Latest Posts

Fluency and Comprehension – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 3)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

Fluency and Comprehension

What are your best tips for helping pupils with their fluency of reading?

There are important distinctions to be made in the way that the term ‘fluency’ is used. Commonly, especially in the US, fluency refers to smooth, expressive reading aloud, showing a clear understanding of the text.

Fluency is also used as a measure of sheer speed, whether of single words or connected prose. And finally, fluency can be used to describe automatic word recognition which allows written language to be processed at about the same speed as spoken language. This short video clip by Jan Hasbrouck outlines why this last issue is so important – namely, fluency aids comprehension.

If the goal of reading is comprehension (and it is), then fluency has an important part to play. Many reading interventions do not address this issue, or do so with insufficient rigour. For an indication of the levels of fluency required to guarantee automatic word recognition, this list by Precision Teacher exponent Rick Kubina is revealing. For example, Year 10 students should be able to read connected prose aloud at 180-200 words per minute. For silent reading, neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has found that fluent readers can process 300 words per minute.

If fluency is so important, how do we foster it?

The first step is to make sure that all students read a lot. As teachers we don’t have a lot of control over what students do at home, so it makes sense to ensure that a substantial amount of reading happens when we have them at school. We encourage schools to follow the Michaela policy of reading 800 words per lesson in every lesson. This post outlines some different ways that teachers can approach such reading that make it less daunting for struggling readers. Building the quantity of reading experience that students have will accumulate significant gains over time, including how freely and fluently they read.

The second point is that fluency building exercises do not need to be time consuming. Research on fluency teaching shows that practice should be short, daily, timed and carefully sequenced. For example, students can time each other reading lists of known words for one minute each. They can then chart their own progress and the teacher can check their charts later. The entire exercise can become a five-minute routine within the regular lesson.

It is important that teachers are familiar with every student’s reading, and to ensure that weaker readers have the opportunity to read individually to the teacher at least once per week. This will enable the teacher to know which students are likely to need more support, and to allocate them either a reading buddy who can work with them on short exercises like those above, or a trained staff member who can work in the same way.

NB: We cannot expect students to read a word fluently until they can read it accurately and reliably. Don’t put the cart before the horse!

 How do you deal with students who can read fluently (in English) but cannot explain what they read due to lack of comprehension skills (referring to higher order thinking skills)?

When students can decode words fluently, but have difficulty working out the meaning of what they have read, they fall into a group known as ‘hyperlexics’. Such students are likely to have difficulties with processing language, and this may be evident in a narrow vocabulary, difficulty in understanding and following instructions, limited expressive language and difficulty in following reasoning and argument. The extent of the difficulty should guide whether the student can helped by general classroom instruction, small group instruction or one-to-one support, for example with a speech language therapist. (Note: if you have access to a speech language therapist, foster that relationship. SLTs are the reading teacher’s best friend.)

In the general classroom, attention to explicit teaching of vocabulary (as in the previous post) and to teaching reasoning and inference are likely to be of most benefit for time cost. This post has a number of recommendations for teaching comprehensions skills in the classroom.

For small group instruction, we recommend Direct Instruction Corrective Reading: Comprehension. There is a free placement test which you can download to work out which resources to use with your target students. The programme is carefully designed to expose faulty reasoning strategies and to correct them. The teaching is designed to foster auditory memory, which is essential for language processing.

The comments above apply to proficient speakers of English. We will deal with comprehension problems in students who have English as an additional language in a separate post.

Tip: Check to ensure that your students can infer logical implications. For example, what does the statement ‘I got up at 7 o’clock’ imply about where I was before 7 o’clock?

Next up: Effective intervention

You may also be interested in:

Assessment – Bridging the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

In-class Support – Bridging the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

Seven Steps to Improving Comprehension

Pulling the Strands Together

In-class Support – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

In-class support

I am a secondary English Teacher and I feel in no way trained to teach phonics, decoding etc and wouldn’t know where to start with creating these effective lessons you talked about.

It’s important to draw a distinction between effective intervention lessons, which target precise skills and knowledge, and general classroom lessons, which are not appropriate for anything more than incidental phonics instruction. This means drawing students’ attention to the sound sequence and letter combinations which represent them.

