Author: James Murphy

How to find out what works in ‘What Works?’

Choosing an effective intervention may not be as difficult as you think. For school leaders looking for evidence on the effectiveness of literacy interventions, the go-to source is Professor Greg Brooks’ What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? Published by the SpLD-Dyslexia Trust, this work compiles the available evidence on currently available interventions in reading, spelling and writing. Greg Brooks invites submissions, evaluates the data and collates the information into a form that enables reasonable comparisons to be made. Pre-dating the EEF’s “Toolkit”, and much more precisely described, What Works is now in its fifth edition. This blog post is prompted, however, by conversations with pressed senior leaders and SENDCOs who find that the sheer wealth of information seems too much to wade through. This is a step-by-step guide for secondary school leaders to simplify what may seem like a daunting process. Step 1: Identify the relevant age group The report is split up into sections covering primary, Key Stage 3 and above, and young adults. Step 2: Identify the relevant learning …

Choosing an Intervention: Who Does It Help?

To know if an intervention is effective, we need to know who it helps most.  Schools are rightly making more of an effort to evaluate the evidence for interventions before investing in them. This is a good thing, not least because poor interventions waste students’ time, the most finite but least appreciated commodity in the education system. However, such evaluation requires looking past the headline averages. Let’s say an intervention is reported as enabling students to make 24 months’ progress in a few weeks. Unless we know the characteristics of these students, we really can’t tell if this intervention is likely to be of benefit to the pupils about whom we are concerned. There are two main questions to address: how were students selected for the intervention, and how far behind expectations were they to begin with? Question 1: How were students selected for the intervention? Was it just a one-shot test? The fact that a standardised test has been used does not automatically mean that the student’s score is a true indication of their performance. …

Seven ways to increase a student’s chances of exclusion

Our actions can have serious, if unintended, consequences for students.  No doubt we would all be appalled by the suggestion that we might be contributing to a student’s chances of being excluded. But the reality is that there are many practices, culturally and systematically embedded in schools, that ensure some students are at much higher risk than they need to be. For the purposes of illustration, here is a short ‘guide’ on how to make a student much more likely to be excluded. Get them off to a bad start in reading. Nothing has more impact on a student’s education than reading, so make sure that those who come to school disadvantaged stay that way. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have a significantly smaller oral vocabulary than their more well-off peers. Unless this is addressed systematically, such students will fall further and further behind. Not only that, but their more limited exposure to language means that they have less opportunity to intuit the written code. To make them feel like reading isn’t for them, …

Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

How we treat reading problems in the classroom affects student outcomes – and our stress. There is often an expectation at secondary school that if students haven’t learned to read well by the time they begin Year 7, it’s probably indicative of a lack of ability.  This may be related to a hangover from the 11+ exam, or it may simply be prejudice. It’s certainly not based on anything factual. There is plenty of evidence – some of it on this blog and on our website – that students can catch up remarkably quickly when given explicit, systematic teaching. However, this sort of teaching is closely targeted, has most impact in a one-to-one format, and doesn’t always fit into the organisation of the general secondary classroom. So what do we do about helping struggling readers to cope, and even improve, while grappling with the regular curriculum? Here are six suggestions: Know who they are It might sound trivial, but it’s not. This UK study found, for example, that only half the poor readers in the …

New Horizons for Struggling Readers at Secondary School

Addressing serious reading problems creates new horizons for students – and schools. One of the most stubborn problems for school leaders is that of students who could perform much better than they do, but for whom reading is a barrier to achievement. Such students can  be easily misunderstood, labelled as incapable, troublesome or disabled, and leave school with little if any benefit from eleven or more years of schooling. In addition to difficulties of curriculum access, poor reading also hinders the acquisition of knowledge, affects self-esteem and mental health, and undermines confidence. It is often associated with disruptive behaviour and disengagement. The effects of poor reading are pervasive and lifelong, contributing to a higher risk of unemployment, low income, ill health and shorter life expectancy. If schools exist for anything, shouldn’t they exist to eliminate illiteracy? Conversely, successfully addressing serious reading difficulties has the potential to positively influence the factors above, such as behaviour, self-esteem, confidence, and mental health. In turn, progress in these areas contributes to a more positive school culture. Put that alongside …

Beware the Reading Traps

Avoid the pitfalls lying in wait for school leaders seeking help for struggling readers. If we can read, we tend to assume that reading is easy. In a large organisation like a secondary school, those who struggle to read can be overlooked, misunderstood, or not supported as they need to be. If you’re responsible for deciding on what interventions to use for reading, and how to monitor their impact, beware these traps! Trap 1 Assume that the purpose of the intervention is to compensate for a lack of ability, or to shield the student from the consequences of a lack of ability. The vast majority of reading problems can be resolved through effective teaching. Implication: Students should not be in reading interventions forever, or even long-term. Trap 2 Expect slow progress from students in reading interventions. This idea is based on the faulty assumption that poor reading equates to poor intelligence. It doesn’t. Students can make dramatic gains if taught effectively. One component of such teaching is to actively counter damaging labels that have reduced …

A Heart for School Improvement

What one issue lies at the heart of school improvement? You are reviewing your school improvement plan, weighing up what to prioritise, what to focus on, thinking about whole staff vision, professional development, and of course how to prioritise resources. Tick off the list. Behaviour. Mental health. Wellbeing. New, harder GCSE specifications. A more knowledge-based curriculum. The ‘long tail of underachievement’. What theme runs through all of these? Better reading. Is there a link between poor reading and poor behaviour? We know that poor reading leads to poorer behaviour outcomes. Hempenstall (2013) summarises relevant research : A few studies have evaluated whether poor reading performance negatively impacts ‘distal’ feelings and behaviours that are not specific to reading activities. In these studies, poor readers have been reported to be more likely to act out or be aggressive (e.g., Morgan, Farkas, & Wu, 2009; Trzesniewski, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor, & Maughan, 2006), distractible and inattentive (Goldston et al., 2007; Morgan, Farkas, Tufis, & Sperling, 2008), and anxious and depressed (Arnold et al., 2005; Carroll, Maughan, Goodman, & Meltzer, 2005). …