Taking time out of lessons is a high-cost investment which must yield results
Time is not just precious: it is finite. For students at secondary school, they have five years: for most, this means there are 190 days of five lessons, which works out at 950 lessons per year. Some of these will be interrupted or cancelled for other activities. Some may be disrupted by poor student behaviour. Some may be minimally helpful because they are covered when the regular teacher is not available. Most of these lessons will require a good level of reading; some may address reading comprehension; very few, if any, will do anything to improve reading accuracy.
Meanwhile the student who struggles with reading is travelling at the same inexorable pace as their peers towards final exams, qualifications and being spat out at the end of their education with little to show for it. For them, the outlook is bleak. The light at the end of the tunnel for most students is an oncoming train for those who haven’t mastered reading.
Our aim is to ensure that isn’t the end result. To do this, we need to withdraw students for very focused teaching that will enable them to catch up rapidly. In doing so, of course, the student is likely to fall behind in the subject that they are missing. We call this ‘curriculum conflict’: the student cannot access the curriculum properly because they have trouble reading; if they are removed from lessons for extra help, they can fall behind in class.
Part of the answer is to ensure that the time out of each subject is minimised and that all of that time is so effectively used that they catch up as quickly as possible. That is why the Thinking Reading lesson packs so much into 30 minutes. We also withdraw students from a range of subjects so that they miss no more than half an hour of any subject per week. This makes it easier for them to keep up with classwork and homework, because they are never absent for a whole lesson.
But the real key is careful assessment. Too often the students who receive intervention in schools are those for whom there is a ‘squeaky wheel’: a parent or a teacher who insists that the student is given access to additional resources. The problem with this ‘referral’ approach is that it can miss the big picture. Our first step is to screen all students with a general survey-level test, and then follow up the lower scorers with one-to-one, read-aloud assessments. These allow us to observe their test behaviour and motivation. We frequently find that some students who appeared to have major reading needs were simply not trying very hard. Allocating resources to these students can delay others with genuine needs from accessing help.
Secondly, we assess in fine detail to ensure that we do not spend time teaching students things that they already know. This careful checking at the beginning saves a great deal of time later, and avoids unnecessary and wasted effort. Because progress is so rapid, it also means that we can teach more students within the time that we have.
One example is Emmanuel, who was reading at six year level halfway through Year 10. He progressed to reading at a 15-year level in just 11 months, and two years later he began studying at a Russell Group university. Just this week I met a girl who had moved from avoiding reading through frustration, to being fascinated with some of the new vocabulary she was learning in Thinking Reading lessons: ‘squabbling’ and ‘foraging’ were her favourites. She has already used these words in her classwork and is determined to find other opportunities! Not only has she improved her reading, she has developed a love of language. Soon she will have graduated from the programme and will be back in lessons with a new attitude and a new-found confidence.
Time out of lessons doesn’t have to mean that students fall behind. With careful assessment and systematic teaching, it can transform their experience of classroom learning.
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