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Teachers Talk feature: Reading and the Secondary curriculum

The necessity of reading to open up the curriculum.

We had the pleasure of sponsoring a Teachers Talk Radio show to discuss reading, not just as an English skill but as crucial tool for accessing the whole secondary school curriculum.

Tom Hopkins Burke, Teachers Talk host, was joined by:
  • Rebekah Ricketts, Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Safa British School.
  • Sarah Jackson-Buckley, Literacy Curriculum Co-ordinator and Head of History at Sawston Village College, Cambridge.
  • Annie Vincent, Literacy Co-ordinator and English Teacher, also from Sawston Village College.
  • Our own Reading Development Consultant, Nick Mills! Prior to joining Reading Solutions UK, Nick had nearly three decades of teaching and senior leadership experience at secondary school level.

Did you miss it?

Listen back to the informative show here: https://x.com/i/broadcasts/1nAKEadEPknKL for insights into:

  • The current KS3 reading climate.
  • Helping students access complex, non-fiction texts in KS3.
  • Supporting students as they access KS3 texts.
  • Supporting fluency at KS3.
  • How to develop reading across the curriculum.
  • How DreamBox Reading Plus supports teachers in developing reading.
  • The importance of reading in KS3.

The current KS3 reading climate

There is a strong correlation between a student’s reading level and their performance in GCSE exams across all subjects. On average, students need a reading age of 15 years and seven months to fully understand GCSE papers. However, this presents a challenge as one-fifth of students are reading at an age closer to eleven years.

As educators, all hosts had seen a significant gap between the expected reading standard in Year 7 and the current reading standard. This gap is partly due to the impact of the pandemic. Students who received less academic input during lockdown struggle with concentration. This presents a general challenge in classrooms and a more specific reading-related problem. The concentration skills linked to reading dramatically improve exam performance.

Other critical reading problems students encounter in KS3 include:

  • The introduction to more complex and non-fiction texts.
  • Reading fluency.

Helping students access complex, non-fiction texts in Key Stage 3

Reading skills are taught in KS1 and KS2, with a strong emphasis on fiction texts. However, the National Curriculum demands students access more non-fiction and complex texts in KS3 and beyond. They also face more advanced vocabulary and complex text structures. There’s an assumption that students can make this transition, but many struggle.

The secondary school curriculum is packed with subject-specific language. Numerous studies show that the ability to access complex texts is a significant factor in success with science subjects. Similarly, most students will have adequate maths skills in a maths lesson, but their inability to decode command words in questions limits their attainment.

Perhaps more is needed in terms of teacher knowledge of reading. The panellists agreed that their teacher training had not taught them how to teach reading skills at an advanced, subject-specific level. If teachers are ill-equipped with reading knowledge, how are students supposed to fare?

Supporting students as they access KS3 texts

Reading skills embedded with fiction texts in KS1 and KS2 can guide different lesson approaches in secondary school. Stories are 50% more memorable, especially since the reading diet of primary school children is primarily fictional. Stories are also faster and easier to read, speeding up the rate students can access the curriculum.

While subject teachers are knowledgeable about their subjects and can expertly explain theories, students often need more context to grasp broader concepts without context. By incorporating stories into lessons, students are more likely to understand what they are studying. For example, when teaching Galileo’s theories of physics; if the teachers incorporated his historical biography, the chronological format would create a context for students. In theory, this would allow them to absorb all parts of the syllabus more quickly, making the leap to secondary education more comfortably.

The panel praised Reading Plus in supporting KS3 reading. By completing achievable tasks through frequent Reading Plus practice, host Tom saw an improvement in reading ability across all students who use the programme, especially with boys who had been disengaged with reading and students with EAL who lacked their classmates’ foundation in English. Reading behaviours are tracked and the programme recommends texts to broaden students’ cultural capital.

  • “Stories are faster and easier to read, and make content 50% more memorable”
    Sarah Jackson-Buckley
    Literacy Curriculum Co-ordinator and Head of History
  • “Narratives are a form of explanation”
    Sarah Jackson-Buckley
    Literacy Curriculum Co-ordinator and Head of History
  • “I love Reading Plus! The data helps me gauge intervention and target specific skills”
    Rebekah Ricketts
    Assistant Headteacher of Staff Development and Head of English
  • “I find Reading Plus reading ages are more accurate”
    Rebekah Ricketts
    Assistant Headteacher of Staff Development and Head of English
  • “Students don’t all love reading, but they do see its value”
    Annie Vincent
    Literacy Co-ordinator and English Teacher
How to develop reading across the curriculum

Rebekah Ricketts, Head of English at British Safa School, has succeeded in KS3 by getting subject leads on board with teaching reading. She uses ERIC to demonstrate the relevance of reading skills across all subjects:

  • Explain: Relates to understanding the meaning of material.
  • Retrieve: Practice skimming and scanning texts.
  • Interpretation: Strengthens analytical skills and inference, which are crucial to exam success.
  • Choice: Questioning and promoting critical thinking habits.

