The challenges of teaching reading to secondary aged students; new landscapes.

BradfordCropped - Copy


This article recently featured in Nasen’s Special






The landscape

We have emerged from a few years of ‘fervent phonics’ in primary schools which promises to eradicate reading failure amongst our older learners and so contribute to  ‘narrowing the gap’ of attainment. Whilst there are mixed views about the evidence for such an approach and disagreements inevitably rumble on, teachers as ever continue with good sense and judgement to selectively and eclectically employ what works for them and their students. Most are in agreement that phonics has its place for the instructional teaching of the alphabetic code and for decoding, which generally serves us well as part of a rich and diverse curriculum of language development.

The only difference now is that we are increasingly being held to account to explain what we choose and how we know it will work and to prove how it worked for us. And quite rightly, I think we say.

In the Ofsted report, Moving English Forward 15 Mar 2012 Ofsted we were told that one in five children leave primary school unable to properly read or write and that there had been no improvement since 2008.

As many as five million British adults lack basic literacy skills and Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector told teachers: “There can be no more important subject than English.”

The more recent Ofsted report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector 2012/13 states that ‘English [and mathematics] are not taught well enough. Without a strong foundation in English [and mathematics], children and young people cannot progress to further study …’

In March 13 Schools Minister David Laws announced that  ‘fair but firm primary school floor standards’ would drive up standards and ensure that children are ‘secondary ready’; a contentious term. ‘Children must leave primary school ready for the demands of secondary school and too many of our children are leaving primary school without having secured the basics in the 3Rs. They then go on to struggle at secondary school.

David Laws, Schools Minister March 13 ‘The figures do not lie – a pupil who manages a low Level 4 by the end of primary school is unlikely to go on to achieve five good GCSEs. We must ensure that a far higher proportion of pupils are ‘secondary ready’ by the end of their primary school. This will allow them not simply to cope, but thrive, when presented with the challenges and opportunities of secondary school.’

Closing the gap between those that can and those that can’t and particularly those gaps in achievement between boys and girls and those entitled to free school meals and those who are not, has become the order of the day, so what provision is there to support us in this endeavour?

What’s evidenced?

The £50m Summer school Programme which began in 2012 is aimed at helping pupils – especially from disadvantaged backgrounds – make a successful transition from primary to secondary school.

The Pupil Premium is additional funding given to schools so that they can support their disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap between them and their peers. The Pupil Premium funding rose to £1.875 billion in 2013-14, with schools attracting £900 per disadvantaged child, with an additional payment of £53 for primary-aged pupils.

In 2014-15, the funding will rise to £2.5 billion, with £1300 for primary-aged pupils, £935 for secondary-aged pupils and £1900 for all looked after children, adopted children and children with guardians.

It should be used to introduce and fund evidence-based approaches that deliver time after time.

A summary of recent research arising from the National Literacy Trust informs us that there are a wide range of strategies that have been shown to be most successful in developing (in particular) boys’ learning

Such messages about the imperative to close the attainment gap and money being made available for schools to spend on these disadvantaged students are encouraging, but how can we ensure that the resourcing is spent wisely and that it delivers for the students for whom this may be a last chance to acquire a functional level of literacy and numeracy and access the world of work and a life of learning?

 What’s obvious?

There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a difference to student progress en masse, but increasingly there is evidence to which we should pay attention and use to our advantage when making decisions in schools about practice, pedagogy and resourcing.

Here are some ideas for sharing with colleagues to stimulate initial discussion:


  • Must identify those students who are struggling with a robust framework of assessment for learning to identify those students who need additional support.
  • Must be confident about choosing an intervention programme and be able to defend its use.
  • Must be able to explain where Pupil Premium money has been spent and for which students.
  • Must be able to demonstrate impact and progress of interventions.
  • Must ensure that curriculum time and space are provided to facilitate effective implementation of a chosen intervention. Success will not occur without whole staff commitment and an acknowledgement that it can be inconvenient for others in school at times.
  • Must provide training or CPD/JPD for staff identified as requiring it.
  • Might consider collaborating with primary colleagues or employing a primary trained colleague to develop an effective understanding of language development and effective teaching and learning strategies specifically for these students.


  • Keep informed and identify own professional training needs to ensure professional obligations are achievable.
  • Consider liaising with primary trained colleagues to help adapt known practices to the specific needs of these older students. Find out what works with them and what doesn’t.
  • Talk with colleagues in school to work as a team and in partnership schools to find out what has worked for them; collaborate.
  • Choose a resource that ticks most of the boxes for you and your students (as well as the issues listed below in terms of evidence that it will work if you use it well).
  • Use the ideas provided in purchased resource to the full; don’t compromise and resort to your comfort zone.
  • Provide regular and consistent lessons for your target students.
  • Ask your students for their views about the resource and their progress; listen.
  • Make good use of online communities such as Nasen, The National Literacy Trust, Teacher’s Development Trust, The Sutton Trust and educational publishers, to name a few,  which all provide high-quality assistance to support current knowledge, skills and judicious resource selection.
  • Work with publishers; they love to work with teachers and students to further enhance their resources and to publish case studies and student voice articles on their community websites in exchange for discounted or free resources.


  • Students do not want to be faced with materials that are clearly written for primary aged pupils.
  • They want regular and consistent teaching approaches with staff they like and trust.
  • They want variety and interest with a chance to shine and be praised for it.
  • They want to be heard and respected; they may struggle with reading but they have views, ideas and opinions to share.
  • They want a variety of resources including books in print and on-screen, games, active learning, writing, reading, competitions and clear evidence that they are improving. They like to tick off what they’ve read, achieved, understood etc.
  • They want to work in different groupings with a teacher and with peers for teaching, learning and reviewing.
  • They want content that is of the real world and of their world.
  • They want small steps and big wins that enable them to grow in confidence and self-esteem.


Select resources with care to ensure that money is spent well and students’ needs effectively met for maximum impact on progression.

Look for resources that are:

  • Evidence-based. Look out for evidence of data provided by the publisher or evidence such as case studies from schools which demonstrate effectiveness of impact or a significant contribution of a resource to improved scores in English results.
  • Clearly structured for explicit progression and with tools for measuring impact or allow for the use of existing assessments to track impact.
  • Simple to use within the likely restricted time available for delivery in a secondary school and which may link to training opportunities for staff if necessary.
  • Language development rich to ensure that speaking, listening, reading and writing are all nurtured in the interests of full curriculum access.
  • Skill-specific to allow for the addressing of specific literacy problems identified with students e.g. decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, handwriting, listening etc.
  • Resource-rich to allow for flexibility and diversity; hands-on materials, print and eBooks with the option to personalise.
  • Activity-rich to engage students and enliven learning. Look for a resource that offers simple but effective ideas for teaching and learning and rings the changes for teachers and students alike. There’s comfort in routine but some variety and surprise can energise and help to re-engage.
  • Promoting a range of different teaching scenarios including small group coaching, 1:1 tutoring and pair work including peer to peer feedback and reading partners.
  • Complementary where possible to a wider culture of reading and reading for enjoyment.




Speak Your Mind