For example: The teacher writes on the board and says: this word is ‘coup’. As we write, we underline each letter group to show which sound is represented, as in: c + oup /ku:/ and we sound this out to make it explicit. We would normally do this in conjunction with introducing the word to students’ vocabularies:

“The word ‘coup’ follows this spelling pattern because the word has come into English through French. In French it means a strike or a blow, and in English it has a more specific meaning – a sudden power grab. So, a coup in English is usually used to refer to the sudden removal of the government by another group, often the military.”

In this way, in the space of about a minute, I have covered the word’s sound, its etymology, and its English usage. However, it would not be appropriate to attempt to teach phonics systematically in the general classroom, since that requires a much larger amount of time that would reduce coverage of the regular curriculum.

Image: Minna Sundberg

 How do you support weak readers in a lesson without making them stand out to their peers or slowing down the lesson too much for others?

This blog post sets out some suggestions for setting ground rules and effective scaffolding practice that make reading safer and more social. Once trained, peers who are better at reading generally become extremely supportive of those with more difficulty.

What is the most effective classroom strategy to support weaker readers?

What strategies can classroom teachers use to improve reading?

How would you suggest we best support the students (in the classroom, in addition to the interventions they receive) who are considered well behind in their reading when reading complex novels with complex vocabulary, particularly something like Shakespeare?

Do you have any tips on how to teach the etymology or morphology or words successfully?

In the general classroom, explicit teaching of vocabulary probably has the greatest impact on the largest number of students for the time required. However, such instruction needs to be explicit, highly efficient and the items taught must recur frequently in classroom discourse, in reading and in writing for them to be successfully embedded in students’ working vocabularies.

The comments above regarding the word ‘coup’ are an example of how a word can be introduced thoroughly and efficiently. A useful mnemonic for teachers introducing vocabulary is EMU: etymology, morphology and usage.

There are whole books written about etymology. Perhaps the most useful perspective from a teacher’s point of view is to consider etymology as the biography of a word. This presents words as living, changing things – an essential for students at secondary school to grasp as they develop a more sophisticated understanding of how language works. Words only exist because people create them, so etymology is also a window into the worlds that have now vanished, leaving traces in the words we use every day. Perhaps, most importantly, for teaching students who struggle with reading, etymology explains and highlights why words look and sound as they do.

Here’s an example of introducing a new word to students:

Teacher: This word is ‘decimate’. De – ci – mate (underlining each part of the word).

Say it with me. (Teacher and students say decimate).

On your own: (Students all say decimate).

Teacher: You’ll notice the word looks a lot like decimal. That’s because both words come from a Latin word, decem, which means ten. Latin was the language spoken by the Romans. When they wanted to punish soldiers who had rebelled, they would decimate the army by lining up the soldiers and executing every tenth one. In English, we now use the term to mean a significant loss of people or resources, such as the plague decimated the population of London, or the budget cuts decimated social services in the region. But I wouldn’t say, the sugary drinks decimated my teeth, because that’s about my health, not people or services or resources.

The teacher draws students’ attention to the sound of the word, its parts, and focuses on its etymology and particularly its usage, as decimate is often overused or used incorrectly. The emphasis between these elements will vary depending on the word. Notice that in addition to the examples, we have also used a non-example to clarify how the word should and should not be employed. This explanation is perhaps a little longer than most, which is fine as long as the introduction of new words averages less than a minute each.

Such a presentation will not be enough on its own – it will need review and exemplification in the texts that are being studied, in classroom discussion, and eventually in students’ writing.

Is there somewhere I can find a comprehensive list of tier 2 words? I’m trying to incorporate into my teaching but can’t find anything.

One useful exercise is to have the subject staff to work as a team to highlight Tier 2 words in Grade 9 GCSE papers. This will generate staff buy-in and creates a subject-specific list of high utility words.

This blog post by David Didau provides a useful overview of teaching Tier 2 vocabulary and has a list that will form a good foundation.

When completing reading in each lesson, do you suggest that we should have students read out loud? Would you go through how to pronounce more challenging words before starting or as they are reading?

