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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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Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One

New Horizons for Struggling Readers at Secondary School

There is Hope

Three styles of problem-solving

How leaders deal with problems determines  . . . well, everything.

It’s an awkward truth that some leaders feel safest in a state of crisis. In a crisis, everyone is too preoccupied with how to cope to raise awkward questions about strategy, goals and long-term decisions; and because survival is the name of the game, everything is short term. Weathering crisis after crisis also fits the narrative of being selfless and burdened by others’ stress, which makes for a certain kind of reputation. Unfortunately, such a reputation is undeserved when the very same leader is largely responsible for the stress of colleagues, because they maintain the organisation in a state of perpetual crisis.  I once worked in a school where teachers were exhausted by constantly dealing with disruptive behaviour from students. The school leaders were more comfortable with this situation than sorting out the behaviour. They argued that teachers would be under threat from angry parents if we tightened up the standards and systems. It took a year of lobbying to get the changes in place. When we did, behaviour referrals out of class dropped by 70% in one term – and only three parents complained, in a school of over 700 students.

Even without ongoing crises, leaders are never short of problems. There are staff and industrial problems, financial problems, discipline problems, teaching performance problems, problems between staff, and of course friction with external bodies like Ofsted, the DfE, academy sponsors and local authorities. There are child protection issues, parental involvement problems, and community relationships (or the lack of them). Those are just a few examples of the problems school leaders have to deal with, often on a day-to-day basis.

It is how we choose to deal with these problems that largely defines us as leaders. Broadly speaking, there are three main approaches.

The first is the ‘Do Nothing’ approach. There are various motivations we might have for doing nothing, or doing nothing much: we might want to wait and see what happens; we might feel that there are other, more urgent priorities; or perhaps we hope that someone, somewhere, will take responsibility. We might lack the confidence to make a decision, or believe that we don’t have enough information. Ultimately, all of these are ways of saying that a problem is either too hard to solve, or is not worth trying to solve.

Let’s take the example of poor behaviour, bearing in mind that what people mean by poor behaviour varies from school to school. (I remember one head who had taken over a school where staff came to complain to him about the drop in behaviour standards, citing as an example the existence of three pieces of litter in the playground.) But I am sure that we can all agree that behaviour that disrupts learning, or makes others feel unsafe, is not acceptable. My first UK school had such a problem. If a behaviour incident was reported, the teacher was grilled with a series of questions. Nothing ever happened to the students. When two boys emerged from the toilets smoking cigarettes during a lesson one day, a passing senior leader told them to ‘make sure they used a condom’. Because leaders did not accept the problems in front of their eyes, teachers retreated to their rooms and coped (or not) individually.

We can see the same issues when it comes to dealing with literacy problems. Teachers and heads of department tell management that they have students who aren’t reading well enough to access the curriculum. The students are disengaged, bored, and disruptive. Senior management acknowledges there is a problem, sympathises at the tragic waste – then continues as before. A sad shake of the head – “The SEN department should be dealing with them.” – and then it is back to ‘normal’.

The problem with the ‘Do Nothing’ approach is that if you know there’s a problem, then you know it needs to be fixed. The only question is whether it needs to be fixed before or after other problems. There is no avoiding responsibility. To simply not respond to a problem is to signal to the staff and the students that this particular condition is acceptable. ‘Do Nothing’ is the standard response in schools where the leadership feels besieged. Problems ‘out there’ are ignored, while the problems that we feel more confident about dealing with are brought into the ‘action’ zone. Unfortunately, in such cases, it is the very people we lead – teachers and students – who are being asked to live with a problem that it is our responsibility to resolve.

The second type of response to a problem is the ‘Do Anything’ approach. In this scenario, the leader wants to be seen to be ‘Doing Something’, especially if the responsibility can then be devolved to someone else. The aim here is not to solve the problem, but to react to the problem, and more specifically, to be seen to react to the problem. This need to be seen to be taking action, however ineffectively, is rife in our schools. At line management meetings, managers ask managees which action items from the last line management meeting they have actioned. Managees list their actions. An action form is completed and filed. The managee and the manager can both take solace in knowing that they have protected themselves until the next meeting; after all, no one can say that they didn’t ‘Take Action’.

To follow our examples from above, when it comes to behaviour, the ‘Do Anything’ approach will require the managee to provide the manager with a series of actions. Parents are called in; detentions are issued; the student is put on report; the student moves from an orange report to a red report; inquiries are made at a local PRU; and so on. Likewise, in literacy, the manager explains that they have withdrawn the students of concern for some phonics lessons; they have arranged for extra TA time to be provided in classes where the ‘problem students’ are being most disruptive or disengaged; a target of improving reading ages by two years before the end of the year has been set for the new assistant SENDCO; and the Literacy Co-ordinator has agreed to set up a book box for each form group.

