Pupils struggling with reading need early intervention, not a three-month summer school

The writing’s on the wall – and they can’t read it.

Reading capability is vital for young people to be able to access and engage with the curriculum by the end of primary school and even more so at secondary school. But the data we have indicates that a substantial proportion of pupils have not reached a high enough level to succeed in their studies – with significant implications for their lives after they finish school.

In 2013, 75,000 children (about one in seven) did not achieve the minimum expected level on national assessments for reading by the end of primary school (Level 4). If these pupils perform in a similar way to those who did not achieve Level 4 in English in 2008, only one in ten of these pupils will achieve five grades at A*-C, including English and Maths, at GCSE.

That problem is only compounded by England’s unequal education system, which does a bad job serving disadvantaged children and young people: on average, struggling readers who are eligible for free school meals are less likely to achieve Level 4 than their peers. Those who are behind are likely to be even further behind than other struggling readers. In 2013, 27% of white British pupils eligible for free school meals did not achieve Level 4.

Our aim in producing “Reading at the Transition”, with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), was to review the effectiveness of different approaches to helping struggling readers catch up with their peers. It is based on the framework of the Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, a comparative analysis of different research-based approaches to improving attainment, together with an overview of the costs, to help schools make decisions about how to allocate their funds (particularly the pupil premium).

But the most important point the research makes, in my view, is that the challenge is far greater than most people realise.

Stick with it

Even the most effective approaches identified in the “toolkit”, on average, only achieve eight months of improved results – and that’s in research often conducted under ideal conditions. Many of these struggling readers will be as much as two years behind their peers; a summer school between years six and seven, with a typical benefit of about three months’ gain, is nowhere near enough to make a meaningful difference.

Even if these young people were to benefit from a typical summer school every year for the next five years, they would still be about nine months behind with their reading at age 16. Schools therefore need to plan a more intensive and more sustained approach to tackling the literacy difficulties of their struggling readers at the transition between primary and secondary school.

Other important findings relate to the range of approaches to support reading and they types of reading support that research indicates are likely to be beneficial. Both one-to-one and small-group tuition can help pupils catch up. One-to-one teaching has a slightly higher average impact and a more secure evidence base, but in some cases small group tuition with a skilled teacher can be as effective.

Given its lower cost, schools should consider trialling small group tuition as a first option, before moving to one-to-one tuition if small groups are ineffective. Recent EEF findings indicate that effective deployment of teaching assistants who are trained in specific catch-up approaches can be successful in supporting improvement in reading for those who are behind.

Sound is not enough

One of the key debates in reading is about the value of phonics. It is certainly the case that there is a robust evidence base for the benefits of developing learners’ phonemic awareness or their skills in hearing, identifying and manipulating phonemes so that they can learn the correspondence between these sounds and the written patterns which represent them in English. However we think that on average, reading comprehension approaches will be more effective for low-attaining older readers. This is for two reasons.

Mastering phonics is necessary for reading, especially decoding and basic reading fluency – but it is not enough to ensure children can actually read, in the full sense of the word. Learners must also develop understanding of the meaning of a range of different texts in different areas of the curriculum.

Compare the relative difficulty of interpreting a poem in English and deciphering a description of how plants derive energy from the sun in biology. It is all very well being able to pronounce “photosynthesis”, but this won’t help understand the meaning of the word (never mind the whole text).

Additionally, children who have not yet succeeded in learning to read using phonics previously will benefit from approaches that place a greater emphasis on meaning and context. At the very least, they’re almost certain to benefit from a change of approach.

Start ‘em young

Diagnosis is the key here: if learners are not making progress, we must find out why not. If they still have difficulties with word-level fluency, then additional support with phonics may still help. But in practice, a mixed approach is probably beneficial for most pupils, targeted according to need. If phonics is used with older children, age-appropriate materials delivered by trained professionals appear to be most effective.

The implications are twofold. Secondary schools must not underestimate the challenge of helping their struggling readers; one intervention will not be sufficient. These pupils are likely to need sustained support for several years and their teachers will need good diagnostic skills to ensure any support they give is meeting their needs.

Meanwhile, primary schools must redouble their efforts to ensure these children do not fall so far behind in the first place. This indicates that earlier intervention and closer monitoring of reading progress are essential.