Methodology, Research
Comments 23

Pulling The Strands Together

What help do students struggling with reading at secondary school need?  

Jeanne Chall, the eminent reading researcher, distinguished ‘learning to read’ in the earlier years of primary education from ‘reading to learn’ for the years following (Chall, 1983). This distinction is widely accepted (Stanovich 1986, Boardman et al 2008, Hempenstall 2013) and is crucial to designing instruction for students in these later years of education. The demands of subject learning at secondary school require specific knowledge in order to facilitate comprehension, specific vocabulary to mediate domain-specific knowledge, and fluency in order to assimilate content and develop more complex academic skills.

Why addressing reading problems at secondary school is tricky

These additional demands do not make phonics any less important. Phonics – how the written code represents the spoken code of English – is an essential foundation for understanding what is on the page. The problems caused by the guessing strategies of whole language, which seek to substitute inference from context for actual decoding skills, are well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that 20% of those arriving at secondary have been failed by poor teaching and need help to catch up fast. Some of that help will involve repairing a lack of phonics knowledge; but along with that deficit, other deficits in comprehension, vocabulary and general knowledge have followed and accumulated – the so-called ‘Matthew Effect’ (Stanovich, 1986). Hempenstall (2013) states:

In a report to the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Snow (2002) noted that U.S. students are falling behind students in other comparable countries because underdeveloped basic skills limit their attainment in the challenging subject-specific demands of the secondary school curriculum.

The five strands of reading 

In one of the largest meta-analyses of reading instruction, the National Reading Panel identified five key areas that students need to become successful readers (Learning Point Associates, 2004).

Readng Rope

From Scarborough (2001)

(Note: While the visual representation above is helpful in visualising the complex elements of reading, the term ‘recognition’ for some means ‘memorisation’. Sight word memorisation is not a productive reading strategy.) 

The specific areas the NRP noted as crucial for reading instruction were phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Students should be explicitly and systematically taught:

  1. Phonemic awareness: The ability to hear and identify individual sounds in spoken words.
  2. Phonics: The relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
  3. Fluency: The capacity to read text accurately and quickly.
  4. Vocabulary: All the words students must know to communicate effectively.
  5. Comprehension: The ability to understand what has been read.

(Hempenstall, 2013)

The sixth strand

Boardman et al (2008), in their excellent overview Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief, argue that we should adjust the focus for older students:

Instructional recommendations for older readers differ only slightly from those for younger readers. They can be organized into five general areas:

  • word study;
  • fluency;
  • vocabulary;
  • comprehension; and
  • motivation.

The authors go on to explain:

Absent from this list are phonemic awareness and phonics. For most older readers, instruction in advanced word study, or decoding multisyllabic words, is a better use of time than instruction in the more foundational reading skills (such as decoding single-syllable words) which many older readers have accomplished. Of course, we recognize that older readers possess a range of knowledge and skills, and there may be older readers who would profit from instruction in the more foundational skills. Because of the increased challenge of motivating older students and the positive reading outcomes associated with attending to student motivation to read, a section on motivation is also included.

 In addition, careful, close assessment is a crucial pre-requisite to effective teaching of reading (Hempenstall, 2013; Boardman et al, 2008; Learning Point Associates, 2004).

It should be apparent that addressing accumulated reading deficits at secondary school level is challenging in itself, and more so due to the complexity of the organisational context. How can so many different needs be addressed without taking students away from their subject studies? The answer lies in the methods of teaching used, or more accurately, the assessment and instructional technologies that are applied.

How we apply the research in practice

We start with whole school screening, identifying potentially weak readers and going on to one-to-one assessment of oral reading of prose. Then we use a comprehensive Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondence assessment to identify gaps in phonics knowledge, so that we can focus on what students need. This means that we don’t waste time teaching them things that they already know.

Students choose texts to read at their level. Each has a day-by-day teaching programme which is based on a careful analysis of the language in the text. A range of comprehension question types is used to check student understanding of the text – for explicit and implicit information, reorganization of material, evaluation of the author’s purposes and articulating the student’s own reactions. Each lesson also includes word study, including morphemes, vocabulary building, and fluency practice in decoding to automaticity. The decoding process is reversed through short daily practice in writing and spelling to help generalize the skills learned (McGuiness, 2006). Student motivation is developed through naturalistic application of applied behaviour analysis principles (Alberto & Troutman, 2012).

In an important follow-up to the NRP’s 2000 report, Camilli, Vargas and Yurecko (2003) attempted a replication of the original study. They concluded that while teaching systematic phonics was still important, when combined with structured language teaching and with effective one-to-one tutoring, an effect size three times as large could be achieved.

How well does it work?

We have found that effective instruction and high expectations, combined with enthusiasm and warmth, continually produce startling results. Professor Greg Brooks noted an average increase in reading age of 5 years per student in data covering three years at a North London academy. Four schools who recently shared student progress data with us also had an average gain of 5 years per student. The average rate of progress was two months per lesson. Importantly, these gains are monitored and students maintain the progress they have made.

You can see some typical examples of the impact on individual students here.

You may also be interested in:

A Towering Issue

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap

 Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – The Matthew Effect

References: Links to all the papers referenced in this post (except Scarborough 2001) can be found on our professional reading pages.

Alberto, P.A., & Troutman, A.C. (2012) Applied Behaviour Analysis for Teachers. London: Pearson.

Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008).   Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., and Yurecko, M. (May 8, 2003). Teaching Children to Read: The fragile link between science and federal education policy. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(15). Retrieved 12 November 2014 from

Chall, J. (1983). Stages of reading development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hempenstall, K. (2013). Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components. National Institute for Direct Instruction. Updated from Hempenstall, K. (2009). Research-driven reading assessment: Drilling to the core. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 14(1), 17-52.

Learning Point Associates (2004). A Closer Look at the Five Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction: A Review of Scientifically Based Reading Research for Teachers. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.

McGuiness, D. (2004) Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading. London: MIT Press.

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford Press.

Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading: some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21 (4), 360 – 407.


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  13. I think there is a big problem with assessing primary age children as ‘readers’ and then it turns out they are not really fluent readers, constantly stumbling along, painfully, particularly with texts that have a rich vocabulary.


    • Indeed. So important to embed SSP in those early years. Difficult to unlearn ineffective guessing strategies later. Teach them right from the start and give them lots of practice.

      Liked by 1 person

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