In what has been called the age of managerialism and accountability, schools seem to be measured for everything: not just GCSE grades, but levels of progress, Progress 8, EBacc results, value-added, attendance, exclusions, all within a wide range of ‘context’ measures. So it seems odd that what secondary schools aren’t measured on is the most fundamental academic skill: reading.
A few months ago, we began asking via Twitter how secondary schools assessed progress in reading. Despite wide circulation through many kind retweets, our survey unfortunately gained very few responses. Of the twenty schools who did respond, it was clear that there was no consistency in the tools used, in the timing of such checks, or their regularity. This is exactly what you would expect when people are being measured for virtually everything but reading.
The lack of any governmental requirement for secondary schools to assess reading progress (both comprehension and decoding) has significant consequences. First, it seems to imply an expectation that students arrive at secondary school already able to read – despite an abundance of evidence from Key Stage 2 results that this is certainly not the case. Secondly, it means that secondary schools often don’t take responsibility for resolving these issues. The problem is seen as ‘within the child’, labels are provided to excuse the lack of progress, and targets are set lower to take account of the perceived inability. Thirdly, where interventions are in place, there is no expectation that students can or should catch up completely. The result is often a well-meaning, but half-hearted, sticking-plaster that is more gesture than solution.
It is still fairly common in the teaching profession for some to protest that ‘these students’ cannot be expected to overcome these internal barriers. However, the research has been in for some time: explicit, systematic instruction can ensure that all but a very few severely disabled students can be taught to read effectively. We have summarised some of this research here. Boardman et al (2007), for example, point out that adolescent readers need a comprehensive approach that addresses phonics, vocabulary, language structures, fluency and motivation. When we know what needs to be in place, we can no longer say that some students can be expected to fail at reading. It simply isn’t true. But until reading is given at least the same priority in evaluating schools as other measures, schools will continue to treat it as a fringe issue.
If the government did make reading a priority, how would universal screening work? Each year group would take the same standardised test in the same part of the year. The test would cover both reading accuracy and comprehension. The test would cover all year groups from Year 7 to Year 11, and new enrolments during the year could also be screened on arrival to make sure that no one fell through the cracks. The resulting data would not only show schools how much work they had to do with their students, but also highlight how much more work some schools have to deal with than others based on their Key Stage 2 intake. This in turn would allow schools, academy chains and local authorities to plan strategically to eliminate a problem that at the moment is pervasive but almost invisible. Imagine what it would do for UK education to know how many students were reading well, and how many weren’t.
Or perhaps revealing the scale of that scandal is what deters everyone from such a course, from politicians and civil servants to head teachers and teachers at the chalk face.
Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Weller, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008). Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Centre on Instruction
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