How can secondary schools ensure that all students read well?
The cost of illiteracy in the UK has been estimated at £81 billion per annum. There are, according to the National Literacy Trust, six million functionally illiterate adults in this country. A quick calculation, therefore, suggests that each one of these adults has an overall cost to the economy of £13,500 per annum.
If the role of schools is to prepare young people to be contributing, participating citizens, then for at least some of our charges we have failed. In doing so we have also damaged society. This is not to dismiss people with literacy difficulties as ‘non-contributing’: on the contrary, despite painful limitations, many of these people compensate by working harder. Some, too, are alienated. Most are held back from achieving their potential.
To demand that schools solve every problem of society is unreasonable; reading however, is something that anyone would expect all schools to address as part of their ‘core business.’
In secondary schools, there is often an expectation that reading should have been dealt with at primary school. Secondary schools also contend with multiple performance measures, and managers are constantly trying to juggle their responsibilities as teachers with those of hitting targets. The complexity of the curriculum and timetable also make it more difficult to address literacy issues directly. Reading is forced down the priority list: it may be important, but it is not seen as urgent. Behaviour and learning issues are often conflated in the hurly-burly of the classroom. As Professor Greg Brooks points out, there are few effective interventions for reading at secondary school. Should schools try to put intervention in place, the cost in time from other curriculum areas causes other problems as students fall behind in those subjects. Finally, the level of expertise required to address reading problems is often underestimated.
When we consider all these factors, it is not surprising that addressing the reading gap is such a problem in secondary schools. It is clear that the matter is important, though, given the government’s enormous investment in catch-up and pupil premium funding. But is extra money alone the answer? Ofsted research has found that many schools invest the funding in extra staffing, but struggle to quantify the impact. Being able to track both ‘cost in’ and ‘results’ for each activity or intervention is at the heart of the ‘forensic’ approach now being required of schools in accounting for funding. We therefore advocate (and offer to support schools in implementing) a model based on the following principles:
- School policies which give reading skills the highest priority.
- Screening of the whole school population to ensure that any students with significant problems are identified.
- One-to-one testing to identify whether low scores arise from decoding, comprehension, or motivational issues.
- A dedicated space with a focused and tightly organized learning environment.
- A teaching programme which enables students to make rapid and sustained progress, minimizing time out of other lessons.
- Working with students until they are reading at or above their chronological age.
- Thorough and ongoing training of tutors to ensure fidelity to the procedures and to develop expertise in problem-solving for individual students. This should include training in behaviour analysis and managing motivation.
- Annual follow-up to ensure that gains are being maintained.
- Detailed data collection from assessment through to graduation and follow-up, enabling evaluation of impact on individuals and on the school.
- Effective, regular communication with students, parents, form tutors, subject teachers, school managers and school governors.
All this, of course, is based on selecting an intervention that has an objective evidence base to support its claims for effectiveness – and on school leaders having (or developing) the expertise required to conduct such an evaluation.
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