This blog post highlights the ground rules for getting students to read aloud. The two key principles to bear in mind are 1) that students should have subject-related reading in every lesson and 2) use a variety of reading activities that enable access. See also Chapter 4 of our book (link below).

 Following along with a ruler under the text or just listening? What is your recommendation for supporting weaker reading in whole class reading?

If you are doing close reading and analysis of a particular passage, using a ruler, and/or numbering the lines in the text, is very helpful. If you want to promote comprehension of the plot or focus on drawing useful inferences, including making tentative predictions about how the story might develop, reading aloud to the students can be very helpful. Taking turns around the classroom to read can be a chance for some to opt-out of following, and difficult for others to keep up. If using this approach, keep the amount read by each student very short, and make it unpredictable as to who will read next. However, bear in mind the ground rules above: you need to have a ‘pass’ option so that students who are anxious about reading aloud have a safety valve. Of course, some students who should read may use this as a way out, but you can always target them another way – and protecting your struggling readers from embarrassment, humiliation or bullying is much more important.

 What evidence is the best to use to motivate subject teachers outside of the English Department to embed reading in their lesson?

The GL assessment study cited in the presentation, showing a significant correlation between GCSE success and reading achievement is a good start. The strategy we discussed in the presentation, asking subject teachers to identify key Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary in Grade 9 GCSE scripts also helps to highlight the importance of teaching these terms. This post by Daniel Willingham also explains the importance of teaching background knowledge (and by implication, vocabulary) in order to build comprehension in different subjects. Ultimately, clear leadership has to be given by senior management on this issue over a sustained period of time. The reality is that people aren’t going to change their practice because a middle manager or literacy co-ordinator asked them to – they need to understand that improving literacy is a fundamental part of the school’s mission. Otherwise literacy initiatives are seen as window-dressing.

If intervention isn’t available for those at the beginning of school for reading, how can we better support children in class who are struggling to become secure with their phonemic awareness?

It’s not practical or appropriate to attempt to address such issues in the general classroom. If you have data that shows that you have students who need help to improve their phonemic awareness, use this data to make a case to your SLT. If they don’t care enough to address the problem by allocating the required resources (which are not massive) then you might want to consider moving schools. We need ethical leaders who recognise the fundamental right to literacy of every child in their care.

If reading should be embedded in all subjects, why then do some lesson observers/educationalists tend to criticise Maths lessons in which many words are used?

We need to teach vocabulary. In maths, Tier 3 vocabulary is extensive and important. This vocabulary needs to be regularly used and reviewed so that it is embedded into students’ working vocabularies.

Such teaching should be efficient. Avoid complicated, ambiguous or repetitive explanations. Explain once, clearly, then check students have understood. Clarify and move on.

Long teacher explanations are difficult to concentrate on and the longer they last the more confusing they are. Brevity is an art that needs to be rehearsed and practised.

What advice would you give, to an NQT Secondary English Teacher, going into a school in a disadvantaged area where the reading age of pupils is known for being much lower than the average?

First of all, never allow the circumstances of our students, their ethnicity, their socio-economic status, or where they live to shape your preconceptions. Some schools have cultures where low expectations of the students are deeply embedded. As a result, thecurriculum is dumbed down, poor behaviour is tolerated, and the school culture leans too much towards nurture and not enough towards challenge. We need to see every child as an individual. Our job as a teacher is to know what they need to learn, and then help them to learn it. ‘Typical’ reading scores are irrelevant to teaching actual students.

Secondly, large-scale low reading scores may be the result of other factors in addition to weak reading, including the aforementioned low expectations, disaffection, disengagement, poor test administration and poor previous teaching. Reading is not a reflection of ‘ability’; it is a reflection of how effectively they have been taught.

Third, get them to read as much as you can. You can’t control what they do outside of school, so in your lessons, get them to read often – smaller amounts at first, and gradually increasing the number of words. This blog post has further suggestions about what that looks like in the classroom.

Tip: Have your weakest readers spend a few minutes every week reading to you individually.

This post was updated 09:57 6 May 2020

Next up: Fluency and comprehension

You may also be interested in:

Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

Can Reading Problems Affect Mental Health?

Seven Ways to Increase a Student’s Chances of Exclusion

Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.


