Research School Network: Leading Reading? You’ve got this! Leading reading in secondary is one of the trickiest – yet most important – jobs in school. Read on for useful tips!


Leading Reading? You’ve got this!

Leading reading in secondary is one of the trickiest – yet most important – jobs in school. Read on for useful tips!

by Shotton Hall Research School
on the

Leading reading in secondary is one of the trickiest – yet most important – jobs in school. Tricky because leaders need to galvanize teachers across multiple disciplines; important because reading, irrespective of the subject discipline, is the gateway to academic success. Reading is the secondary curriculum: without this vital skill, pupils cannot achieve their full potential. There is no doubt that improving reading in secondary is complex and challenging. But it absolutely can be done.

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Leading Reading - Shotton Hall Research School

How reading develops
If you’re a secondary reading leader, it’s useful to know about how reading develops. The reality is that, through no fault of their own, many secondary staff don’t know a great deal about how children learn to read. Understanding reading’s various components is hard so can be challenging for staff. Furthermore, for leaders of reading, the task of supporting already busy teachers to embed explicit and effective reading support and teaching into their disciplines can be daunting.

To really get to grips with reading, leaders need to understand its main components. Because there’s a science that sits behind reading, it’s important we keep these core ideas in mind:

Reading is a complex process: it requires pupils to synthesise many different components.

These components do not develop in a nice simple order. Pupils will certainly learn some things before others, but some capabilities develop in parallel. Also, different pupils will master some aspects of reading faster than others.

Pupils need to master all components of reading to thrive at school.

Broadly, the three components of reading are:

Decoding – learning to read’:

Early in their reading journey, pupils learn to hear and manipulate sounds. This is known as phonological awareness and recognising subtle differences in sound is essential to supporting reading. Typically, pupils learn to recognise smaller and smaller units of sound, until they can hear the smallest units of sound known as phonemes. 

Pupils must learn about the relationships between letters and sounds, which is known as phonics. They learn to blend sounds together (c‑a-t) to form words and how to break apart, or segment, words to identify their sounds (dog – d‑o-g). Unlike some other languages, phonics is particularly tricky in English because we use 26 letters to make around 44 unique sounds. There are also many exceptions. Nonetheless, most pupils will master phonics quickly, enabling them to read most unfamiliar words. To learn more about phonics, check out our 5 Minutes on Early Reading’ using the link below.

: As pupils’ phonics knowledge becomes increasingly secure, they begin to decode words with increasing accuracy and speed. When they can do this without much attention, their reading is described as automatic. This is an important step: it frees up their limited cognitive resources from focusing on lifting the sounds off the page to thinking about their meaning. This automatic decoding of words is an important part of reading fluency, which is when pupils can read accurately, quickly and with expression. Fluency tends to develop across KS2, becoming increasingly secure over KS3. To learn more about fluency, dive into our 5 Minutes on Fluency’.

Comprehension: Comprehension is often described as understanding what you read and hear. One way to think of comprehension is about the links that pupils must make. These include links within the text, like following an argument. Pupils will also need to read between the lines, which often requires connecting different pieces of information within – or across – the text. Lastly, they need to make links between what they read and their own wider knowledge. This becomes increasingly important as pupils they read to learn’. 

Comprehension rests on a wide range of separate processes and capabilities, including factors like pupils’ background knowledge and knowledge of vocabulary. It is best thought of as an active process that requires thinking about what is read. To learn more about comprehension, see our 5 Minutes on Comprehension’.

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A tiered reading strategy
So, reading is hard, especially for busy teachers. Leading reading can feel overwhelming, even for experienced leaders. This means we need to be really strategic about it. Research tells us that the most successful schools tend to identify a few high-leverage priorities. Then, they focus on doing them really well.

To focus effort, it can be helpful to think of three tiers’ in a reading strategy. Inevitably, these tiers may – and probably should – integrate with and support one another. For instance, activities focusing on quality teaching may also contribute to a reading culture in school. The EEF encourage schools to think about their improvement planning using a tiered model, which includes:

1. Quality teaching – there is a growing consensus from research that what happens in classrooms is one of the most influential factors in schools. Therefore, schools should prioritise maximising teacher quality in their improvement planning.

2. Targeted interventions – targeted interventions can never make up for weak teaching. However, they are critical: many pupils arrive at school behind their peers and struggle to keep up.

3. Wider strategies – schools should also make use of wider strategies to ensure pupils are ready to learn’. Wider strategies should also enrich pupils’ learning.

Many schools use the tiered model to structure their planning, but it can be easy to overlook its key insights.

- Get the balance right between tiers – The model indicates schools should focus their efforts in a 2:1:1 ratio. It’s an extremely rough estimate and should be used as a starting point for discussion.

- Focus on quality within each tier – all schools have plans for each tier, but the critical insight the EEF offer is that it really matters is actually happening in each of these tiers.

Thinking specifically about reading, a tiered strategy might include the following:


Wider Strategies

  • A knowledge rich curriculum which is enhanced by reading. 
  • Teaching pupils the necessary background knowledge to access and engage with texts. 
  • Modelling of reading and reading processes. 
  • Disciplinary reading activities – how to read in different subjects. 
  • Language and oracy-rich classrooms. 
  • Explicit teaching of vocabulary. 
  • Encouraging reading comprehension and fluency strategies. 
  • High-quality, disciplinary texts used in teaching.
  • Identifying pupils causing concern. 
  • Sharing of reading data to inform teaching. 
  • Driven by data and informed by detailed diagnostic assessments. 
  • Matched to pupil needs. 
  • Targeted: small group and one to one. 
  • Well-resourced using highly trained staff.
  • Access to books and places to read. 
  • Incentivising and encouraging reading. 
  • Reading for pleasure. 
  • Extra-curricular reading offer. 
  • Parental engagement and communication.

While it is useful to think about the three phases, it’s important to do everything at once. Instead, we should plan – and implement – our different tiers in phases. An effective reading strategy likely has a balance between tiers; it also focuses on quality in each one.

There are many good things going on in secondary schools regarding reading. But, by focusing our efforts on the right things, we can make what is already good, really great. We can do this, more broadly, by defining quality at every phase of delivery, and creating an integrated, cohesive, tiered reading strategy.

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5 Minutes on… Early Reading

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5 Minutes on… Fluency

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5 Minutes on… Comprehension

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5 Minutes on… Vocabulary

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