Author: Dianne Murphy

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 …

Are grammar schools the best way to address social mobility?

You may think that providing disadvantaged children with the opportunity to attend a grammar school – supposedly resulting in a more academic education – would go some way to addressing that disadvantage, but it isn’t. It’s a diversion from a much more important solution. Once upon a time, I believed that grammars could be an effective way of addressing the problem – but having read contributions from both sides in the debate, have changed my mind. One reason is the impact on neighbouring schools. Having their highest achieving students ‘creamed off’ will just make it harder for schools to raise aspirations and attainment for the rest. The second reason is that, contrary to the government’s recent claims, low numbers of disadvantaged children succeed in getting into grammar schools. As Dr Rebecca Allen points out in ‘Ordinary working families’ won’t get access to grammar school – and government data confirms as much, genuinely disadvantaged children are seriously under-represented in selective schools. Students from wealthier backgrounds are far more likely to attend such schools. There are significant …

The Loneliness of the Literacy Coordinator

Actually, most of the literacy co-ordinators I know are sensible, well-adjusted and have lots of friends! But there are some things about the role that make it much more challenging than it appears to an onlooker. For one thing, literacy co-ordinators often have a very wide brief. They are often (but not always) meant to ensure that every class in every subject helps to build student’s reading and writing skills. Even with the most willing staff, this job is too much for one person with a teaching load. Inevitably, literacy co-ordinators have to choose which curriculum areas and year groups they prioritise. Another challenge is to navigate the many possible options for initiatives and interventions. Should the focus be on building a reading culture? On increasing reading mileage? On developing inference, contextual knowledge, response to text or decoding? Or ensuring that students encounter challenging texts in classrooms? Or building subject-specific vocabulary, or more generic, expressive vocabulary? What about extended writing? And how do we make sure that teachers are marking for literacy, and giving feedback? …

Struggling readers in the secondary English classroom

“They just can’t access the texts.” This is one of the most frequent comments we hear when we train in schools or take workshops. All over the country, students with the potential to do better are held back because of weak reading skills. Often these students are articulate in conversation and have good listening comprehension. Sometimes they can decode accurately, but have little clear idea of the content that they have just read. Sometimes they have limited vocabulary and, even if they can decode the words on the page, they still cannot grasp the meaning of the text. Such problems have been even more acute for teachers and students since the reading demands of GCSE have become more challenging. The old paradigm of labelling such children as having a ‘specific learning difficulty’ won’t do. Naming a problem is not the same as providing a solution. There is sound research evidence to show that with systematic, explicit and carefully monitored instruction, all the problems described above can be ameliorated, if not eliminated. We have put together …