None of these actions are inherently wrong; the problem is that the focus is on action being seen to be taken. The focus is on the action, not the result. No consequences follow if behaviour does not improve, or if reading does not improve. The line management cycle simply starts again. Those in workplaces with this culture will recognise the patterns.

The problem with the ‘Do Anything’ approach is that it is short-term. It appears to take the pressure off, but actually squanders resources; we end up doing far too many things, including many that we know are unlikely to solve the problem. It may also arise because we don’t actually know what will solve the problem, and we don’t want to admit it. A variation is for leaders to assume that their gut reaction is the right one, and expect everyone else to live with the judgements we make. After all, we’re the managers, right? But gut reactions – often dressed up as ‘professional judgements’ – are at least as likely to do harm as they are to do good.

The third response to a problem is ‘Investment’ – with an emphasis on particular process, under the name of a closely related verb – investigate. The principle of investment is that if we commit our resources (time, money, skills) wisely, we will reap rewards over the longer term. Instead of the net deficits of the first two responses, the ‘Investment’ approach produces long-term surpluses – it yields more than we put in. Sound investment begins with due diligence. Due diligence in business is about finding out what shape an organisation is really in. It is about getting to the heart of what is working and what is not, getting past the slogans and intentions to the nitty-gritty. This is the very opposite of the first two approaches, which either try to ignore the problem, or react with a set of superficial actions.

In a behaviour context, ‘Investment’ begins with investigating the specifics of behaviour problems. Not ‘Mr Jones is finding it hard to handle 8M’, but, ‘What does Mr Jones find difficult about 8M?’ What specific behaviour patterns are the concern? What happens to prompt or occasion this behaviour? What consequences appear to sustain it? How are different members of the class – including, but not limited to, the teacher – affected? Once we have this level of information, we can begin to plan solutions based on useful information.

The same principle applies to literacy. Instead of worrying that “There are so many students with poor literacy in Year 8”, we can investigate: “On a standardised measure, how many of our students are reading well behind their chronological age? Are their problems related to decoding, comprehension, or motivation? Which students are accurate readers but not fluent? Do we have students with speech, language and communication difficulties? Who? What provisions do we have in place? How effective are these provisions?” Once we start answering objective questions that enable us to define the extent and depth of the problem, we can then think about how to deploy our resources to address the needs we have found. Such an approach also quickly tells us how much we don’t know – crucial information if we are to be good at problem-solving.

Once we have completed some thorough investigations, we may begin to see links between problems.  We may find, for example, that there is a strong link between poor behaviour and poor reading. How many of our poorest readers also have the worst behaviour points? Could some of the behaviour we are seeing arise from the frustration and desire to escape that is engendered by poor reading? Could poor reading be a cause as well as a result of disengagement? How aware of poor readers are the teaching staff, and how well are they equipped to respond? How effective are the interventions in place for these students? Are the right students receiving additional support?

Once we can answer questions like these, we are in a position to decide on a course of action.  Not only that, but we often find that solving one problem will impact on others that we did not expect. Reading is a good example. I have lost count of the number of times teachers express their amazement at the positive change in behaviour that occurs when a teenager finally learns to read.

The ‘Investment’ approach may sound idealistic. After all, there are many difficulties to such an approach. It never assumes a ‘quick win’. The results may take some time to show. The processes of investigation, planning a solution and implementing it all require an investment of time – time that can only be found by doing less of something else. It also takes some backbone, to hold one’s ground and do the right thing when the next line management meeting is looming and there is an Action List waiting.

All of this, of course, comes back to priorities. Schools face many different competing priorities, but some are clearly out in front. The first is safety; the second is behaviour; and third is student learning, with reading as fundamental to the kind of learning that students do in school. Schools that do not prioritise investment in these three areas are highly likely to be in crisis, with managers who are either denying the problems, or focused on protecting themselves through being seen to be busy. Schools who invest in thorough investigation, hard prioritisation and disciplined follow-up are more likely to reap rewards – though perhaps not straight away.

It is a harder choice than we might like, but the right choice still has to be made.

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Literacy Leadership 1: Vision and Mission

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Does in matter if some can’t read?

Spring Cleaning

The Implementation Trap

When Ofsted review schools under the new category of Quality of Education, the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, says that they will be looking at three areas: intention, implementation and impact. While it’s almost impossible to find a school that doesn’t proclaim laudable intentions, implementing such intentions successfully is quite another matter.

