Author: Dianne Murphy

Speed Wobbles

Teachers of any subject will be familiar with the student who struggles to work their way through a text. These students find difficulty completing classwork, because they often have trouble extracting information from reading material. It’s difficult to help such students with their reading when trying to teach subject content to the whole class. As David Didau pointed out in his recent webinar Five Things Every Teacher Needs to Know About Reading earlier this month, dysfluent reading limits comprehension because of the extra load it imposes on working memory. Slow and laborious reading impacts comprehension, as Jan Hasbrouck explains in the short video clip below. Without fluency, it takes enormous effort to slog through to the end of the paragraph, and by the time the student finally gets there, they can’t remember what they read at the beginning.  In this scenario, any hope of good comprehension is lost. The obvious answer is to develop fluency. If children are fluent readers, they will understand the material better, have more working memory available to think about it, …

When ‘near enough’ is not good enough

There is a tremendous amount of potential in education research. Sadly, this potential is largely untapped because teachers are not taught this material systematically. As a result, they have to find it out for themselves – if they do at all. However, just knowing about the research is not enough. To make those research findings pay off in children’s lives, we need to be really good at implementation: knowing about which elements of any given setting need to be aligned, and then ensuring that they do align. A good example is the ground-breaking study by Vellutino and colleagues from 1996. David Kilpatrick references this study in the inaugural Reading League Journal, and we also mention it in our book. Briefly, this study showed that, with systematic, explicit instruction by highly trained staff, the number of students with reading difficulties in a US school district could be reduced by 95% in 25 weeks. Kilpatrick’s point is that, despite the inspiration and hope that these findings offered, the results were not duplicated in many of the schools …

Sympathy is no substitute for effective teaching

Why being sympathetic doesn’t cut it as a reading teacher The first rule of effective teaching of reading is: they don’t need our sympathy. Quite the reverse. An attitude of sympathy for ‘poor Johnny’ or ‘poor Jemima’ makes them feel like a lesser person. It cements the messages of failure that they’ve internalised over years at school. Poor Johnny.  He just can’t. . .  He doesn’t need us to feel sorry for him. He needs us to teach him those basic skills, that no one else has managed. Secondly, sympathy doesn’t change the situation. It’s a substitute for effective action. It means that we’re prepared to accept the status quo and satisfied with feeling sorry for the student. After all, if the teaching is effective and the student is learning, there isn’t any reason for us to feel sorry for them. This is NOT to say that empathy doesn’t matter. It’s important to understand how students feel about school, about learning, about reading, about themselves. But that is quite a different thing from feeling sorry …

The Re-Education of Alison Rounce

We have been privileged to have the enormously talented Alison Rounce (@ali_rounce) working with us in the north-east of England. We asked her to write about her journey, and this is the result: Making a career change when you absolutely love your job . . . was not a headline I came across when exploring career options away from the classroom. I wasn’t ticking many of the career change boxes. Feeling unfulfilled? No. Hate getting up for work in the mornings? Nope. Wishing the minutes away until home time? Not that either. I am one (of so many of us) that finds teenagers a joy: vital, raw, challenging. Being trusted with their education is a privilege beyond measure. Yet, as my children started their education, I started to think of my job quite differently. I became far more conscious of how precious children’s time is. Far more conscious of the importance of every decision we make for them, now and in the long term. I started to question my own classroom practice and discovered the …

From novice to expert: seven signs your school is dealing with reading effectively

The focus is changing! It’s exciting to see the shift in attitude and intent towards teaching struggling readers at secondary school. When we started blogging on this subject six years ago (Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools? – 25 January 2014), it would be fair to say that in secondary schools and on social media, this was a topic of little interest to all but a few. The prevailing attitude was about compensating for reading difficulties and having lowered expectations, rather than teaching effectively to overcome these completely. In many cases, we encountered a complete denial of the scope of the problem (Addicted to Denial? – 6 February 2016). Where once this was seen as an area firmly in the province of SEN (The natural home for reading interventions (and it’s not SEN) – 28 June 2015), now many English Departments are grasping the nettle and taking responsibility (Te Wero – The Challenge – 28 June 2015). And thankfully, there is now an increasing acknowledgement that this is an area that calls …

A Valentine’s Day Letter – You Have Broken My Heart . . .