What tests should be used to identify students with reading difficulties?

The first principle is that no one test will give us all the information that we need. We recommend at least three tiers of screening to identify students in need of intervention.

In the first tier, all students in the cohort should sit a standardised test of reading, to ensure that no one ‘falls through the cracks’. At secondary school, this test needs to be normed up to at least 16 years, be suitable for administration to groups, and contain both a comprehension and decoding element. That leaves only a few tests. We usually recommend the New Group Reading Test, because of the ease of administration and its broad statistical base. Many UK schools have a licence to access the entire GL Assessment Bank, including the NGRT.

The purpose of using a standardised test is to reliably rank students against the wider population. Students in the bottom third (35thpercentile or below) should sit another standardised test, or a parallel form of the first test. Some of these students may score significantly higher on the second test. Sometimes this higher score is due to the standard error of measurement that is present in all standardised tests. More often, it is because they were simply not trying their hardest on the first administration. It is quite common for up to half the students in the bottom third to move out of that grouping on the second standardised screening test.

Students who remain in the bottom third should be assessed individually to determine whether they have difficulties with decoding, comprehension, or both – and, in some cases, to screen out those who are reading reasonably well, but gained low scores on both previous tests due to low motivation. To do this assessment rigorously and reliably requires training and practice – for example, when we work with schools, it takes two days to train a team in close assessment skills.

If I have a student who starts in Y7, with a reading age 3 or more years behind, they are tested and have a phonics and decoding problem and comprehension issues. Where should I start?

Let’s say that you’ve gone through the process described above and have a group of students with both decoding and comprehension problems, who are well behind their peers.

First of all, if these students are three years behind in reading accuracy, group intervention will be inefficient because each student will have their own individual pattern of gaps in their learning. It will be much more efficient to teach them one-to-one, on the basis of very fine-grain assessment. Secondly, start with those furthest behind as they will need longer to catch up. Thirdly, it makes logical sense to focus on decoding issues primarily (while still addressing comprehension), as many comprehension issues are often resolved once students can decipher the words on the page. If they have successfully mastered decoding, but they still have low comprehension, then assign them to a small group working on generic comprehension skills. (For example, we recommend Corrective Reading: Comprehension.) It’s also essential to share students’ assessment and intervention data with subject teachers so that they understand the importance of building subject knowledge and vocabulary in their curriculum area (because a substantial element of reading comprehension is domain-specific).

As a trainee secondary teacher, I worry about not identifying weak readers soon enough. Do you find that some weaker readers tend to cover up their lack of reading ability or use avoidance strategies? Or is it quite conspicuous when a student has a much lower reading age?

It’s not always obvious when a child has reading difficulties. We need to be very pro-active in screening children for reading difficulties, because some become adept at masking their difficulties, or avoiding tests altogether. Some students are very good decoders but have weak comprehension. When we hear them read aloud, we can easily assume that they are proficient, when in reality they have understood almost nothing of what they have read. Equally, a student may have difficulty in ‘getting the words off the printed page’, but have an excellent understanding of the discussion – and this understanding can mask the fact that they can’t read independently. Students with more obvious reading difficulties also need close assessment, so we know what to teach them. No student should ever be prevented from receiving effective support because of inadequate assessment information.

It’s worth noting, too, that many disruptive or confrontational behaviours are motivated by avoidance and escape responses. If reading makes you angry, frustrated or anxious – and often it is all three – getting thrown out of class, or at least derailing the lesson, can seem like a more attractive option. Many students who are regarded as having significant behaviour problems also have significant reading problems.

Tip: Try correlating the list of students with high behaviour points with the list of students with high literacy needs.

Further reading:

Thinking Reading: what every secondary teacher needs to know about reading – James and Dianne Murphy

The researchED Guide to Literacy – edited by James Murphy

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties – David Kilpatrick

Next up:

In-class support – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

You may also be interested in:

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (our first blogpost in 2013)

How to Save Time and Money Through Screening

Pulling the Strands Together

Building on the Evidence

Addicted to Denial?

