If you missed it, here’s a link to the presentation I gave in my webinar on Five Things Every Teacher Needs to Know about Reading.

There were a number of question that I didn’t have time to answer during the webinar, so here are my thoughts.

Q: Do you think schools should be pushing for subject specific reading in every lesson and subject? My school wants this but some subjects, e.g. Dance, think it is not relevant to them. Is there benefit?

A: The idea that there should be reading – subject specific or otherwise – is deeply flawed and leads to the kind of unthinking top-down prescriptivism that blights the lives of subject leaders. Should reading be a regular feature of lessons? Yes, probably; it depends. Clearly, some subjects lend themselves to reading more than others and, although reading is a Good Thing there are always opportunity costs. So, if art lessons or maths lessons are taking up with reading, then there’ll be less art or maths. Inevitably in KS4 subjects converge ever closer to written outcomes but during KS3 my advice would for subjects should focus on what makes them unique. Dance lessons are, most likely, the only curricular opportunity for students to dance. Arguably, dance is also a Good Thing. Indeed, if a school has made the decision to give students access to a non-statuary subject like dance it seems absurd to them hamstring dance teachers by making them spend their limited curriculum time on reading. Subject teachers ask students to read more in lessons if it’s relevant to the subject. Although the EEF report, Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, suggests that ‘disciplinary literacy’ should be practised across the curriculum, obviously this involves more than just reading.

Q: What’s the research that suggests reading aloud helps close the advantage gap?

A: As far as I’m aware, there is no study that claims reading aloud helps close the advantage gap. This is a logical inference based on three linked points: 1) there is a considerable body of research that shows reading is highly correlated with improved intellectual capacity; 2) there’s good reason to think that if students are not fluent readers they are unlikely to read independently; 3) reading aloud bypasses the need for students to read independently and confers much of the vocabulary and background knowledge needed to be academically successful. I’ve written about some of the benefits associated with reading aloud here and here.

Q: From next year, my school is dedicating one lesson per week for reading that I am leading on. I am currently writing up how these lessons will run and have read widely around this but do you have any suggestions? Purpose = aiding students in accessing the whole curriculum.

A: First, I’m not sure that dedicating one lesson per week to reading is necessarily the best approach. There’s good reason to think 20 minutes of daily reading is particularly beneficial. I’ve written about the approach I favour here. That said, if all I had was one lesson per week I would use that time to select some books that students would be likely to enjoy but unlikely to read independently and read aloud to them.

Q: We use the Doug Lemov system for whole class reading – so choral, control the game etc. Is this a good approach in your opinion?

A: I think there are some serious drawbacks to whole class reading strategies such as ‘control the game’. Essentially, such approaches ask students to concentrate their limited working memory resources on keeping tabs on where the current reader is in the text and being on high alert in case they are asked to read aloud next. As a result, there students are likely to have much less working memory capacity to focus on listening to, remembering and comprehending what is read. Tim Shanahan, has explained his reservations with whole class read-alongs here. If you want more detail about my concerns I’ve written about the problem of ‘following along’ here.

Q: In your experience, what is the best way of implementing [my ideas on reading] across the school? How do you deliver this CPD to all staff who might not see the value of it?

A: Teachers will, legitimately, ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ so, whenever we make teachers sit through CPD it’s crucial to sell the benefits. This is one of the big problems behind one-size-fits-all, top-down approaches to school ‘improvement’. So, my first step would always be to work with subject leaders to explore what would and wouldn’t work in their subjects. Sometimes this involves my shutting up and listening, sometimes it involves them acknowledging that their narrower understanding of the issue means they also have something to learn. My position is that if we’re asking subject teachers to spend less time on what they think is most important we need to be really clear about why. One of the points to make is that although expending lesson time of improving students’ reading fluency may not seem like the best use of time for an individual teacher, students being fluent readers benefits everyone in the system. The issue here is often one of misaligned accountability; if teachers are only held to account for exam results then clearly they are likely to only focus on exams. If we shifted accountability to consider how all teachers were contributing to students’ reading fluency then I’d suggest not only are students more likely to make more progress with reading, it’ll probably have a positive effect on results too.

