Research School Network: Case study: The Faster Read programme at Scalby School Can fast reading novels improve pupils’ comprehension?

Case study: The Faster Read programme at Scalby School

Can fast reading novels improve pupils’ comprehension?

by Huntington Research School
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The reading of lengthy, challenging texts can often be difficult for many of our students. They may lack reading stamina and in our support groups, students’ reading age scores are often much lower than their chronological age. Always on the lookout for ways to improve reading ability, something I heard at Scarborough Teaching Alliance’s first conference in 2020 really piqued my interest.

Mary Myatt cited a study from the University of Sussex where English teachers from schools across the south coast changed the way they taught’ novels. Half of the study group took the traditional’ approach: reading a few chapters at a time and then completing a written or spoken task. Whereas, the other half of the study group used the Faster Read’ approach, reading two challenging novels at a faster pace with their classes, pausing only to complete swift comprehension or vocabulary tasks.

Often in English, we can take a whole term to read a text, pausing often to analyse sections in detail or to complete written tasks inspired by the text. The argument here is that, whilst this age-old technique teaches the English skills required for further study, it can limit students’ comprehension skills and engagement with the text. Teachers in the Sussex study were provided with some additional training in Faster Read techniques. They used a standardised test to assess the reading age of students, pre and post study. The Sussex study found that when using the Faster Read approach, on average, students made 8.5 months progress during their 12 week term, but most surprisingly, disadvantaged’ readers made 16 months progress.

16 months of progress in 12 weeks!? I was intrigued (and I’m ashamed to admit, a little cynical too!) However, Myatt is a huge advocate of doing fewer things with greater depth’, as am I. With this premise in mind, I set about devising our own Faster Reading research at Scalby School.

I wanted to explore the effects with a full range of Year 7 classes. Our classes are setted on their prior attainment at primary school. I chose four classes (set one to four) to complete the Faster Read programme, whilst three classes on the other half of the year group (set one- three) followed our traditional approach, thus creating a control group to measure any progress against.

Owing to the challenges of the pandemic, we had less time for our study than Sussex did. The study ran over a period of 10 weeks from October to December 2020. We used 3 out of 4 lessons, as our Faster Read lessons – with the fourth devoted to literacy mastery (which largely builds upon the grammar and writing skills they have secured at KS2). The reduction in time meant that teachers were able to cover one novel at a faster pace and a selection of short stories, in place of the two novels in the Sussex study.

Teacher choice was important here. We felt that our study would be best delivered by experienced teachers, with a particular expertise with KS3 and they received training on the kinds of strategies and techniques to use to engage students and develop comprehension. This included questioning and visualisation techniques, recall and prediction strategies and vocabulary based activities.

We began by using the NGRT (New Group Reading Test) to assess their reading ability. We also designed two inference skills tests to book-end our study.

Text choice is key in a project like this. All books chosen featured a teenage protagonist to aid engagement and forge a shared identity with the characters. Teachers were given some degree of freedom to choose their own text, based on the interests of the class, complexity of text and their own familiarity with it. The text selected were:

The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins (Faster Read set one)
The Prince of Mist’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Faster Read set two)
Trash’ by Andy Mulligan (Faster Read set three)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ by JK Rowling (Faster Read set four)

Interestingly, both set one classes read The Hunger Games’ and were taught by the same teacher using the two different approaches. The results here are particularly fascinating. The other two classes in the control group read Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman (Traditional Read set two) and The Graveyard Book’ by Neil Gaiman (Traditional Read set three). At the end of the term, we ran another NGRT and an inference skills test with all students to measure their progress.

We were delighted to find a level of reading age progress on a par with the Sussex University study.

Reading ages
Reading age progress: all students

This second table separates the classes, so that you can see the progress made over the project at set level. It is clear to see here that all our readers benefitted from the Faster Read programme, particularly with students in our support-group. It is worth noting that set four have also had some small-group reading support once a week from our school librarian after school too.

Reading ages2

We found, pleasingly, that inference skills developed across the board. As you would expect, increased reading ability brings a greater ability to infer detail. However, in two out of the three traditional’ classes, their inference skills increased more significantly than their peers in the corresponding Faster Read classes. This could be because a greater amount of time was spent on the teaching of inference, with a focus on the explicit teaching of language analysis skills.

Struggling readers may have limited cultural literacy and might struggle with the visualisation of stories. The discursive nature of the Faster Read program has enabled them to bridge the gap here. Indeed, some teachers actively encouraged doodling whilst reading as a way of developing their visualisation skills with really positive results. This is an approach that drenches students in vocabulary they would otherwise likely not be exposed to in this quantity and over this period of time.

During this lock-down period, my colleague, Paul Offord, who took part in the classroom study, has had particular success in replicating and adapting the Faster Read technique as part of his remote learning offer with his support group’. He chose The Hobbit to read to his class and they receive three hours of online Faster Read lessons a week. He takes five key words from the story per week and students identify when they are used and are required to write in the chat’ example sentences using the key vocabulary.


Students can just sit back and listen, draw images from the story or doodle whatever comes into their minds. Paul prefers this approach, as it can free-up his students’ working memory to absorb language and plot rather than require them to decode at the same time.

This has been a really fascinating twelve months and this is an approach to reading that we look forward to embedding within our KS3 curriculum. We intend to use the Faster Read technique with all Year 7 classes next year and will add the training as part of our CPD offer in the future.

Emily Vickers – Head of KS3 English at Scalby School.

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