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 writing as many others. Maths teachers have sometimes sought to argue that literacy has nothing to do with their subject, but open any GCSE maths textbook and look at the Tier 3 vocabulary that students have to be able to decode and comprehend. The bar has risen significantly for literacy over the last few years, and students with poorer literacy skills are seriously disadvantaged without effective help. Being a teacher of a specific subject means that we have to teach students the literacy skills they need to succeed in that subject. Or, to put it another way, if we use written language to teach, then we must know quite a lot about written language in order to teach effectively.

This is a fairly standard argument for what is often referred to as ‘literacy across the curriculum’. When it comes to reading intervention at secondary school, however, we still fall into the trap of thinking that this service is ‘niche’. Real secondary teachers, the sentiment goes, are specialists in their subjects. But consider: when we teach a student to read, we make every subject more accessible to them. We change the way they feel about themselves as learners. We restore their confidence. We make them more motivated to come to school and to do well. They are proud of what they have done, and they want to show their peers that they, too, are good at reading. Reading feeds into so many areas of the mind and personality that there is no sense in which it can be regarded as ‘niche’.

Rather, reading is universal. It underlies virtually all other academic skills. It fosters knowledge, motivation, creativity, empathy, resilience and a host of other skills. It is the gateway to the background knowledge that we so readily (though often incorrectly) assume that our students have. Reading builds comprehension, vocabulary and even IQ scores. Reading is therefore foundational – and as such, is the fundamental priority for schools, outranked only by the need to keep children safe.

All of which raises the question, where does reading sit in your school’s priorities?

You may also be interested in:

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

Reading is Knowledge

Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

No Excuses Left

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 that went on to use this ‘Response to Intervention’ approach. This was not because of any problem with the findings, or the intervention, but because of problems with implementation, such as employing programmes that did not teach the pertinent skills.

So, programme selection is incredibly important, and those making such decisions need to ensure that they are grounded in the knowledge of reading research to make informed decisions.  But that is just the first hurdle. If we only rely on the programme, and don’t think about the implementation in meticulous detail, we can derail our own best efforts – remembering that changing low reading in older students is significantly harder than it is with the children in the Vellutino study, who were at Grades 1 and 2. In that study, two key elements of the successful implementation were the level of training and the quality of assessment.

All the reading tutors delivering the programme had at least two years’ teaching experience. Then they undertook 30 hours of training, additional reading, bi-weekly feedback meetings and supervision by the experimenters. What does this tell us? That effective teaching of reading requires significant investment in further study, both academically and practically. Schools who are serious about having an impact on the weakest readers will commit to thorough processes for staff selection and staff preparation.

Secondly, the study required detailed assessment to select students for the intervention (and as a control group). It is vitally important to survey the whole cohort and to weed out those students who are low performers due to low motivation. (This information is particularly useful for classroom teachers, signalling to them that they can raise their expectations.) We need to identify children who have good oral language and good comprehension skills, but who are masking poor decoding skills; children who have good decoding skills but poor comprehension; and children who have poor decoding skills and poor comprehension. This ensures that funding is being allocated judiciously and that children’s time out of class is used efficiently.

There are many other factors that can make or break an implementation in any field. The key element, underlying all others, is leadership. If leaders are focused, committed and willing to attend to apparently minor details, implementation is much more likely to be successful. If the approach is ‘near enough is good enough’, we can be almost certain that the implementation will not be good enough!

You may also be interested in:

I tried that and it didn’t work . . .

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

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

What every secondary teacher needs to know about reading

Reading intervention that gets striking results

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 for them. Instead, they need us to expect the very best for them. They need us to have the highest expectations – because we are confident that our teaching is enabling them to make excellent progress. And this means that as reading teachers, we need to have the skills and knowledge to teach with precision and power.

Our students need us to persevere, to push when they’re discouraged because the mountain seems too high to scale. They need us to be confident in them and never express any doubts that they will achieve the goal. They need us to provide praise for every small step until they begin to believe in themselves: that moment when they look back and realise how far they have come.


And when the mountain has been scaled, then we can celebrate with them – their effort, their perseverance, their success! And to look with satisfaction on the new horizons open to them, because their choices in life have increased exponentially. That’s a precious, indeed priceless, gift. Don’t let sympathy take it away from you, or your students.