The majority of teachers are amenable to logic and persuasion, but if you encounter someone who refuses to engage with your reasonable expectations then it should be made clear that something are not negotiable. For instance, the Teachers’ Standards in England state that teachers must, “demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject”. If a teacher wants to argue that for some reason this doesn’t apply to them they’re on dodgy ground.

Q: Do you think the promotion of oracy in the classroom is an important part of teaching reading?

A: Of course, promoting students’ oracy is important. Students should be explicitly taught to speak confidently and coherently in a range of contexts, but, as far as I can see, this is not part of reading instruction.

Q: It’s sort of become in vogue to poke fun at a curriculum that overemphasises reading comprehension strategies over knowledge. What is the role of reading comprehension strategies, and what are their limitations?

A: By definition, nothing should be over emphasied. In the past (and maybe still in some schools) reading comprehension strategies have been given disproportionate emphasis. Too often, broad, generic ‘skills’ like inference and analysis are taught as if they can be transferred between topics. This is mostly a huge waste of valuable curriculum time. (I’ve written about the problem with some of these approaches here.) However, as Alex Quigley explains in his new book, Closing the Reading Gap, there’s a difference between ‘strategies’ and ‘skills’. Strategies like skimming, scanning and zooming provide students with more knowledge about how to approach reading different texts. Reading strategically is reading more efficiently. Clearly though, such strategies do not compensate for required vocabulary and background knowledge required to comprehend a text.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for supporting reading and vocabulary development during blended learning to try to minimise the gap caused from school closures?

A: It’s important to to be clear up front: any approach to reading and vocabulary development during school closure (and probably everything else) is likely to be sub-optimal. That said, often children will choose to do things just because they’ve been told they should do them. It’s worthwhile to give students reading tasks, reading lists and opportunities to listen to reading. It would be worthwhile to record yourself reading out loud and get students to listen and complete comprehension activities. None of this will come close to ‘closing the gap’ but these are the sorts of things that are most likely to help.

Q: Do you know how we can motivate children to read at home? Any brilliant reading rewards that will encourage this? I feel like the ones I have used aren’t really engaging

A: Children are most likely to read at home if they are able to read fluently. If you’re are not a fluent reader it’s highly unlikely that you’d choose to do it for fun. This is the main reason I recommend reading aloud. As for systems or approaches that attempt to extrinsically reward students for reading they all suffer from not being very engaging. Here’s the thing: reading requires time and effort. Even fluent readers need to set aside time for sustained reading and there are so many competing demands for children’s attention that it’s small wonder that they choose to go with easier, less demanding alternatives. My suggestion to move away from ‘reading for pleasure’ (which is pretty much a set of con-tricks) and instead try to persuade students to read for betterment. Explain the reading, although it requires effort, is intrinsically rewarding. It expands the limits of our world, takes us to times and places we could never otherwise visit, and makes our minds more interesting places in which to spend the rest of our lives. A good tip is to set a daily target. Personally, I try to ensure I read 50 pages a day. Depending on what I’m reading this might take between 1 to 2 hours. For students it might be sensible to begin with more attainable targets – 20 mins a day or 10 pages perhaps – and, a bit like Couch to 5k, build up incrementally.

Q. How was ‘intelligence’ tested in finding this lack of correlation? There are a lot of problems with ‘intelligence’ tests anyway. Can you point to the academic source so I can read up on this?

A. I made the point during the talk that there is no correlation between children ability and how easy they find it to learn to decode. This is a bit of a technical answer, but Keith Stanovich sets out, that in order for the belief that the inability to read is caused by intelligence, you would have to find evidence of the following propositions:

(1) that the pattern of information-processing skills that underlie the reading deficits of low-IQ poor readers is different from the information-processing skills that underlie the reading deficits of high-IQ poor readers; (2) that the neuroanatomical differences that underlie the cognitive deficits of these two groups are different; (3) that low- and high-IQ poor readers require different treatments to remediate their reading problems; and (4) that there is differential etiology in the two groups based on different heritability of the component deficits.

