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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!

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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.

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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?

We are looking forward to sharing thoughts from our trainer in the north-west in the next few months. In the meantime, if you are interested in working with us in the south-west or south-east, please read this post and get in touch! 

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12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

I Tried That and It Didn’t Work . . .

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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.

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Reading Intervention That Gets Striking Results

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. The students are all working at much the same level;
  2. The students are not a long way behind;
  3. The content to be taught is limited and clearly defined;
  4. The programme of teaching has been carefully designed to ensure efficient coverage and long-term retention.

Groups are NOT appropriate where:

  1. Students are a long way behind expectations;
  2. The students’ needs are disparate;
  3. Students need to work on a number of different strands of reading skills at the same time;
  4. 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 a group focused on decoding, for example, when their primary need is to improve their comprehension; or for a student in a paired reading intervention to be asked endless comprehension questions while decoding errors are not given sufficient attention.

It is essential to know how far behind the students are: not because this tells us how they should be grouped (it doesn’t), but because if students are reading significantly behind – i.e. three years or more – then they are likely to have their own individual patterns of knowledge gaps. This diversity creates too much variation in the class for the teacher to target all needs systematically. As one team of researchers put it:

“This difficulty, to find robust responses to intervention, may not be surprising in view of the atypical educational histories of older learners and the heterogeneity of their backgrounds and skill deficits.” (Calhoun, Scarborough and Miller, 2013, cited in Hempenstall, 2017.)

Diverse needs

What happens when we allocate students to group interventions when they have very different gaps in their reading knowledge? For example, Student A has difficulties with following analogies, tracking the development of the main idea, and making inferences that require thinking outside of the text. She has a small number of sound-spelling gaps and she can decode text at a level only slightly below that of her same-age peers.

Student B, on the other hand, can follow arguments, picks up analogies and inferences quickly, and has quite strong general knowledge to support his comprehension. However, ‘getting words off the page’ is difficult for him, and he can only decode text at a level about five years behind his peers – despite being quite as capable of contributing constructively to class discussions.

Clearly, these students need to be in entirely different lessons.

Let’s take another example. Student C is decoding well behind, and needs teaching and repeated practice with a large number of different sound-spelling combinations to be able to accurately read new text in his curriculum lessons. Student D, also decoding well behind, needs to learn a similar number of combinations – but 75% of these are different from Student C’s. Whose gaps should the teacher focus on teaching? If he tries to teach all the gaps for both students, he will have to teach many different sound-spelling combinations – and each student will have to sit through lessons where they are already secure with much of the content.

It is very common for students with reading difficulties to have their own unique patterns of gaps in sound-spelling knowledge. It is therefore more efficient for these students to cover the material required in one-to-one lessons than in groups – and it is only with this efficiency that students will be able to catch up completely.

Rate of catch-up

This brings us to the issue of the rate of catch-up. The average effect size for group interventions in reading is about 0.25, which is considered educationally significant. Careful assessment prior to placement, and strong attention to fidelity of delivery, can improve this, but it is too low to bring about complete catch-up for most struggling readers. Even with a well-designed group programme, for example Engelmann’s Corrective Reading Decoding, the effect size in the research comes out at around 0.5 – 0.6, which is regarded (depending on who you talk to) as substantial – equivalent to up to a year’s progress. (See, for example, Stockard et al 2018.) That is very good – but it is still not enough.

The rate described above would mean that a student who is two years behind is likely, on average, to take two years to catch up completely. That is a long time to be in intervention. But what if the student is three years behind? They will need to be in intervention for three years – assuming that the materials and lessons are available. They will either need to miss out on a large chunk of curriculum, or they will never catch up. And for students who are further behind, the gap is even harder to bridge.

So, students who are well behind (three or more years) need individualised programmes that are efficient in coverage, teaching only what the student doesn’t know, ensuring that they remember what they covered, and which catch them up at a much faster rate. Camilli, Vargas and Yurecko (2003) calculated that phonics, combined with word study and effective one-to-one tuition, was three times more powerful than phonics alone. That is why, for students who are three or more years behind, they will need one-to-one teaching.

For senior leaders deciding on how to invest resources in literacy interventions, the implications are clear:

  1. Have a screening system that enables you to match students to the most appropriate interventions;
  2. Make sure that only students who really need intervention are targeted;
  3. Offer group intervention for those who will benefit from it;
  4. Provide well-designed, high-impact one-to-one intervention for those who need it.


Calhoon, M.B., Scarborough, H.S., & Miller, B. (2013). Interventions for struggling adolescent and adult readers: instructional, learner, and situational differences. Reading and Writing, 26, 489–494. Cited in Hempenstall, K. (2017) Older Students’ Literacy Problems. Retrieved from

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., & Yurecko, M. (May 8, 2003). Teaching Children to Read: The fragile link between science and federal education policy. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(15).

Stockard, J., Wood, T., Coughlan, C., & Khoury, C. R. (2018) The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research. Review of Educational Research Month 201X, Vol. XX, No. X, pp. 1–29.

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You have to make faces at it!

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. This is why results can seem so anomalous, and why readability formulas can only be part of the final decision. Decisions about how suitable a text will be for students should also consider issues such as topic, structure, imagery, allusions and register – things that readability formulas are not well placed to assess.