You may also be interested in:

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

The Re-Education of Alison Rounce

What every secondary teacher needs to know about reading

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

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 best CPD tool I have experienced in my career: Twitter.

I was learning and changing. I felt rejuvenated as a classroom teacher. I started to hunt for and churn out resources: knowledge organisers, vocabulary activities, low-stakes quizzes . . . I banged the drum for the knowledge-based curriculum and scaffolding to differentiate rather than different activities. As an English Language specialist, I was already quite comfortable with teaching syntax, morphology etc, so I gave these elements more prominence. And yet (here comes another yet . . .), and yet I knew that it still wasn’t enough. I was becoming very aware that there was a big group of young people that, even with all our best efforts to ‘support’ them, we are failing. These are the children who are struggling readers.

I started looking for answers. I was conscious of how rapidly my own children were developing the skills needed to become proficient readers and this made me more determined that there had to be a proper answer for secondary age children who haven’t fully acquired what is required for reading to learn. Then I came across James and Dianne’s book, Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know about Reading in June 2018, and I realised that what I was doing was OK (“A good start”, I think is what James said about my determined focus on vocabulary when we first met back in January 2019), but change was needed. So, during the 2018-19 academic year, I continued with my vocabulary drum, knowledge organisers etc, organised paired reading for Y7s and listened more. I listened to teenagers reading aloud. I started having conversations with them about reading through whole words rather than guessing, developing through to using morphology to work out what a complex word means. This became a regular feature of lessons and, as the children started to recognise that power of being able to apply knowledge of words, was happening on ad hoc basis as well.

Of course, this is all wonderful, heart-warming stuff but, for about 20% of young people, not anything like enough. And while I may have been riding a crest in the classroom, it was absolutely frustrating at the same time. I was realising that I had spent many years – 18 actually – as an English teacher, a Head of English, an AHT for a while, teaching children to pass exams, rather than actually solving their problems with reading. Then I answered a tweet from Thinking Reading, asking for English teachers who have also managed at middle/senior level to consult with them about a training package for trainers, and my career change began.

I spent all last academic year, continuing to beaver away at my school, while talking to James and Dianne in the background. They made me a formal offer of a position in March and waited patiently while I saw my year 13s through to their exams. Then my training began and wow, am I learning! So, what have I learned? I could go on for far more than the suggested 800 words, and feel like I’m only just scratching the surface, but here goes…

Assessment – Assessment is not mean, it is necessary. Detailed assessment of struggling readers is essential if we are going to be able to help them to learn to read. We can’t just ‘start at the beginning’ because they are not starting at the beginning and, crucially, they do not have time. The clock and curriculum wait for no one!

Expectations – You are not ‘asking too much’ when you ask a struggling reader to give you their best reading. We need their best reading to get to the crux of what they require from us, as their reading teachers. When that struggling reader cracks something that they’ve always struggled with (and they will, in EVERY lesson) they will (more than likely) forget that they ever thought you were being mean.

Teaching IS nurture – Every time we impart knowledge to a child, we nurture them and widen their opportunities. Every success is a boost to self-esteem, and a warm, ‘good’ or ‘well done’ each time is enough to keep things moving. Teaching and counselling are separate entities and need to be kept that way.

Written words are code, code that can be learned. There is no sell-by date on that. There is an end-date to school.

So here I am, five months on from having made the leap, and it feels right. I feel like I’ve joined a crusade. We are determined that every child should leave school able to read. It is wonderful and affirming seeing that determination coming to fruition in schools that we’ve trained.

This is a moral crusade. The question is: who’s coming?

You may also be interested in:

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

I Tried That and It Didn’t Work . . .

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One

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 for expertise developed through thorough training (SEND the right message – 27 June 2015).

Here are seven ways to tell if your school is on the road to addressing literacy issues seriously:

1. Accepting responsibility for addressing the problem effectively

Are school leaders thinking about how to move from just increasing the quantity of reading, and ‘developing a love of reading,’ to removing the barriers that prevent students from reading – that is, ensuring that they are able to decode text accurately? Are they on focused exam scores and league tables, or is there a deeper commitment to ensuring that every student leaves school reading well?