There is no such evidence. In fact, as he goes on to say, “there is a wealth of evidence regarding proposition #1 that is largely negative”. It might be that a reading problem is caused by low intelligence but it’s more likely to be a teaching problem.

As to the notion that “There are a lot of problems with ‘intelligence’ tests anyway,” this is an unhelpful myth. For all the problems with measuring IQ, it is the most reliable and valid index of any psychological trait that we have. For those interested in this I’ve written a number of blogs on what teachers need to know about intelligence: Why IQ Matters and The effects of Education. I’ve also written a book on this subject, Making Kids Cleverer.

Q: If pupils need to know 95% of vocabulary to understand a text, should we not be using more difficult ‘adult’ texts with KS3 pupils?

A: Cautiously, yes. I think children should be encouraged to independently read books that are within their comfort zone; the easier they find it to read, the more likely they are to enjoy the experience and the more likely they are to persist. But for instructional purposes, yes. I think that by deliberately choosing texts with challenging vocabulary we provide a mediated opportunity for students to acquire that vocabulary. That said, I’m sceptical about the use of some ‘adult’ texts with younger students. (I came across a teacher using A Street Car Named Desire with a Year 9 class recently!) We do have a responsibility to think about the appropriateness of content.

Q: How can vocabulary teaching be woven into the curriculum rather than bolted on in for example literacy lessons?

A: All subject teachers should be responsible for teaching the tier 3 specialist vocabulary on which the understanding of their subject depends. This should be seen as being as essential as any other aspect of subject knowledge. We should also teach students how to embed this vocabulary within academic discourse. My advice here is to intervene at the point of speech. (I’ve written more about this here.) But I also think it pays for schools to take a whole-school approach to tier 2 vocabulary such as a ‘word of the day’ where students are taught a new word each day and then encouraged to use that word during lessons.

Q: What are your thoughts on reading programmes like Accelerated Reader?

A: I’m not a fan. It’s not so much that I think AR is a bad thing, it’s just that it benefits those children who are already fluent, confident readers. As such, by buying into AR (and it’s not cheap!) we end up investing in a programme more likely to widen rather than narrow the advantage gap.

Q: On widening the advantage gap by imposing silent reading- is that because the weaker readers are reading something too complex or because it isn’t possible to become more fluent by practising?

A: The latter. Silent reading suffers from the same disadvantages as programmes like Accelerated Reader. If you cannot decode fluently, there’s very little chance you will put in the effort required to get any benefit out of reading. Struggling readers end up pretending to read, forcing teachers to act as the ‘reading police’. Fluency depends on fast, accurate mapping of graphemes to phonemes and as such requires individual or small group intervention. Once students can decode fluently then they need as much expose to texts as possible in order to build up their orthographic awareness, but this needs careful monitoring and intervention.

Q: When students come into Year 7, often their ‘levels’ from Primary do not match their ability. How would you assess their abilities with literacy?

A: Most commonly, secondary schools that assess Year 7 students’ reading on entry use a comprehension test. These tests are often just vocabulary tests: multiple-choice questions ask students to identify the closest meaning to a increasingly challenging series of words. This provides a proxy for reading comprehension which can then be turned into ‘reading ages’. This is fine as far as it goes. The trouble is that these tests don’t tell us why children might have performed poorly. Is that they have a poor vocabulary? Is it that they have a decoding problem? Or maybe they just couldn’t be bothered doing the test. Also, it’s possible for some students to perform well on these tests despite not being fluent readers. So, while this approach will indicate a cohort with whom to intervene it a) doesn’t tell you how to intervene and b) it will inevitably miss some students who need intervention. Although there are a range of fluency tests commercially available, they can be done quite cheaply and easily using the process outlined here. The trouble is, such tests must be conducted on a one-to-one basis and so it’s impossible to do this at scale. My advice is to make teachers aware of the hall marks of dis-fluent reading (guessing words, refusing to read words etc.) and then refer them for additional testing and intervention.

I hope some of these answers are useful. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer more of your questions in the next webinar.