, and bespoke advice to turbo-charge student progress. Two months progress per lesson is the minimum that we expect during the intervention stage of training, rising to at least three months per lesson during the partnership stage. Read more here . ..

Investment in turning around reading failure, especially at secondary school, is an intensive business. Consider this from G Reid Lyon, one of America’s foremost reading researchers: “To be clear, while older children and adults can be taught to read, the time and expense of doing so is enormous.” Read more here . . .

Thinking Reading has been developed as a powerful, cost-effective solution to this problem. For less than the cost of setting up Accelerated Reader in the average secondary school, you can ensure that every student is reading at their chronological age in three years. You will not find a cheaper way to achieve such powerful results.

Not because of magic. Not because of snake oil. Not because of shortcuts, gaming the system, or quick wins. We achieve these results, with amazing efficiency, because of a carefully developed, thoroughly field-trialled, highly engineered application of empirical research.

If that sounds like the way that you want to work, get in touch.

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Can reading problems affect mental health?

How hard can it be?

At first sight, there may seem to be little relationship between mental health and acquiring the skills to read well. In fact, the problems engendered by poor reading permeate all areas of one’s life. As the reading scientist Keith Stanovich noted:

“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. . . . The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or . . . ‘reading affects everything you do.’”

Here are just some of the ways that mental health is affected by reading problems:


Imagine yourself doing something at which you continually fail. It might be a sport, a musical instrument, public speaking, a subject like maths, accounting, physics . . . . Now imagine being asked to perform that skill or subject five times a day, five days a week, for forty weeks a year. Then imagine being no better at the end of the year than you were at the beginning. How long before you give up? Constant failure teaches us that we are failures. It doesn’t just sap our motivation: failure becomes powerfully aversive.


When an experience is aversive, the threat of its recurrence builds anxiety. For the child attending school, the risk of being exposed to the demand to read is virtually 100%. It is not surprising that children with reading difficulties develop anxiety. But, because we are all different, this anxiety is experienced in different ways – such as fight, flight, or freeze. ‘Fight’ is the child who becomes truculent, moody, frustrated or defiant. ‘Flight’ is the child who finds ingenious ways of removing themselves from the situation – from ‘I feel sick’ to sleeping, from volunteering to run messages to getting sent out of class for rudeness or disruption. The child who ‘freezes’ is the one who sits at their desk and does little or nothing, who cannot pay proper attention or process what is being said.


Students with reading difficulties are confronted with a toxic environment composed of three main elements: our culture’s conflation of reading with intelligence (and our associated prejudices); an unforgiving social world of competition, hierarchy and constant comparisons between peers; and an inward conviction that there is something ‘wrong’ with themselves. This last issue, derived from the sense of failure and anxiety described above, is what makes them much more vulnerable to judgement and stigma. Almost without exception, poor readers feel a sense of shame, and this shame affects their behaviour, undermines their confidence, and gnaws away at their self-esteem.

Exclusion from discourse

Print is ubiquitous in our culture. It is everywhere: road signs, cereal packets, bus timetables, forms, letters, emails, texts, medicine bottles – everywhere. At school, in particular, text forms the basis for discourse both inside and outside the classroom. It’s difficult to join in a conversation about books when you can’t read what’s in them; to participate in a discussion based on a history source of which you can make neither head nor tail. Such children become acclimatised to limited participation, and, by implication, limited knowledge. Not only do they know less, they have less opportunity to reflect on, and think critically about, the knowledge that others take for granted.

Restricted life choices

Because low literacy leads to low attainment, struggling readers will not only leave school feeling a mixture of shame and frustration, but they will leave with less qualifications than they should. In turn, this makes it harder for them to gain access to higher education and rules out participation in many careers. The accompanying sense of powerlessness and frustration should not be underestimated. Such students will have a higher likelihood of lower earnings, poorer housing, poorer health, and lower life expectancy.

That’s just an overview of the problem. There is more detail in our book. Much more poignant, perhaps, are these students’ first-hand accounts, shared on Twitter recently (here and here).

In short, school is a very difficult, unpleasant and even frightening place for those who have difficulty reading. The effects on mental health are ongoing and pervasive. But the answer is not to throw more sympathy or even enthusiasm at the problem; instead, every child must be taught to read well.  This requires expertise: teachers need to be trained in the knowledge and skills required, and support in schools should be directed at the root of the problem, not the branches.

How hard could that be?

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