This post is intended to help teachers who are at a complete loss as to why their pupils can’t read. I’m not saying I have all the answers- what I am proposing is not a definitive solution to the problem of reading, but it outlines some of the things I wish someone had told me when I started teaching. There is a range of things you could do, of course. These are just some of the things I have learnt over the past few years that I have seen work well.
Countless secondary schools across the country are faced with this problem. It is an absolute travesty that many children start secondary school unable to read. It means they will struggle to access a KS3 curriculum, and because many secondary schools lack the time, funding and frankly, the expertise to teach children how to read, they can often slip through the net and make very limited progress in reading over 5 years. I felt compelled to write this post because I have had to spend hours and hours researching, reading and trying to understand what on earth we can do to solve this problem. It is my hope that a few secondary teachers will read this and feel empowered to do something about a problem that likely does exist in their schools.
Step 1: Assessment.
You cannot begin to teach children to read if you don’t know where they are to begin with. Lots of schools use the Accelerated Reader reading test. This is okay, but it won’t give you much of a breakdown of their ability. So you won’t know whether their strengths lie in vocabulary or comprehension, which can make it more difficult to determine what support they need. I would recommend the New Group Reading Test by GL assessment. They do an online version and it generates very easy to understand reports.
Once you have your reading age results, get all the pupils with a reading age below their chronological age to do a decoding test. I would recommend the WRAT test. It takes about 3 minutes per child (done individually) and anyone can administer it. All they have to do is read a list of words until they can’t read anymore. It’s simple.
Step 2: Placement.
The WRAT test contains instructions for converting their score into a Standardised Age Score (SAS). If they have an SAS below 80, they need to do a phonics programme. If they are between 81 and 100, they need some fluency work, and usually some support with spelling (but this may vary, depending on the child).
Step 3: Phonics.
Badger your SLT and make them invest in a good phonics programme. I would highly recommend Ruth Miskin’s Fresh Start for any pupils in year 7 with a low decode score. It could be taught to kids in higher years, but some of the resources are a bit young. I haven’t found a better programme that is more age appropriate, however, so I’d still recommend this one. They’ll need 3 sessions of 45 minutes a week. It will take about 6 – 8 months, depending on how weak they are when they start. Find the money and the time in the timetable. It’s worth it. If you or members of your school’s SLT have ideological reservations surrounding phonics, get over it. A phonics programme WILL work if it is delivered properly, and not doing it because you don’t believe in it is borderline immoral. #justsayin.
Step 4: Fluency
Lots of pupils can decode, but still read in a very stilted, awkward way, without expression or much of an understanding of emphasis, tone or intonation in reading. It is important that all children can read fluently, as it frees up space in working memory to focus on comprehension. If all you are thinking about is how to pronounce the words, you aren’t concentrating on the content.
There are lots of ways to solve this. Firstly, they need to be reading aloud often- at least once a day, if possible. A simple way to do this is to read aloud in class. At Michaela, our pupils read aloud in all subjects. I’m very lucky to work with excellent humanities, maths, science, art and French teachers who recognise the importance of reading, and will happily ask pupils to read aloud in their lessons. You could also get them into the habit of reading aloud when they read at home, but this is obviously harder to monitor.
Secondly, if you have the time, you could try to do some timed repeated reading practice with the pupils concerned. Here is a good video outlining what this looks like.
Step 5: Comprehension
There isn’t a magic bullet for this one, unfortunately. It takes a very long time to build, and the poorer kids’ comprehension is to start with, the slower it improves. But there are important points to note here. Firstly, comprehension is heavily underpinned by knowledge. A 1988 study by Rechts and Leslie tested the comprehension of weak and strong readers with the same text. They found that poor readers with a good knowledge of the content (baseball) outperformed the strong readers with poor knowledge of baseball. Read more about this here, or there’s a nice video you can watch here. So the first step is to cram them with as much knowledge as possible.
Another option is to use these resources by McGraw Hill. They are expensive, but are completely scripted and extremely well sequenced. A teaching assistant can deliver these sessions, and each one takes about 20-25 minutes. Again, time would need to be built into the day for this, as you wouldn’t want to take them out of mainstream lessons and therefore give them less access to the knowledge they need to get better at reading.
A few more points
Finally, if you have exceptionally weak readers, I would recommend getting in touch with Dianne Murphy (@thinkreadtweet), whose reading programme has enormous impact on weak readers. Definitely worth a look.
Of course, to make any of this work, reading must be a central part of the school culture. Pupils must have access to a range of texts, and must learn to love reading. Next week, I will blog about building a culture of reading in a school, and motivating pupils to read. I think these two aspects of reading are so vital that they merit their own post. The five steps above are intended to help literacy leads or English teachers who don’t know where to begin with reading, as I didn’t a few years ago. Of course, I am still no expert- far from it! I’m just passing on some of the wisdom I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon over the last few years.