3. When evaluating the readability of a text, it’s generally a good idea to exclude technical terms or proper nouns from your calculation, as these are likely to push the text into a much higher level – leaving you scratching your head as to how you can write an article on endoparasites without using the term endoparasites. The practical reality is that we will teach students proper nouns and technical terms as needed, to enable them to access the passage. Just try to avoid using a lot of different technical terms in the same article. Repetition of a few technical terms is more helpful.

4. Explain unusual vocabulary in the text if you can. For example, instead of “The president’s critics claimed it was a fraudulent election,” we could say, “Some people said that the election had been fraudulent – that the president had won by cheating.” The second example is as easy to decode as the first, but much easier to understand. It also saves the teacher the task of explaining the word fraudulent, because the text does this already.

5. Shorter sentences are generally preferable for lower levels, but as the reading levels get higher, include more complex syntax so that students get to practice thinking though chunks of language – phrases, dependent clauses, independent clauses, parentheses, etc. For example, at a lower level, I might write:

Some people want to drill for oil in the Arctic. They say there is a lot of oil under the sea. This oil could be sold for a lot of money. But others say that we should leave the Arctic alone. We would cause too much damage if we drilled there for more oil.

At a higher level, I could say:

Advocates of Arctic oil exploration claim there are huge profits to be made, but opponents say that the damage to the environment would far outweigh these profits.

6. Inference is powerful – and concise. We can say a great deal, and make students think harder, by leaving some things implied or inferred. For example, “Jenae hated going into the garage. It had been her father’s favourite place to hang out. It made her think of the good times, before the accident.” The passage is not saying anything explicit about Jenae’s relationship with her father. However, the student who is reading thoughtfully knows that it used to be good, but there’s been an accident that has either ended or changed the relationship (and we don’t know which – yet). Particularly in fiction, we want students to speculate about these issues, so that the story becomes a puzzle to solve, not just a list of events. Inference is very helpful in making students think harder about texts – though they may often need teacher prompting to get into the habit of doing so.

7. Help students to navigate non-fiction texts through headings. These form prompts that enable students to locate information more quickly, and help them to work out the main idea in a paragraph or section of an article. If I’m writing an example about grizzly bears, for example, I might organise the text under headings such as: Where grizzly bears live; When grizzly bears are born; How grizzly bears grow up; What grizzly bears eat; and so on, in order to frame the information in each section for the reader.

8. Make captions informative. We haven’t asked for images as part of the Summer Writing Challenge, but if you do include them, make sure that captions support the content of the text explicitly. A photograph of a tiger with bared teeth is better supported by a caption that says “Tigers are carnivores (meat-eaters) with sharp fangs for catching and holding prey,” supports student knowledge better than “A fierce tiger.”

9. It’s helpful to structure your story or article in sections of about 250 – 300 words. This is an ideal amount for planning lessons around a portion of text each day. It allows for a limited amount of content to be taught, and for the student to concentrate on accurate reading, rather than merely trying to plough through to the end of a long passage.

10. Don’t be afraid to address big ideas in simple language. This is one of the biggest challenges for writers of texts for older struggling readers, but it is also a challenge that others, like journalists and advertisers, deal with every day. For example, the same meaning is expressed in “The fall of the Berlin Wall constituted the advent of a new chapter in the history of Germany” and in “After the Berlin wall was taken down, many changes began to take place in Germany.” However, the latter is much more accessible for the weaker reader.

Lastly, and above all, remember: these children are not lacking in intelligence. They just need explicit teaching to help them with their reading. Simplify the language, not the content.

Of course, these guidelines aren’t useful just for our Summer Writing Challenge – they are also good guidelines to employ whenever you are writing resources, or selecting texts for your students to read.

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 further education.
  • Over recent years there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap. Given this and the rise in the gap in 2018, there is a real risk that we could be at a turning point, and that the progress made over recent years could be undone.

What to make of this? There is no doubt that the ongoing squeeze on school budgets is playing a part here, as is the ‘non-crisis’ the government faces in recruitment and retention. Both of these forces have their biggest impact in areas of high economic disadvantage, and we know that poorer pupils are, as a generalisation, much more vulnerable to the effects of weak teaching than their wealthier peers.

There is therefore a desperate need to get both school funding and teacher numbers back on track. Even if we start now, it will take years to recover from the ‘austerity’ doctrine that, after stripping away the social services in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, is now eroding the core provisions in our schools.

The report on vulnerable pupils makes three recommendations:

  1. We need an education system that develops the whole child: a system which values and incentivises skills and social and emotional competencies alongside academic attainment.
  2. We need to support and empower great teachers and leaders particularly those serving disadvantaged areas.
  3. We need better support for young people on what their options are post 16. All young people need access to clear, timely, easy to understand information about the opportunities available to them after school, as well as experience of and exposure to different routes. They need this so that they can make the right choices for their future.

It would be hard for anyone to disagree with these very broad recommendations. But we would go further. If the government is really serious about levelling the educational playing field, then we should ensure that basic skills, including reading, spelling, and maths facts, are fluent for all children by the time that they reach secondary school. This is particularly so for the most vulnerable – that is, SEN students and the persistently disadvantaged. There is every reason to think that this relatively low-cost strategy will have much more leverage than the many pots of funding that have been frittered away, with limited or no impact, over the last decade.

The other key finding from the report is that we are out of time. If we want to see the gaps continue to close at a reasonable rate, we need to act now. Otherwise, as the report suggests, ‘progress made over recent years could be undone’.

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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 to hear from you. For an application pack, please email an expression of interest to <kquirk at thinking reading dot net> Applications close at 5pm on Friday 30 August 2019.

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