Author: James Murphy

On Reading

In recognition of Dyslexia Awareness Month, we are re-sharing this post, originally written in 2014. Unfortunately, it is as true now as it was then.  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!­ – Hamlet   Nearly two centuries ago, a group of reform-minded individuals set out to transform the lives of people on the margins of Britain. They reported on their work in a book called Moral Statistics of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1826), and this is what they said about their motivation in the introduction to that work: The mere art of reading, ought not, perhaps, in strictness, to be held as education; yet the power which this art confers, of applying to our own use the wisdom and knowledge of every age . . . . renders it alone the most effective instrument of moral improvement. Whether or not instruction in this …

How to get long-term benefit from your tutoring funding

Lockdown has undoubtedly set back many children’s education, but without doubt the most seriously affected are those who were furthest behind to begin with. Many of these students were separated from the support that they needed when schools were forced to partially close. Now, the question is how they can catch up quickly. The most important skill for accessing the curriculum is reading. Ensuring that all students read with sufficient accuracy and fluency is key to them leaving school with the benefit of a good education. Anything less makes them vulnerable throughout life, not just for their GCSEs. The government has announced a national tutoring fund, essentially re-allocating the former Year 7 catch-up fund, and this provides an ideal opportunity for schools to set up effective one-to-one reading tutoring. Unfortunately, part of the government approach has been to provide one to two weeks’ training for tutors who are then thrust into schools and will, unfortunately learn (or struggle) on the job. We have to remember that students who are furthest behind will have the most …

Teaching reading: it’s not as ‘niche’ as you think

“Teaching reading at secondary is very niche.” I’ve heard it said, in different ways, many times. It is a very common view, and it is also a mistaken one. Every teacher needs to know about reading because every student needs to read. In the ‘real world’, our students will need reading to deal with the mail, to follow the news, to sit their driver’s test, to decipher the instructions on a medicine bottle, to fill in employment forms, medical forms, tenancy agreements, mortgages, employment contracts . . . I don’t need to go on, do I? Reading is everywhere in our society. Despite early predictions, the growth of digital communication and social media has only increased the amount we are expected to read. And in school? From consulting their planner in form time, through French, science, history, geography . . . is there any subject where students don’t read? Traditionally, PE was stereotyped as the no-reading, no-writing subject. That was never quite true, but now the GCSEs in this subject require as much reading and …

The researchED Guide to Literacy

One of the many anomalies around literacy is the belief that reading, and its close companion writing, are ‘basic’ or ‘lower-order’ skills. This belief has had a number of pernicious effects. Many teachers, particularly those teaching older students, have assumed that literacy is ‘basic’ and therefore irrelevant to the ‘higher order’ skills with which they are concerned.  Because of this assumption that literacy is simple , the complexities of reading and writing have only been addressed superficially, or not at all, in teacher training. Thirdly, in the absence of good information, poor theory and damaging practice have prospered, blighting literally millions of lives. The researchED Guide to Literacy is subtitled An evidence-informed guide for teachers. The evidence concerned tells us is that literacy involves complex skills, that the benefits of literacy are immense, and that the consequences of poor literacy are pervasive, enduring and highly damaging. Reading becomes ever more important to independent learning as students progress through their education. It follows that understanding how we learn to read is essential to being able to …

Reading catch-up for older students: one-to-one or small groups?

Do secondary students need one-to-one tuition to catch up, or can they be taught in groups? The answer is, both – depending on how far behind they are. Groups can be an effective format for teaching if four conditions are met: The students are all working at much the same level; The students are not a long way behind; The content to be taught is limited and clearly defined; The programme of teaching has been carefully designed to ensure efficient coverage and long-term retention. Groups are NOT appropriate where: Students are a long way behind expectations; The students’ needs are disparate; Students need to work on a number of different strands of reading skills at the same time; Motivation is a serious issue. In other words, the question is not either/or. It is: which format is most appropriate for which students? This is why we advocate for a detailed screening programme in schools, so that students can be matched to interventions with a high degree of confidence. It is all too common to see students in …

You have to make faces at it!

