Research School Network: Making Word Rich Readers

Making Word Rich Readers

by Greenshaw Research School
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Theresa Gooda, English teacher and Research Lead at The Weald School in West Sussex, explores the findings from her school’s research into the impact of reading more books in class on students’ reading for enjoyment and reading outcomes. The study funded by the IEE follows the work of Sutherland et al (2019) Just Reading’, which found that reading challenging, complex novels aloud and at a fast pace in lessons improved weaker readers.


Amid the all too often reported headlines about the decline in reading nationwide for our young people, we have been thinking about ways to encourage and extend wider reading for students at the Weald School in West Sussex for a long time now – and in 2018 received a research grant from the IEE to investigate this in a more formal way. We asked this question:

What is the impact of a novel in a fortnight’ delivered half-termly for one whole year on reading comprehension for Year 8 pupils?

Teaching and encouraging reading seems to be just about the most powerful thing we can do for a child to support personal growth and academic achievement, and our research was designed, very simply, to increase the amount of reading undertaken by participating students.

So, students in Year 8 read a new novel during their English lessons for the first two weeks of each half term during the academic year 2018 – 2019, ensuring that they read a total of six novels; while their peers read just two novels (that formed part of existing English department schemes of work), enabling us to comparing the reading outcomes.

Students in the research group more than tripled’ their novel consumption by reading six novels in a year as whole class texts. Participating students became word-rich’ in the sense that consumed’ approximately 200,000 more words than their non-participating counterparts during English lessons.

The reading did not incorporate additional study of the texts; students were simply encouraged to enjoy and engage with narratives. Novels were carefully chosen for their challenge and contemporary appeal. The innovation aimed to create conditions for widespread reading for enjoyment while increasing reading outcomes for students, based on findings from Sutherland (2017) in relation to Faster Reads’; a project involving two novels read back-to-back, after which quantitative analyses showed students’ mean comprehension increased by 8.5 months overall and 16 months for poor readers.

We hoped that simply by reading more, students’ overall reading comprehension levels might improve – and we chose to measure this via reading ages.

So what happened?

The project was conducted via whole classes. Four mixed prior attaining classes participated overall, drawn from eleven Year 8 classes in the school and matched for similar ability using average CAT scores and KS2 writing levels for comparison.

A total of 90 students were involved in the trial and analysis. In the intervention group were 44 students and in the control group 46 students. Reading ages pre- and post-intervention were collected using Literacy Assessment Online Reading Tests. The results from internal writing exams were also compared in order to mitigate potential differences in writing outcomes given the increased bias towards reading for the intervention groups.

Reading a greater number of books as a whole class did not, on its own, improve reading outcomes for pupils. In this evaluation, pupils who read six books as a whole class over the course of the academic year made less progress in reading comprehension, as measured by Literacy Assessment Online, than pupils who followed the school’s typical Year 8 curriculum in which they read two books.

While there are a number of limitations to this study, including the small sample size, lack of sensitivity of the outcome measure and possible impact of previous teacher training, there was no evidence of the beneficial effect expected on the measure of reading comprehension used.

But two groups of pupils did seem to make greater progress – one intervention group, and one control group. What was the connection? One had read six books, one had read two.

Our contention is that the better results were to do with the particular teachers involved – who had been involved with two prior reading research projects and had undertaken a significant amount of CPD around reading making them very experienced reading teachers who have read a lot of research, and explored reading theory and reading pedagogy.

In summary, pupils did not automatically write better having read more and there was no discernible impact on writing outcomes. It seems that pupils may need to be taught’ the books in order for the additional reading to lead to progress; it is possible that the experience and reading pedagogy of the individual teachers is a greater factor in progress than reading the books alone. In this evaluation, the classes that made most progress in reading comprehension were those with teachers with the greatest knowledge of reading theory.

And that’s good news, because we can all get better as teachers at knowing about reading.

Theresa Gooda, English teacher and Research Lead at The Weald School in West Sussex.

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