2. Understanding that reading is complex

This means moving from a global view of reading, as if it is a single skill, to understanding that reading is made up of many interwoven strands. This means that there are a number of different types of reading needs that will need to be addressed. Effective teachers of reading will be able to support their students in many different domains of reading, such as knowledge of the relationship between sounds and spellings, vocabulary, morphology, etymology, comprehension, and fluency.

3. Applying detailed knowledge of reading to close assessment

Students have often been allocated to interventions without sufficiently thorough assessment to know whether the intervention would actually meet their needs, or to show what to teach them. Highly effective schools know that powerful teaching is built upon detailed assessment.

4. Believing that success is possible

In the past, there has been a general expectation that older students with reading problems will make slow progress.  Effective reading intervention turns this idea on its head: students in this situation must make very rapid progress so that they catch up completely.

5. Focusing on measurable impact

Is the school moving away from a list of ‘activities’ or ‘provisions’ to actually evaluating how much progress students are making, using pre-, during, and post-intervention measures? And are these measures objective? It is not the number of interventions that matters, but whether students catch up completely.

6. Using efficient instructional procedures

If students are to make rapid progress which can be empirically measured, reading teachers and tutors need to be familiar with teaching techniques which teach more content in less time. The willingness to admit that we have new skills to learn is crucial to solving reading problems.

7. Having a knowledge of reading science versus popular beliefs

Just as everyone thinks that they are an expert on education because they have been to school, so many people assume that they know about teaching reading because they can read. This has given rise to many erroneous and frankly harmful beliefs. It has also limited expectations through the many myths and misconceptions around labels such as ‘dyslexia’. Thankfully, many schools and teachers are beginning to get to grips with the realities of reading science, and changing children’s experiences of school as a result.

Helping schools to make this transition is what we do. If you would like to know more, read our book or find out about our one-day consultation service. We will provide a comprehensive review of your literacy provision, recommendations for reducing costs while increasing impact, and an actionable plan for improving the quality and depth of literacy provision.

You may also be interested in:

Reading Intervention That Gets Striking Results

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

Beware the Reading Traps

I Tried That And It Didn’t Work . . .

Anything but the teaching . . .

Reading Intervention That Gets Striking Results

We often find ourselves answering questions about the striking results that Thinking Reading students achieve. Teachers are used to seeing modest outcomes at best from reading interventions, so responses range from surprise to scepticism. This is a short explanation that outlines ten reasons why Thinking Reading has the impact that it does.


1. Grounded in the research

Thinking Reading is grounded in principles developed through empirical research, built on detailed theoretical work and rigorously field-tested in the real world. Lesson content and instruction is based on four key approaches: Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, Precision Teaching, Linguistic Phonics and Applied Behaviour Analysis. Read more here . . .

2. Whole school strategy

We know that secondary schools are complex organisations. We work with every school’s leadership to ensure that systems, polices and culture are aligned, so that classroom practice, screening, and intervention give all students access to reading success. Read more here . . .

3. Thorough screening

We apply three tiers of screening to ensure that only students who really need intervention get it – and that students are matched to the type of intervention they need. We intentionally screen out students with low performance due to poor motivation – leaving them in receipt of intervention would be unethical and wasteful. Read more here . . .


4. Sophisticated technology

The teaching procedures in Thinking Reading lessons are refined to ensure that every item is taught clearly and learned quickly. The procedures are very specific and vary throughout the lesson depending on what knowledge is being taught. These teaching procedures are derived from the principles of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and from Precision Teaching. Read more here . . .

5. Extensive diagnostic assessment

Effective intervention requires detailed assessment. There are no shortcuts. Without such assessment we do not know what the student needs to learn, and what they already know. To find out, we use three additional layers of assessment to identify students’ starting points in sound-spelling knowledge, word reading, and reading fluency. Read more here. . .

6. Bespoke lessons

Every struggling reader has their own unique learning history. Lessons are tailored to address each individual’s specific teaching needs. Every lesson is planned based on what the student did in the previous lesson. As a result, they make rapid progress until they catch up completely. The programme is only completed when the student is reading at a level that matches their chronological age. On average, students are on the programme for six months and in that time the average gain is five years. Read more here . . .