  It was a hot, noisy, dusty building site. I was working on a construction project in Wellington during the university summer holidays. There was more concrete pouring due soon, and the carpenters and labourers were all busy. I was tasked with removing some long planks of boxing that had remained stuck fast when the last pour of concrete had dried. The foreman handed me a steel bar and left me to it. I tried prising the wood away, but there was no gap to gain leverage. I tried jabbing at one end a few times to see if I could get some movement. When that didn’t work I tried the same at the other end, and then the middle. After half an hour, I was sweating, my arms were aching, I was increasingly frustrated, and the wood still hadn’t moved. Clearly something was wrong here. Why had I been left to do this by myself?  This was a job for a team, surely? But there was just me, my steel bar, and the wood …

Can reading problems affect mental health?

How hard can it be? At first sight, there may seem to be little relationship between mental health and acquiring the skills to read well. In fact, the problems engendered by poor reading permeate all areas of one’s life. As the reading scientist Keith Stanovich noted: “Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. . . . The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or . . . ‘reading affects everything you do.’” Here are just some of the ways that mental health is affected by reading problems: Failure Imagine yourself doing something at which you continually fail. It might be a sport, a musical instrument, public speaking, a subject like maths, accounting, physics . . . . Now imagine being asked to perform that skill or subject five times a day, five days a week, for forty weeks a …

Three styles of problem-solving

How leaders deal with problems determines  . . . well, everything. It’s an awkward truth that some leaders feel safest in a state of crisis. In a crisis, everyone is too preoccupied with how to cope to raise awkward questions about strategy, goals and long-term decisions; and because survival is the name of the game, everything is short term. Weathering crisis after crisis also fits the narrative of being selfless and burdened by others’ stress, which makes for a certain kind of reputation. Unfortunately, such a reputation is undeserved when the very same leader is largely responsible for the stress of colleagues, because they maintain the organisation in a state of perpetual crisis.  I once worked in a school where teachers were exhausted by constantly dealing with disruptive behaviour from students. The school leaders were more comfortable with this situation than sorting out the behaviour. They argued that teachers would be under threat from angry parents if we tightened up the standards and systems. It took a year of lobbying to get the changes in …

The Implementation Trap

When Ofsted review schools under the new category of Quality of Education, the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, says that they will be looking at three areas: intention, implementation and impact. While it’s almost impossible to find a school that doesn’t proclaim laudable intentions, implementing such intentions successfully is quite another matter. Part of the difficulty is that many of our stated ambitions are aspirational: the intentions indicate a direction of travel, rather than a destination that all students will reach. One of the questions raised by the new approach to inspection is whether schools’ statements of intention are too lofty, and so the school can never meet the standards it has set itself. A second problem is that statements of intention have often been generalisations that were never expected to apply to all students. School leaders may well find that they have to be much more precise in specifying the types of outcomes they are aiming for, especially with groups who were previously at the margins of the school’s results. And then they have the …

7 ways to help the bottom third

It’s the time of year when we farewell Year 11 students, with a mixture of relief, anticipation, and sometimes a tinge of regret. For some, the promise of what they will do with their lives is so beautiful it almost intoxicating. For others, not so much: those students who strove, who struggled, who despaired, and sometimes gave up; the ones whom we instinctively feel should have done better, but we know are likely to end up with grades at 3 or even below. And it‘s at this time that we most wonder – could we have done something different? There are many potential reasons why students struggle. The learning that is being assessed at GCSE has accumulated over the years of the education, both inside and outside school walls. Skills that bear a single name – like ‘essay writing’ – are in fact are a composite of many different skills, which are themselves likewise a combination of more basic skills. Achievement comes from acquiring knowledge, then practising its application to mastery, then combining it with …