Part of the difficulty is that many of our stated ambitions are aspirational: the intentions indicate a direction of travel, rather than a destination that all students will reach. One of the questions raised by the new approach to inspection is whether schools’ statements of intention are too lofty, and so the school can never meet the standards it has set itself.

A second problem is that statements of intention have often been generalisations that were never expected to apply to all students. School leaders may well find that they have to be much more precise in specifying the types of outcomes they are aiming for, especially with groups who were previously at the margins of the school’s results. And then they have the problem of justifying the exceptions they have made, when Oftsed asks why they didn’t adjust the provision for those students.

Let me explain. Within the bedrock of secondary education, there are layers of sub-strata that comprise deeply held, but barely perceived, beliefs about intelligence and student potential. These beliefs often result in actions that compromise students’ opportunities to grow. In some schools, for example, the response to pupil premium accountability has been to designate pupil premium teachers, segregate students into pupil premium form groups, and set up interventions specifically for pupil premium students. What pupil premium actually means is that students have met the criteria for poverty. In effect, some schools have actively singled out and in some cases, segregated poor students.

Under the new inspection regime, the Ofsted question: ‘what do you want for all your students?’ will require schools to explain their aims and ambitions –including for pupil premium students.  The conversation will then move on to how that vision is being made real. Schools that have toyed with changing structures, job titles and segregation will find that these have not resulted in meaningful outcomes. Why? Because what pupil premium students need, like every other student, is well-planned, well-executed teaching.

Let’s take the specific field of reading. Nationally, about 20% of students arrive at secondary school reading significantly behind. However, about 40% of pupil premium students have this level of difficulty – that is, they are twice as likely to fall into this category. When schools aim to take such students on trips to boost the students’ cultural capital, but don’t have the inclination – or, let’s face it, the expertise – to address the actual problem of not knowing how to read text at their age level, the reading achievement won’t change.  (In case you think I am exaggerating, I have seen schools where the strategy for those with a pupil premium form class was to ‘take them on a trip’.)  And if the reading achievement doesn’t change, it’s unrealistic to expect other areas of learning to advance. Reading is an academic bottleneck.

Equally, a school may wish to address the reading achievement of pupil premium students ambitiously. Unfortunately, ambition alone is no guarantee of success. The implementation of genuinely effective intervention at this late stage in students’ schooling is beset by the complexities of secondary school organisation, the complexities of students’ reading difficulties and the complexities of teaching a great deal in a short time. Without a clear strategy, and a day-to-day monitoring of its implementation, seemingly small decisions can completely derail the best of intentions.

Seemingly innocuous or minor decisions can make it very difficult for an intervention to succeed. Short of staff? Just redeploy the specially-trained TAs who are delivering that intervention until the crisis is over. Short of space? Move the reading intervention into someone’s office. Exam support for special considerations? Those TAs are only teaching a few kids to read – pull them out so we can get through this. Need help to run a special event? Just pull some students out of their reading lesson.

And thus, as Shakespeare noted, the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Before we know it, the students have lost momentum, the staff have lost motivation and the results drop away. Then a member of SLT asks why we’re bothering with this initiative anyway, given the mediocre outcomes, and so the whirligig continues. We drop this intervention, pick that one up, and undermine our own efforts again and again.

Now, when Ofsted come calling, it may become a little awkward. After all, if our mission statement says that all our children will become caring, literate, global citizens, and Ofsted asks, ‘why are some of your students still not literate?’, we won’t be able to evade the question by pointing to the good progress of the top four sets. What is your ambition for those at the lower end? What was your plan? How did it work out? Why did it fail? What will you do now? These are the kinds of questions the new framework will lend itself to.

Unless we have a very clear plan and protect it fiercely, the likelihood is that intervention with the most challenging groups will fail. It will fail because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to fail, and the job of SLT is to make sure that none of those ways to fail gets a look in. Senior leaders not only need to set noble aims, but to devise a coherent strategy, then ensure it is implemented with vigilance and discipline. If not, the ‘implementation’ question from Ofsted will become an albatross around our necks.

And no amount of good intentions is going to stop that.

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Literacy Leadership 1: Vision and Mission

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What Are Your Intentions?

Recently, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, gave a speech in which she outlined Ofsted’s new approach to inspecting schools. One of the key changes is a new heading, ‘Quality of Education’, which will encompass teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum.

Her explanation of how these will be evaluated by Ofsted is worth quoting directly:

“Under quality of education, we intend to look at three distinct aspects. First the intent – what is it that schools want for all their children? Then the implementation – how is teaching and assessment fulfilling the intent? Finally, the impact – that is the results and wider outcomes that children achieve and the destinations that they go on to.”

