The Matthew Effect
Or, how resolving reading difficulties at secondary school is different from teaching beginning reading.
Sam* was not happy at being pulled out of class. Suspicious and wary, he sat down at the computer to complete his assessment while questioning its necessity. We already had the scores for his completed sub-tests, so knew that he was a certainty for beginning a programme in the Literacy Centre. Sam completed the assessment with a flourish – by forcing the wheel of the mouse through the casing, rendering it unusable. Now I had the tricky task of ‘selling’ the intervention to him. A Year 10 student reading at the level of a six-year old. Proud, lively and engaging. A talented footballer who was also on the verge of exclusion, Sam had had help with his reading in the past; that hadn’t helped, so why would this?
Kids aren’t stupid. They can tell apart the time-wasting activities from the things that work. One thing that Sam wouldn’t tolerate was his time being wasted. It was important to demonstrate the progress that he would be able to make. Graphs are great tools – visual and transparent representations of progress. Using the charts of other students’ progress displayed on the noticeboard, I was able to point out where students had started in relation to their chronological age, their rate of progress and ultimately how they had closed the gap completely. If every graph shows the same success, it’s difficult for a student to argue that the programme won’t work for them. Sam’s truculence diminished. He became thoughtful. The first hurdle was cleared!
Now to show him the great books that he would be reading – a Year 10 student reading at a 6-year level? That’s a hard ask. Reading material at this level is not pitched at 15 year olds! I had to play this one carefully. I didn’t go straight to the books at the first level at which he would be reading. I showed him some lovely books that we had with fiction and non-fiction stories on football. He began to show more interest.
“You can be reading these books within a couple of weeks,” I explained. “First we have to get through something a little easier. But that book is only a five-day programme, and I know you’re going to pass it in five days.” Sam made his decision. He would give it a try – this could work.
And that is how his journey began – a journey of eleven, occasionally turbulent, months that took him from reading at a six-year-old level to that of a fifteen-year-old. When students graduate from Thinking Reading, we invite them to write a short comment to add to their graph and photo, which we then display. Sam wrote: “Thank you for this life-changing experience.” Sam was always bright: comprehension always came easily to him, even for the inferential questions. This autumn, he will be starting university.
Students who are reading well behind their age at secondary school usually have a complex set of problems. For a fifteen-year-old in Year 10, ten of those fifteen years have been spent failing at reading. That is two-thirds of his or her life. At this age, one lesson above all others has burned itself into the brain: I can’t learn. Once we have acquired such an idea through repeated experience, it can be very hard to erase.
This history of failure has far-reaching consequences. Students who have been labeled ‘dyslexic’ or ‘learning disabled’ often have ‘learned helplessness’ through teachers’ lowered expectations or poor teaching assistant practice. Very often, they have acquired a profound belief in their own inability. Poor reading has limited their ability to access the curriculum, so that they have performed well below the expected level for their age. This is not surprising: difficulties with reading limit the development of vocabulary, general knowledge and comprehension skills. And this complex, toxic pattern means that students become disengaged, not only with reading, but with education in general. Stanovich, quoting Marilyn Adams (page 390), tells of one student’s tearful confession that “reading affects everything you do”.
That is why reading interventions at secondary school must not only address decoding skills, but language knowledge, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation. Foundational to that, reading skills must be taught as reversible with writing and spelling: that the written alphabetic code is a visual representation of the oral code. They need to build their skills to fluency so that they are able to work at the pace required for secondary classrooms and exams. And they have minimal time to catch up. If they come out of lessons , they fall behind in subject knowledge – but if they don’t get reading help, they fall behind anyway. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards the examinations whose results, in the UK at least, will follow them for the rest of their lives.
An intervention which can deal with all this has to be efficient, have rapid impact, sustain lasting results and, above all, must enable the students to see that they are making progress. But if we are to help these students, we need to go and find them before it is too late. Accurately identifying all students, not just the obvious ones, with reading problems is the pre-requisite step to helping them.
For many students, effective literacy help at secondary school will be their only protection from a cliff with no ambulance waiting at the bottom.
* Name changed to preserve anonymity
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