Answering this question can prove more difficult than you might expect. Over the last fifteen years, I have developed a programme that helps secondary students with the most serious reading problems to catch up very quickly; now I work with schools to develop a cohesive whole-school literacy strategy, and train staff in close assessment and how to deliver the Thinking Reading programme. That’s simple enough. But there is always the next question: so how does the programme work?
It’s not just that there are so many elements in any given half-hour Thinking Reading lesson; there is also trying to explain that there is a rational, research-tested basis for the way they are arranged, and how each stage progresses to the next lesson. And, of course, there is the tricky business of language, so that when I say ‘precision teaching’ or ‘direct instruction’, an entirely different conversation may be happening in the other person’s head!
First of all, we start with really thorough assessment. We want to know whether the student has problems with decoding, comprehension, fluency or motivation – or some combination. We don’t try to teach them anything until we have a clear picture of their needs. This assessment process, in two parts – screening and one-to-one – often shows that students who initially showed up as having poor skills are actually doing much better than first appeared. Likewise, teachers are often surprised by some of the students who are picked up for further work, because those students had become so good at masking their reading difficulties.
Things aren’t always what they seem . . .
Approaches to teaching reading can be broadly classified into the ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics’ camps. ‘Whole language’ focuses on meaning and assumes that the code will be intuited over time. ‘Phonics’ focuses on code first and expects that, for most students, the meaning will be clear when the code is interpreted correctly. Thinking Reading is definitely NOT whole language. In fact, it exists as a response to the failure of whole language practices in primary schools to help 20 – 40% of students.
So it’s a phonics programme then? Yes, it is. There is a very comprehensive phonics assessment, and explicit teaching of grapheme-phoneme correspondences – but only those the student doesn’t know. Remember, this is a programme to help secondary students catch up quickly. We can’t waste time by teaching things they already know. But what sort of phonics is it – analytic, synthetic, or linguistic? The teaching of spellings as various ways to represent sounds means that the term ‘linguistic’ phonics is the most appropriate. We teach students to decode by ‘reading through the word’, to combine the sounds accurately and then fluently.
But what about reading for meaning? Just because we teach grapheme-sound correspondences doesn’t mean we don’t also develop students’ skills in deducing and inferring meaning. All students read passages from age-appropriate books, carefully matched to their current reading levels, and all their errors are noted and corrected with feedback.
Does that mean that you use ‘mixed methods’ and are adulterating good phonics teaching with other approaches? No, we do NOT use ‘mixed methods’. It means we do other things besides learn how to decode words – as indeed any good phonics programme will do. If there are phonics proponents who believe that making correct sounds is the end point of reading, I have yet to come across one. We ensure that every passage read is checked for understanding using a range of question types to target different elements of comprehension.
You can read for pleasure once reading is no longer painful . . .
There are two features that make this programme quite distinct from others. One is the Direct Instruction principle of ‘faultless communication’. This means being rigorous about the way in which new matter is presented, and in the way errors are corrected, so that there is no alternative interpretation to the correct one. The second is the Precision Teaching principle of fluency as a measure of mastery. Precision Teaching practitioners have discovered, over many years, fluency rates for different skills to ensure retention (remembering) and generalization (successful application to new situations). Combining DI and PT is a very powerful model – although perhaps at odds with current fashions in education. (Some of the research on these two technologies is shared in our book – Thinking Reading: what every secondary teacher needs to know about reading.)
We work hard at raising motivation, with high expectations, NO labeling, and close observation of every student in every lesson. The lesson maximises students’ opportunities to respond – 300 to 500 in every lesson – with immediate, efficient and unambiguous error correction.
So does it work then? Yes, it works. Students make rapid progress – often three months or more per half hour lesson. Importantly, we follow up every graduate to check that the progress is sustained over time, and it always is – because we teach thoroughly, systematically and to fluency.
And that is the just the overview. Which is why, when I am at a party, I take a deep breath when someone asks: so what is it that you do again . . . ?
You may also be interested in: