Author: James Murphy

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 …

Anything but the teaching . . .

The latest issue of Best Evidence in Brief continues a long-standing trend in the business of teaching children to read: namely, to flail about looking for anything that might shore up student reading, without having to go to the bother of actually getting teachers to teach differently. The bulletin describes an intervention in 12 US primary schools with economically disadvantaged students. All had their vision tested and were issued free spectacles if they were found to need them – one pair for school, one for home, with broken pairs replaced for free. I was surprised to read that 69% of students tested needed glasses, so it was well worth investing in the screening process. Providing poor children with vision testing, and supplying glasses if indicated, is a good thing in and of itself, and to be applauded. It removes a key barrier that might otherwise impinge upon students’ ability to access reading texts. What is startling, though, is the Best Evidence in Brief claim that this approach ‘points to a new strategy for improving reading …

Does it matter if some can’t read?

Although nearly everyone would subscribe to the ideal of universal literacy, there are plenty of pragmatists in education who believe that in reality, we must accept that a certain proportion of students will leave school illiterate to some degree – that is, reading well behind the norm for their chronological age. This is the result of the bell curve, they say – and after all, the cost of addressing the problem in terms of time and money is too high. Some children just aren’t going to get there. This certainly appears to be the way that the education system has worked to date. The National Literacy Trust estimates that there are six million functionally illiterate adults in the UK – that’s about ten per cent of the adult population. These people will have difficulty in understanding the instructions on a medicine bottle, have difficulty reading even a basic newspaper and struggle – usually unsuccessfully – to complete the theory test for a driver’s licence. Within this group (about a third of them) there is a …

What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading

We haven’t posted much for the last few months because we’ve been putting our energies into a book that we hope will be helpful to secondary teachers in understanding why many of their students are struggling, and what can be done about it. Our book is called Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading. The first chapter deals with why secondary teachers need to know about reading. Although it is usually perceived as a ‘niche’ area in schools, reading actually pervades almost every area of academic learning, and indeed of life beyond school. Reading problems have downstream effects on students’ background knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary and writing. Most ‘low ability’ students are not lacking in intelligence, but in reading knowledge. Chapter Two deals with where these problems arise. How is it that so many children can complete eleven years of compulsory education and leave school functionally illiterate? You may well find the statistics in this area surprising, if not shocking. We examine common mistakes and misconceptions, and delve into the educational processes which …

Recommended Reading for Adolescent Struggling Readers: Fiction Series

There are 41 series listed below (377 books)  – hopefully something to appeal to a wide range of struggling readers! One of the great pleasures of teaching is to connect students with books, and a sound strategy for keeping them reading is to turn them on to a good series. If they like one book by an author, they’ll almost certainly want to read more in the same series. In this way we can hugely increase reading mileage without having to constantly foist books on our students. Not only that, but as their enthusiasm builds, so does their willingness to share. If they are hooked on a series, they will tell others about it. Hooked readers are the best advertising. With that in mind, we have compiled a list of authors and series – some more recent, some from a few decades back, and others from the mists of the early twentieth century – for students who need an accessible story, surprises, interesting characters and connections to other books in the same series. Lloyd Alexander Publisher’s author …

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. …