I do not doubt that there are a variety of highly effective purchasable Literacy intervention packages that will support students in making ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ gains beyond any ‘natural’ progress they might make without them. I have bought into many of these packages and, over the recent years, I have gone on to recommend them to the academies I support. Amongst all of those packages there is one in particular that stands out; it has become my first suggestion to schools when they ask ‘where can I start with Literacy intervention?’
My answer is free, simple and highly effective – it is paired reading.
According to Greg Brooks in ‘What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? The effectiveness of intervention schemes’ (now in its seventh edition), this intervention package demonstrates significant and – perhaps most importantly – retained gains. He says of the success of paired reading that ‘the large effect sizes and the RGs (Ratio Gains) show substantial progress for the experimental groups in reading accuracy and remarkable progress in comprehension’.
My first experience with paired reading was during my then school’s use of Accelerated Reader. The recommendation was that a paired reading scheme could support those readers who were struggling with confidence and commitment to reading. The paired reader was not expected to be an ‘expert’ in the phonology of words but could support with pronunciation and would provide a regular opportunity to practice reading. Initially, sixth formers were enrolled as paired reading leaders with selected year 7 and 8 students as the readers. They met on a regular weekly basis for 20 minutes. Using Topping’s ‘Dulog’ system endorsed by Accelerated Reader, I provided training for the sixth form students on the basic system. This involves the leader and reader reading together until the reader is happy to go alone, as soon as they struggle the reader signals with a tap that they need help, the leader sounds out the word and they resume reading along together.
Over the first half term, 8 pairs met and read. Inevitably, initial enthusiasm began to fade. To encourage the readers, I introduced a simple rewards system with a voucher gained each time they attended with a prize at the end for a 95% attendance. I extended the leaders to include support and administration staff as they proved to be more reliable than sixth formers. I devised a ‘paired reading log’ to ensure that attendance and ‘performance’ were logged. The files were kept in a central place so they could be accessed independently by the leaders.
In six or so weeks, readers did make significant gains – not only in ratio gains but also in their confidence which perhaps is the key to the success of paired reading. The small scale, one-to-one intervention which does not necessarily involve adult ‘experts’, relentless testing or removal from lessons allowed the readers in the pairs to be supported in a non-threatening and discrete way.
Since then, I have supported numerous schools in the implementation of paired reading. I deliver whole group training to ‘leaders’: they generally range from Year 8 – 13 with the majority from Year 10 where they have less immediate exam pressure but are mature enough to be credible role models and confident readers. The training is now in two phases: the first training session is where the process is outlined and practiced, the second involves the leaders attending to discuss any issues/scenarios that they might need support with. The first session has been developed to include an element of phonics (nothing too complicated so as not to put the potential leader off) but enough to help them explain the basics and support materials (for example, book marks of questions to ask) for developing the reader’s comprehension skills. The scheme’s leader – generally the Literacy Coordinator – maintains regular contact with the readers and leaders to ensure that they are on track and that they are ‘gelling’ as a pair. They also ensure that parents are aware of the scheme so they can encourage the reader at home. Some schools have extended the leaders to include parents and adults from the local community which has been particularly effective in primary schools where other pupils would not have the maturity to be a leader.
Graduating from the paired reading scheme is a very contextually based and personal decision. Whilst a student may be improving in the mechanics of reading and in their comprehension skills, it may be their confidence that still needs the support. And if both the reader and leader are happy to continue, then I can see no reason why the happy pairing cannot continue – ratio gains are not the only gains to be made from paired reading