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Research School Network: What Every Secondary Teacher Can Do About Reading Tom Needham follows up on the recent webinar with James and Diane Murphy


What Every Secondary Teacher Can Do About Reading

Tom Needham follows up on the recent webinar with James and Diane Murphy

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Despite a widespread assumption that children can read when they leave primary education, international assessments show that 20% of adolescents are not able to read simple texts accurately and with understanding. The 2012 PISA results also showed that 17% of UK 15-year-olds did not achieve a minimum level of proficiency in literacy. A quarter 15 year olds still have a reading age of 12 or below. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a significant correlation between reading ability and GCSE results.

The problem is about more than just results though. Pupils with literacy problems often suffer from slower development of other cognitive skills, behavioural and motivational problems at school. Not being able to read causes frustration, agitation, withdrawal and a feeling of social isolation. As a result, such pupils are at higher risk of permanent exclusion.

When they leave school, pupils with literacy problems will have reduced access to higher education and more limited job choices. On average, they will earn less, have poorer health and are more likely to suffer from mental health issues.

Some common (incorrect) beliefs

Unfortunately, there are a number of common yet harmful myths that surround adolescent illiteracy. Some people mistakenly believe that learning to read is like learning to speak. Proponents of this myth mistakenly believe that all pupils will learn to read if they are merely immersed in text heavy environments. Poor literacy is not, as some would claim, caused by socio-economic factors, parenting or motivation. In fact, in America, one-third of poor readers nationwide are from college educated families who presumably encourage literacy in the home.

So what can be done?

The ultimate aim is for pupils to be able to successfully extract meaning from the texts that they read. This complex skill, however, is underpinned by a number of interacting components.

Greenshaw Reading 1

Poor readers may have problems with a range of these components. Many of them will need specialist teaching and intervention: normal English lessons will not help such pupils.

In the classroom

What can be done in the classroom?

Although pupils with literacy problems are likely to need specialist intervention, there are a number of approaches that regular classroom teachers can take. All subjects should have planned, explicit vocabulary instruction. Challenging reading should be a regular part of lessons and teachers should vary how texts are read in class: sometimes the teacher should read, modelling good prosody; other times, pupils should read aloud to the class or in pairs or groups. When reading, teachers should regularly check for understanding.


If schools are to address this issue properly, it requires the support of the senior leadership team. Although there is nothing more important than ensuring that all pupils are taught to read properly, most secondary reading interventions go unnoticed by senior leaders. Poor interventions are often vague, have subjective selection criteria and have weak or unreliable measures of progress.

Instead, schools should have reading at the heart of their strategic plans. They should invest in effective screening systems to properly identify those pupils in need of support. They should choose an intervention based upon its data and train staff to deliver it with fidelity: effective intervention teaching requires skill and focus.


Effective intervention programmes for secondary students should teach the alphabetic principle and sound-spelling correspondences. Interventions should build vocabulary, teach comprehension and build reading fluency. Crucially, an effective programme should be highly motivating, providing pupils with regular indicators that they are succeeding.

All these components need to be taught with the additional challenge of minimizing the disruption to pupils’ regular curriculum time. Pupils need to catch up and they need to do so rapidly. According to Professor Greg Brooks, Good impact – sufficient to at least double the standard rate of progress – can be achieved, and it is reasonable to expect it.’

Thinking Reading

At my school, we have been running Thinking Reading for four years or so. Every single pupil who we have put onto the programme has caught up, some pupils having made over 9 years of progress. It has literally changed their lives.

Tom Needham – Evidence Lead in Education, Greenshaw Research School

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