Research School Network: Improving Secondary Literacy with Explicit Teaching Sarann Dye, Literacy Research Lead at Norwich Research School


Improving Secondary Literacy with Explicit Teaching

Sarann Dye, Literacy Research Lead at Norwich Research School

by Norwich Research School
on the

Last year, over 120,000 disadvantaged students made the transition from primary to secondary school below the expected standard for reading. The educational prospects for this group are grave. If their progress mirrors previous cohorts, we would expect 1 in 10 to achieve passes in English and Maths at GCSE, and fewer than 2% to achieve the English Baccalaureate.

EEF Guidance Report: Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools

Reading these bleak, prophetic words in the EEF Guidance Report chimed with my utter bafflement last year when I took on my first ever GCSE nurture group. How had some of these students made it this far into their education without learning to read? How was I meant to suddenly close the reading gap while also delivering two curricula’s worth of content and train them on exam skills? It all seemed scarily too late!

Why hadn’t something been done earlier to address these grave illiteracy problems?

It doesn’t take long for a teacher to identify a struggling reader in Year 7: the slow, muffled mumbling, the inability to follow syntactic cues about where to pause or where to synthesise words into natural clauses. In that moment, you naturally feel a desire to help the struggling student out. But should you correct every word? Urge them to read louder? Cut them off short for fear the experience is too excruciating and humiliating for them? You’re pretty sure that students with such weaknesses with decoding need help beyond your specialist training.

So what can you do as a secondary teacher?

Encourage them to read more at home. Read for pleasure.

This has become my mantra. And it’s not just me: I have heard many an English teacher espouse this until it has become a chorus – a chorus that rests on a wing and a prayer.

But why isn’t imparting the advice read for pleasure” going to solve the problem?

Simply saying read more” is fine for those that enjoy reading, or have a library at home, or have parents who share this interest in reading and have the time to recommend books. But for some, who are still navigating the tricky waters of learning to read, reading independently isn’t pleasurable: it’s a slog. And we all know that if you’re not very good at something, you tend to put it off, ignoring the immutable truth that the remedy lies in doing more of it, not less.

So what is the solution?

Looking at the research seems a good place to start. I have read and read books, essays, articles, and blogs about reading. And one of the unanimously agreed recommendations is to make the implicit skills of reading explicit.

Professional development focused on teaching reading is likely to help teachers teach their subject more effectively, as well as providing teachers across subject disciplines with effective strategies to support students and a common language about reading instruction.

EEF Guidance Report: Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools

Making the implicit skills of our own discipline explicit is the bread and butter of what we do as teachers. We anticipate that our students will struggle with multiplying fractions, identifying the catalyst for Robespierre’s demise, or explaining how Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter helps to shape meaning. And consequently we make our thinking explicit since, as experts in our subjects, we know that our thinking is a good model for making the requisite knowledge and skills for our subjects transparent. Now it’s time to do the same with reading.

Reading is complex and the micro-skills that we employ on a daily basis to read a text are skills that we have come to take for granted because we are so well versed in them. But if we can’t help students to master the mechanics of reading strategically, then I would be so bold as to argue that our entire teaching community has failed. For a student’s success in all (well, most) of our subjects is largely predicated upon their ability to read since, at high school, students read to learn.

Disciplinary Literacy

How can we support students to become strategic readers?

As secondary school teachers, not only are we often lacking in literacy training, but this is also coupled with another obstacle: we expect our students to smoothly transition to a challenging reading diet of largely nonfiction. Reading nonfiction texts is particularly tricky. Expository texts are nonlinear, include a lot of tier three vocabulary, use less familiar structural features, and are not selected on their merits of engagement.

First, ask yourself what you do before reading nonfiction:

  • What predictions do you make based on your skimming of the text and images?
  • What goals do you unconsciously set yourself to motivate your reading?
  • What intuitive connections are you making with your pre-existing knowledge of the topic?
  • While reading, what do you do when you come across vocabulary that you cannot confidently explain the denotation of?
  • Do you assess how vital those words are to shaping your comprehension of the text?
  • Do you seek further clarification through footnotes, images and glossaries?
  • Do you self-regulate and monitor when you have stopped focusing on the meaning and unconsciously slipped into passive skimming of words while your mind is busy planning the evening’s dinner?
  • Do you visualise the character or experiment being described?
  • And finally, when you have finished reading a text, how do you know whether you have understood and absorbed the information? Do you do a quick mental summary of the key points? Do you check it against your initial predictions?1

These are all tools that, as expert readers, we utilise without even being consciously aware of it. So let’s not keep these secrets to ourselves: let’s do what we know best and teach them. Teach them on a regular basis so that they become embedded skills, not just for those who have had ample practice at home, but for those who need it most!

Norwich Research School’s Improving Secondary Literacy” training programme, led by Sarann, starts on 25 January 2021, and has been fully adapted for remote participation. Click here for further details.

1I am indebted to Alex Quigley for many of these strategies which he outlines in his brilliant book Closing the Reading Gap’.

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