Dear Education We’ve had a long relationship and one that I, at least, was deeply committed to. We both cared deeply about helping every child to become literate – at least I thought you did too. But lately I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this relationship isn’t working. Let me explain. The passion turned out to be superficial I heard a lot about passion, and how important it was to changing the lives of the children who needed the most help. But your sense of urgency keeps evaporating when it comes to making a real commitment. These children are still leaving school not being able to read properly. Maybe your passion was real at the time, but the lack of follow-through troubles me. You’re short-term, I’m long-term After a while I’ve realised that, for you, just doing ‘something about literacy’ seems to be sufficient. You want ‘quick wins’, but for me the best response to such problems is hard work and a long-term commitment. I guess I’m getting tired …

Allies and Friends

It takes a movement to conquer illiteracy. It was a tough decision.  Would I stay in my school, with my programme and my team, and enjoy seeing students succeed where they had previously failed? Or would I take the leap, strike out on my own to develop the programme and so enable many more children to leave school reading well? When I did make the leap, it proved to be even harder than I expected. First of all it required building an organisation from scratch, which is no mean feat.  Secondly, I quickly found that while many people sympathise with the cause of improving reading, few are willing to be its champions. I can say with some confidence that if it wasn’t for the support of allies and friends, I wouldn’t have made it this far. This post is about how important they are, and why they  too are worthy of support. We had our first breakthrough with Teach First: we applied for the 2015 Innovation Award and were one of the five winners. There are …

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

Good systems need good people to deliver them. To have real impact, an intervention must have two things: an effective programme, and an effective teacher. No matter how good the programme is, its power to effect positive change will be aided or hindered by the person who is delivering it. Having trained numerous teams to deliver Thinking Reading, I have distilled a list of key qualities that teaching staff need to become ‘highly effective’ practitioners. I thought it might make interesting reading for others – it’s not a job description, just my observations on what makes the biggest difference. Here is my list: 1. Teachable As fluent readers, we can be blasé about the difficulty of teaching reading to older struggling readers because it is something that we learnt to do (often very easily) so many years ago, that it is a skill that we now perform with automaticity (fluently). We need to have a thorough knowledge-base so that we can teach systematically and not create any confusion. Thankfully, there is so much sound research that …

Reading Crisis? What Crisis?

The reading problem in our secondary schools is serious but solvable. I have long been pleased that the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, is a fan of the knowledge curriculum and a promoter of effective early reading instruction through systematic synthetic phonics, informed by the use of the Phonics Check – so I was looking forward to hearing him speak yesterday at researchED 2017 in Stratford. The introduction of the Phonics Check is important: not as it is often wilfully mis-described, but as a check on the impact of our ‘teaching’ (not the teacher, and certainly not the child). The Check enables us to change the teaching, should we need to. However, until we have uniformity in the effective teaching of early reading, we will continue to see children arrive at secondary school reading well behind. While some schools have adopted effective early reading practices, there is evidence that some schools still use a ‘mixed methods’ approach (with a sprinkling of phonics), or teach using multi-cueing, with phonics as a strategy of last resort. So …

I tried that and it didn’t work . . .

Education has a reputation for being subject to fads, where new ideas are adopted and then dropped. It seems to me that this is not so much because teachers are lazy, but because we are so enthusiastic, and always eager for new ways to help our students. Approaches that we think ‘work’, we keep in our arsenal, while we discard those that ‘don’t work’. There is always the next new thing. We had Brain Gym, VAK, and NLP. We had versions of AfL that reduced it to lolly sticks and endless ‘dialogue’ marking. More lately we’ve had grit, growth mindset, and mindfulness. We have cold calling, interleaved practice, and worked examples. These approaches range from having no evidence, to misinterpreted evidence, to quite sound evidence. Sometimes it’s our intuition, rather than the evidence, that has made an approach appealing. Responding to superficial features rather than checking the evidence for ourselves can lead to a lot of trouble later on. But there is another problem. It’s the comment in the title of this post: “I tried …