7. No time wasted

All teaching is based on the principle of teaching more in less time. Because we assess in depth, and individualise lessons based on each learner’s profile, students do not have their time wasted being taught material they already know. Efficiency of instruction and efficiency of content selection mean that every minute of the lesson is meaningful and contributes to progress. Read more here . . .

8. Monitoring

We collect data on student progress in every phase of every lesson. This enables a swift response when a student has a learning problem – finding out about lack of progress at the post-test for an intervention is too late! Student progress data is collated in a tracking spreadsheet, so that we know every student’s average rate of progress per half-hour lesson at any given point in time. Read more here . . .

9. High-quality training

To have impact, an intervention needs 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 teacher. Our training programme is intensive, detailed, challenging and very practical. Every trainee is observed and coached, and only certificated if they are meeting our teaching standards. Read more here . . .

10.  School partnership

Committing to Thinking Reading leads to a long-term partnership, which ensures that new ways of working are embedded in the school’s ethos and systems. We provide training in the event of staff movement, leadership development, and bespoke advice to turbo-charge student progress. Two months progress per lesson is the minimum that we expect during the intervention stage of training, rising to at least three months per lesson during the partnership stage.

Investment in turning around reading failure, especially at secondary school, is an intensive business. Consider this from G Reid Lyon, one of America’s foremost reading researchers: “To be clear, while older children and adults can be taught to read, the time and expense of doing so is enormous.” Read more here . . .

Thinking Reading has been developed as a powerful, cost-effective solution to this problem. For less than the cost of setting up Accelerated Reader in the average secondary school, you can ensure that every student is reading at their chronological age in three years. You will not find a cheaper way to achieve such powerful results.

Not because of magic. Not because of snake oil. Not because of shortcuts, gaming the system, or quick wins. We achieve these results because of a carefully developed, thoroughly field-trialled, highly engineered application of empirical research.

If that sounds like the way that you want to work, get in touch.

This is an update of an earlier post entitled 10 Reasons Why Thinking Reading Gets Striking Results.

You may also be interested in:

12 qualities of an effective reading teacher

I tried that and it didn’t work . . .

Beware the Reading Traps

Addicted to Denial?

No Excuses Left


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 teach. The essays also include contributions on writing skills, spelling, vocabulary and the many myths that have subverted effective literacy education over the last five decades.

Every teacher should read the first chapter, by Professor Kathleen Rastle. In The Journey to Skilled Reading, she traces the development of the intricate cognitive processes required to become a skilled reader. She begins with oral language, progressing on to the highly systematic sound-to-spelling relationship, and goes on to consider the reader’s experience of text. This experience builds morphological knowledge, which greatly enhances comprehension and the ability to work out the meaning of new words. As readers develop even more fluency, a direct print-to-meaning (‘orthographic’) mapping is thought to develop, and these interwoven domains then benefit spoken language. This article is a condensed version of the paper Rastle completed with Castles and Nation, Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert.

The second chapter, by Dr Kerry Hempenstall, is a sobering insight into the myths and fallacies that have bedevilled education for decades. He objectively considers and dispatches the three cueing system in reading, learning styles, process training, Irlen Syndrome, and a host of other attempts to solve the reading problem by some other means than the effective teaching of reading. Again, all teachers should read this chapter to gain an appreciation of what constitutes evidence in education, and how turning to that evidence can protect us and our students from harm.

Further chapters in the book consider the assessment of literacy (Jessie Ricketts and James Murphy), how we respond when students struggle with reading (Kevin Wheldall, Robyn Wheldall, and Jennifer Buckingham), what we need to know about spelling (Rhona Stainthorp), teaching vocabulary explicitly (Alex Quigley), and the most promising approaches for teaching writing, especially for those who struggle the most (Tom Needham). The book closes with a chapter by Dianne Murphy on effective reading intervention at secondary school.

If you’re a teacher who uses language, particularly written language, to teach your students, this book is for you.

The researchED Guide to Literacy is published by John Catt Education on behalf of researchED.

You may also be interested in:

Addicted to Denial?

It’s Not Too Late

Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?

Can reading problems affect mental health?