Research School Network: Teaching Fluency to Bridge the Gap David Windle explores the potential of a focus on fluency to close the reading gap


Teaching Fluency to Bridge the Gap

David Windle explores the potential of a focus on fluency to close the reading gap

by London South Research School
on the

As teachers, we all know that, statistically, disadvantaged children do not attain as highly as those from more advantaged backgrounds. We also all know that children who struggle to read tend to perform less well across all subjects and that this is compounded year after year, leading them to fall further and further back. In reading, this is depicted in the famous Matthew Effect, which explains that good readers read more, becoming even better readers. Weak readers avoid reading, making little progress, and so the gap between good readers and poor readers ever widens.

Worryingly, the 2020Read All About It: Why reading is key to GCSE success’ study reported that Children who are weak readers will struggle as much in maths and science at GCSE as they do in English and in arts subjects.’

In short, attainment in reading really, really matters. This is especially true for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we are ever to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their advantaged peers, reading must remain the relentless focus.

Throw into this mix the impact of the COVID pandemic and a perfect storm begins to brew. In the 2023 Key Stage 2 SATS, national attainment in reading fell compared to 2022 for all pupils. Attainment at the expected standard fell from 62% in 2022 to 60% in 2023 for disadvantaged pupils and from 80% to 78% for other pupils.

Given the importance of reading attainment, at Charles Dickens Primary School, we have sought to accelerate progress for all through the explicit teaching of reading fluency strategies.

For many years, we based our teaching of reading on the twin axes of word reading and comprehension, as described in the simple view of reading.

After they had mastered phonics in EYFS and Year 1, children moved on to employing comprehension strategies such as summarising, clarifying, questioning and inferring meaning using clues from the text. Coupled with the teaching of vocabulary, this undoubtedly helped most children develop their ability to understand a range of texts.

However, we long felt there was a missing piece to the puzzle, a piece which would enable those struggling readers, who often came from disadvantaged backgrounds, to access texts at the level required to make accelerated progress and catch up with their peers.

In late 2021, we began experimenting with incorporating fluency strategies into our teaching of reading. Research suggests that fluency forms the bridge between reading and comprehension. If readers become fluent their cognitive resources are freed up to comprehend. In this way the relationship between fluency and comprehension is symbiotic – one depends upon the other.

As part of the EEF’s Early Pipeline Projects, we devised a sequence of lessons built around the same core fluency strategies. These became the basis of every reading lesson, with discussion around comprehension woven through them. This represented a significant change of approach across the school.

More information on the strategies can be found in this series of blogs.

To cut a long story short, the outcomes far exceeded our expectations, in particular with regard to disadvantaged children.

In Year 6 fluency was taught all year. Of our cohort of 59 children, 21 were categorised as disadvantaged. In reading attainment, 100% of disadvantaged children gained the expected standard, as compared to 97% of non-disadvantaged. At the greater depth standard, both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged were matched at 71%. Given this, it looks very much like disadvantaged children outperformed their non-disadvantaged peers.

In terms of progress, 52% of disadvantaged children made above-expected progress, while only 32% of non-disadvantaged did. Progress for those with the most need was accelerated.

Of course, we cannot attribute this solely to the teaching of fluency, but given our recent change of approach and the outcomes generated, we are confident in our belief that this is worth pursuing further.

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