In history, examining a World War Two poster involved explanation and interpretation. When conducting science experiments, retrieval and choice helped students grasp experiments and sparked curiosity about adjusting variables. With teachers working together to implement ERIC practices, the whole school has benefitted from more confident and intellectually curious students.

To further strengthen her school’s reading culture, Rebekah also:

  • Made reading more visible around the school with dedicated reading areas.
  • Actively engaged parents in this journey by sharing resources and inviting them to a model English class.
  • Her next step is to create a parents’ book club.

The panel emphasised that reading initiatives must come from leadership, allowing data to be shared and used across departments, with students and parents involved in the initiative. All attributed the success of their whole-school reading initiatives to strong support from their respective leadership teams.

Supporting fluency in Key Stage 3

Without fluency, students lose out on the benefits of reading and will likely experience what Nick calls “cognitive overload” from the reading process. The effort of focusing on eye movement and decoding new words drains weaker readers. Equally, students who struggle to read fluently can only sometimes retain details and make inferences.

With reading practice, fluency becomes easier, reducing cognitive overload and freeing up memory so students can retain the content they just read.

In Year 7, students are expected to read 195 words per minute, meaning reading speed and understanding are necessary to achieve this.

How does DreamBox Reading Plus support teachers in developing reading?

 

Without fluency, students lose out on the benefits of reading and will likely experience what Nick calls “cognitive overload” from the reading process. The effort of focusing on eye movement and decoding new words drains weaker readers. Equally, students who struggle to read fluently can only sometimes retain details and make inferences.

With reading practice, fluency becomes easier, reducing cognitive overload and freeing up memory so students can retain the content they just read.

In Year 7, students are expected to read 195 words per minute, meaning reading speed and understanding are necessary to achieve this.

Reading Plus aims to complement and enhance the work that schools do around reading development to make teachers’ lives easier. It builds reading skills using three progress markers: comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency.

 

Reading Plus builds silent reading fluency. To model good reading behaviour, students will see texts presented using the patented Guided Window feature.  It keeps their eyes focused on reading the relevant material, utilising a moving box – set at a speed just right for them. This improves fluency and stamina. The speed is adaptive and will increase as students progress.

The Guided Window is used alongside tests to check a pupil’s progress, adapting to a pupil’s level, and is removed as the user improves. It addresses the cognitive overload experienced by struggling readers.

 

From Nick’s 30 years of teaching experience, he surmised that many schools are often data-rich but information-poor. Tests provide information about how a student can complete an exam, but usually fail to give insight as to how they can improve. Assignment data should provide a comprehensive overview of students’ abilities in key reading skills so teachers can make informed decisions.

The DreamBox Reading Plus assessments react in real-time to the answers students provide. Results determine each student’s ability level in reading comprehension, vocabulary level, reading speed and motivation for reading. The results then automatically place students in the programme’s correct reading level.

The programme contains 1,300 high-quality texts, with a readability range from Year 2 to beyond GCSE. Students can self-select texts that interest them, answer ten questions to test their comprehension and receive instant feedback, with tests and rewards to maximise engagement. The texts build disciplinary knowledge and contribute to a student’s cultural capital.

It was noted by the panel that exam performance is only a moment in time and might not accurately represent the student’s abilities. To counteract this, Rebekah’s school in Dubai schedules Reading Plus InSight assessment in the same week as national testing to gain maximum insight into the student’s performance. This is partly why Rebekah is an enthusiastic supporter of Reading Plus. She also likes:

  • The visual data imagery interpretation on Reading Plus, which can be shared easily with parents.
  • How formative data shows students’ progress over time. This engages students with their learning, boosting their confidence and motivation.

The importance of reading in Key Stage 3

In her school, Rebekah proved the need for a reading initiative by asking students, “Do you feel like you are a confident reader?” 60% said no. She found that low reading confidence was linked to general confidence and so sought a solution in Reading Plus. Similarly, Nick found that students who read well had higher confidence and better in-school attitudes overall. Using reading to address academic confidence levels in school requires a school-wide shift to prioritise reading. This can pose challenges which involve extra resources and support for all teachers, but it is necessary to improve reading across the curriculum and general attainment. However, the investment in reading pays off.

Outside of reading, the central transferrable skills linked to it are all factors which also contribute to the following:

To listen to the podcast in full, please visit https://x.com/i/broadcasts/1nAKEadEPknKL.

If you have any follow-up questions for our Reading Development Consultant, Nick Mills, he’d be happy to help. Contact him at nickmills@readingsolutionsuk.com.

If you are interested in learning more about how Reading Plus will accelerate reading progress, provide comprehensive assessment data, and encourage reluctant readers, email info@readingsolutionsuk.com or book your free trial with Reading Plus today and see the impact of Reading Plus across these factors and beyond!

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