English or SEN? Does it really matter who manages the delivery of a reading intervention?
If it’s an intervention, it’s SEN – that’s the agreed wisdom. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If an intervention is required, targeting a specific set of skills, then special educational needs have been identified and these should be addressed by SEN staff. Well, I’m not so sure. Is it the case with all interventions? For example, very able children can be regarded as having special educational needs, but they are often allocated a ‘gifted and talented’ co-ordinator rather than a SENCo. While there is sometimes talk of ‘inclusive’ SEN practice encompassing both gifted and disabled learners, in practice I’ve never seen it happen. The brutal truth is, many schools still see SEN as the relegation league for ‘slow learners’.
What about GCSE interventions targeted at the C/D borderline? I’ve yet to see them being delivered by SEN. Why doesn’t that happen? Firstly, because the skills are specific to a curriculum and secondly, because the teaching staff with the relevant expertise are (theoretically at least) already in place. And thirdly, perhaps, because no Head of English worth their salt is going to entrust their English results to someone else. Which brings me to the question: why are reading interventions nearly always delivered by SEN and not English?
In the not-so-distant past, SEN registers across the country became bloated with children with spurious ‘diagnoses’. At one stage it was announced that 27% of UK school students were considered to have ‘special needs’. It was inevitable that the DfE would take action and reform the SEN sector, deliberately setting policy to focus on those with reliable, objective diagnoses. These students have conditions that impact their ability to access the curriculum and require support to enable them to do so. Such conditions are usually life-long – Down Syndrome, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blindness and deafness. (In my last post, SEND the right message, I made the case for quality training for special education practitioners to ensure effective provision for students with genuine disabilities.)
These conditions are not going to change but adaptations can be made to improve independence, learning, and quality of life. However, when it comes to reading, education has often fallen into the trap of the ‘deficit model’: the child is assumed to have a condition, and this condition means that they cannot be expected to learn or do certain things. From this perspective, compensating for a ‘disability’ becomes more important than finding adaptations to limit or overcome its effects.
This is not to say we should ignore the limitations imposed by some conditions, such as those mentioned above. That would be impossible as well as unethical. But for many low progress readers, the assignation of a label has also brought the lowering of expectations. This is particularly so when combined with assumptions about the nature of intelligence, and the false assumptions educators often make about the link between reading ability and intelligence. It goes like this: Child A is struggling with reading when others aren’t. This means Child A has a disability / processing disorder / form of dyslexia. In turn, this means that Child A will never learn to read well and expecting her to do so would be cruel because it would repeatedly expose her to failure. This would crush her self-esteem, which is already fragile because she cannot read like her peers. Therefore, in view of Child A’s disability, we should focus on building her self-esteem and make her feel valued as a person. Adaptations may be put in place – coloured overlays, large text, LSA support as reader-writer, and simplified wording of resource materials.
The outcome of this logic is that Child A does not learn to read – and no amount of sympathy is ever going to make her feel better about it. This outcome is a moral outrage, because the truth is, unless Child A had significantly subnormal intelligence, she could have been taught to read. The assumption of a deficit within the child distracted educators from the factors that were directly under their control (and therefore their responsibility): the way that the child was taught.
Some would argue that if the child does not respond to repeated interventions, the deficit is within the child (with the implication that there’s not much we can do about it). This is to ignore the obvious logic: just because interventions were repeated without impact does not mean that the child is the problem. The fact that the interventions didn’t get results is evidence that they were either not designed with sufficient power, or were not delivered with sufficient fidelity to be of use to Child A. Instead, labels (excuses) were given as explanations for why there was little or no progress. But what if there is no actual disability within the child – that this has been an entirely false perception?
This is not to say that some children don’t have more difficulty than others with reading! Of course they do. That is why interventions are required, and why they must be rigorously designed and implemented. But ‘difficulty’ is not the same thing as ‘disability’.
There is another way of dealing with the problem of reading difficulty: an instructional deficit approach. What has worked for other children has not worked for this child, so we need to provide explicit, systematic teaching that has been demonstrated to be effective by objective, replicated research. We need to organise the content carefully, carry out detailed assessment to identify known and unknown material, and teach using the most efficient methods to build accuracy, fluency and retention.
What if we put such an intervention in English, where it belongs – after all, reading is an essential part of the English curriculum? What if we use a well-designed intervention – with proven results – where the student catches up rapidly so that they have minimal time out of class? And they do catch up – totally! In a short space of time they are reading at the same level as their peers. What is the outcome for child? Knowledge. Confidence. Independence.
Such reading interventions exist, including the evidence for success. There are very few designed for adolescents, but Thinking Reading is one that does the job. More than six years of data show a typical (average) gain of two months per half hour lesson; all the students are taught until they are reading at or above their chronological age; 99% maintain or improve their gains when followed up a year later. It may be that some readers will balk at this claim but that is what the data says. The ongoing problem of poor reading is unnecessary and can be solved.
How would such a model look in a school context? I will let a Head of English describe their experience:
For us there was some organisation to do in terms of getting each year group into a classroom to sit a screening test, but that was only for the first year. After that it was just Year 7 who needed testing shortly after starting in September. Once the screening results were analysed (very quickly because the data was on computer) then individual students were tested one-to-one. Teachers were given timetables for when students would be taken from lessons, but this never amounted to more than half an hour per week for any one subject. I had to explain to some English teachers that going to a reading lesson was going to an English lesson. Once the students’ reading improved (with associated improvements in behaviour) teachers were less resistant. We started with Year 10 and worked our way down through the school. Some of the students didn’t need to go to intervention for very long; others made spectacular gains over the course of a year. I don’t think anyone needed more than about a year to fully catch up. My role was really just one of providing backup when students were trying to avoid or refuse lessons, or occasionally when a parent didn’t understand what we were trying to do. We also had strong support from SLT which was enormously important in getting the rest of the staff on board. In summary, our GCSE results improved, especially at the lower end, we had better behaviour in lessons, and the expectations of students and staff rose. After three years there weren’t any students who couldn’t read.
If you’re an English subject leader, are you satisfied that students in your school are getting the best deal when it comes to supporting their learning needs in reading? Are you willing to accept that their reading is your responsibility?
In my next post – Te Wero – The Challenge – I will explain how straightforward it is to implement a solution.
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