Author: James Murphy

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 …

Levelling Up – and Down

A few thoughts on writing texts for older struggling readers We’ve encouraged teachers to write stories or articles for our Summer Writing Challenge, and have been delighted at the quality of the submissions so far. To support those who are taking part, and those who teach secondary students with weak reading, here are some guidelines for writing or selecting a text for older students with reading difficulties. 1. Reading ages are only ever an approximation. Don’t focus exclusively on the score from a formula – it’s just a guideline. On the other hand, it’s always worth checking your text against one or more formulas, because it’s very easy to pitch a text too high – we often incorrectly assume how much knowledge our students have. 2. Readability formulas are tools, and like all tools, they are good for some tasks and not so good for others. It’s useful professional development to be familiar with these tools, and their strengths and limitations. Some focus on word lists, some on syllable count, some on sentence length and so on. …

The Stubborn Gap

The fight to close the disadvantage gap is far from over – but we mustn’t give up. This week sees the release of a report by the Fair Education Alliance in partnership with the Education Policy Institute. It is a ‘report card’ that gives a snapshot of the current state of UK education across early years, primary, secondary and further education, on a range of measures. The education sector can seem awash with such reports at times, but there are a number of headlines in this one to start alarm bells ringing. Here are a few of the key points raised: Poorer pupils in England are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. Disadvantage gaps are larger, and are growing, in parts of the North. The most persistently disadvantaged pupils are almost 2 years (22.6 months) behind at the end of GCSEs – and that gap has increased since 2011. Post-16 education is becoming even more segregated, driven by an over-representation of disadvantaged students in …

Help Us Make Change Happen

Things are getting busy around here. We need some help as the number of schools we are working with across the UK has doubled in the last year. Our aim is to reach every secondary school that has students who still can’t read, so we have a lot of work to do. We are looking for people to help us with training schools in the use of our programme and the principles that underpin it. It’s transformative work, inspiring and challenging. It requires a mind that can quickly see the big picture, and one that can pay attention to small but significant details. It requires quiet confidence, steely determination, kindness and discernment. If you’re interested in working with us, you need to have experience working in middle or senior leadership at secondary school, excellent communication skills, and be very organised. It goes without saying that your reading and writing skills will be superb. If this sounds like you, get in touch! We have opportunities for flexible working, with negotiable starting dates, across the UK. We’d love …

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 …