Intent is a very interesting question, not least because what we say we will do, and what we actually do, are often quite different. Virtually every school has a mission statement that talks about equipping students to be academically successful and to make positive contributions to society. The reality is that in many schools, a section of the student population will be neither challenged nor equipped to become participating members of society. This doesn’t usually happen as a result of deliberate choices by school leaders, but rather, these children are caught between multiple competing agendas. (Ironically enough, some of these agendas are focused on how to surive an Ofsted inspection.) Unless our statement of mission is accompanied by a detailed, practical roadmap, the complexities of school life will almost certainly frustrate our efforts.

The question that Amanda Spielman asks resonates because of its scope. It is not asking about the school’s goals for some of its students, but for all of them. And this, I suspect, is not a question that all school leaders have faced in the past. For example, we know that a large proportion of students leave school with minimal literacy skills – see this DfE report from 2015 that admitted that 17% of 15-year-olds had skills below Level 1 of the OECD’s international literacy assessment. It’s the tendency for schools to see such failure levels as acceptable, even for a skill as fundamental as reading, that is challenged by the question of intent.

Our response to the question, “What is our intention for all our students?’ should, one would hope, include the notion that they should all be proficient in literacy and numeracy skills. Schools have not really had to answer such a question about all of their students before. As long as a reasonable proportion of students succeeded in final assessments, those who failed were simply accepted as a collateral damage: evidence that the exam system had rigour. But now that the focus is shifting away from exams alone, it is almost inevitable that schools will be scrutinised for how they have managed those students who were previously simply exam fodder.

Bill Rogers, the Australian author who has written so helpfully about behaviour management, posits that in classrooms there are ‘stated rules’ (the ones we have on a poster by the door) and the ‘real rules’ (what is actually noticed and enforced on a day-to-day basis). Students will very quickly adapt their behaviour to what they perceive as the ‘real rules’. For example, if I display rules saying that “At Hogwarts Academy we arrive on time to lessons”, and then take no action when students arrive late, students will quickly learn that the ‘real rules’ allow for a lack of punctuality. This is why behaviour standards can vary so widely from class to class, despite the best efforts of school leaders to devise homogeneous systems that apply across all parts of the school. The consistency has to happen with all staff in every lesson.

The same principle applies to schools whose stated mission is that all students will succeed academically, or leave school equipped with the skills for lifelong learning. Unless the school leaders and staff are equipped with the skills to recognise and solve reading problems, the ‘real rules’ of the organisation will prevail, namely, that some students are treated as if they are beyond help, and for whom, therefore, the school’s mission statement cannot apply.

This position may have been tenable in the past, but now, for two reasons, it is no longer so. The first reason is that Ofsted’s question about intent is followed by questions about implementation and impact. If our mission does not translate into commensurate outcomes, something is wrong with either our mission or our implementation. The second reason is that, for many years, assumptions (such as, for example, that some children are inherently unable to learn to read) have prevailed in the education community. Increasingly, the data is accumulating to demonstrate that this is simply not the case. If we change the way that we deal with these students, we can see remarkable gains.

All of which leaves us with some soul-searching to do. What do we really want for all our children? If schools spend more time pondering this question, and less time trying to elicit the data required to survive the next inspection hurdle, that can only be a good thing.

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7 ways to help the bottom third

It’s the time of year when we farewell Year 11 students, with a mixture of relief, anticipation, and sometimes a tinge of regret. For some, the promise of what they will do with their lives is so beautiful it almost intoxicating. For others, not so much: those students who strove, who struggled, who despaired, and sometimes gave up; the ones whom we instinctively feel should have done better, but we know are likely to end up with grades at 3 or even below. And it‘s at this time that we most wonder – could we have done something different?

There are many potential reasons why students struggle. The learning that is being assessed at GCSE has accumulated over the years of the education, both inside and outside school walls. Skills that bear a single name – like ‘essay writing’ – are in fact are a composite of many different skills, which are themselves likewise a combination of more basic skills. Achievement comes from acquiring knowledge, then practising its application to mastery, then combining it with other knowledge, ad infinitum.

Often the reasons for failure or slow progress are hidden below the surface. It is not the presenting weakness that is the problem, but fractures in the layers of learning that lie beneath – layers that we assume students have, but in reality are incomplete or even absent. And beneath all this lies the murky stratum of how well they can actually read.

Here are seven things that get in the way of effective help for students in the bottom third. Fortunately, they are all things that we can change:

1 Assumptions rather than objective data

We assume that the student has problems which will prevent them from learning. We sometimes call this making a professional judgement, but it is more accurately speaking pre-judgement.

2 Misattribution

We ‘diagnose’ students as having problems or disabilities which prevent them learning. We do this through the use of inadequate data, preconceptions about what low test scores actually mean, or a disability mindset where we are looking for a label to apply to the child.

3 Misunderstanding the role of motivation

We attempt to build motivation in order to promote achievement, instead of ensuring success in order to build motivation.

4 Ineffective intervention

The two main problems here are either weak programmes, whose design can only ever have limited impact, or weak execution. In both cases student achievement and motivation can actually decline rather than improve.

5 Over-intervention

Sometimes students deemed to be ‘at risk’ have their subject choices and/or time in class reduced so that they can attend more intervention. Although this might appeal to frustrated classroom teachers, heads of subject and the senior managers responsible for GCSE grades, it is rarely profitable – and the students themselves miss out on vital learning.

6 Low expectations

Students who arrived at secondary school with low baseline scores – for example, for KS2 SATS or CATS testing, are usually allocated a place in the ‘bottom sets’. Setting can have a major effect, not just on students’ self-perceptions, but on what their teachers expect of them, and therefore what they attempt to teach. Add to this the problems caused when poor behaviour is a criterion for allocation to the bottom set, and we have an invisible but very firm ceiling through which students are unlikely to rise.

7 Insufficiently detailed assessment.

Almost always overlooked, and yet it is the first step to actually solving students’ learning difficulties.

To see how these apply, let’s take an example. Suppose I note that a student only makes superficial references to a character. Inferences – even fairly obvious ones – are overlooked. The student may repeat some phrases we have discussed in class, either orally or in writing, but on probing they show little or no understanding. I might decide that the student has a disability that means that they cannot learn this material, but I choose to look instead at what they know and how I’m teaching it.

What to do? I could do some inference training, or work on comprehension strategies. But could the problem be deeper? What is the student’s vocabulary like? I may be explaining in terms that other students understand, but what if this student doesn’t know some of those terms? What if the student seemed to acquire them in class, but didn’t remember later? Was there enough practice for every student?

And of course limited comprehension could be related to gaps in background knowledge. This is often apparent in students who have arrived from a different culture, even if their language skills are good. But it can also be an issue for students who have not had the opportunities to develop such knowledge. One reason for this can be limited life experience. Another possibility is that they have limited reading experience: they simply haven’t encountered enough print to grow their repertoire of more formal, precise vocabulary.

So we need to drill deeper still into these layers of learning. Just how well can the student read? The school may have some reading data, but in many cases this data is only taken on arrival in Year 7 and not followed up thereafter. There may be other tracking data – most commonly, schools seem to rely on the STAR test associated with Accelerated Reader. While AR may provide pages of reports to show Ousted, practising teachers often find that the scores tend to bounce around and are unhelpful for analysing individual progress.

Even if we take a good standardised test, like the New Group Reading Test, this one score cannot be relied upon as definitive. Not only are there confidence intervals, but with low motivation it is possible for quite able students to appear as if they are in need of help. Running a second standardised test on students who score in the bottom third nearly always yields a number of students – sometimes up to half – whose scores significantly improve. Standardised tests can help to weed out those whose low performance is due to motivation, not a reading problem. (Which is still very useful information.)

While standardised tests may help us to sort students into groups, they do not tell us what we need to actually teach those students. Two students might get an identical score but have quite different gaps in vocabulary, background knowledge and decoding skills. To identify these gaps, we need to engage in ‘fine-grain’ assessment – a level of analysis that is not common in the secondary school curriculum.

For example, we might analyse their oral reading by tracking every error in a passage of reading; we might use word lists to look at their whole word decoding; or we might complete a detailed sound-spelling assessment that identifies exactly where their gaps in decoding are.

Once we have completed this fine-grain assessment, we are in a position to precisely identify the gaps in the student’s learning, which makes addressing them much more efficient. It’s only at this point that we can confidently begin to plan how we will help this student to catch up to where he or she should be.

This is one of the main barriers to changing the trajectories of students in the bottom third – we don’t assess them closely enough. And of course, the classroom teacher rarely has the time or opportunity for such a task – it is a role that requires training and comprehensive assessment tools. But it has to be done if we are serious about helping these students to make the progress that they should.

If you would like to read more about helping these students in lessons, see this post: Six ways to help struggling readers in the secondary classroom. For more detailed discussion on screening, assessment and intervention see our book (below).

If you’d like to talk about screening and assessment systems to help pinpoint why some students are having difficulty, we offer a one-day consultation with school leaders and a two-day workshop on fine-grain assessment of reading skills.

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